ESET Smart Security: Efficient PC Protection with Minimal Overhead

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted December 05, 2007

Today's Internet-connected computer faces so many different kinds of security threats that it's hard for a single piece of software to adequately protect against them all. It's commonplace these days to turn to suites of related utilities for complete system protection, but a downside to these suites is that many have become quite large and motley collections of software — some might even say "bloated" — that often encompass seldom-used features that nevertheless take their toll in both performance and cost.

The European firm ESET, well known for its NOD32 family of anti-virus / anti-malware utilities, offers an alternative approach in the form of its ESET Security Suite (ESS). ESS builds upon the latest version of the company's NOD32 ThreatSensescanning engine by augmenting it with firewall and spam filtering.

The result is a relatively compact (it's barely a 17 MB download and consumes 24 MB after installation) "integrated security product" — a company rep was quick to correct us when we referred to it as a suite — that aims to provide broad and effective protection against Internet-borne malevolence with minimal overhead.

A quick glance of ESET Smart Security's feature-set shows the application may not match the Nortons and McAfees of the world feature for feature, nor does it attempt to. For example, ESS doesn't include capabilities such as content filtering/parental controls, password management, or data backup. What you do get, in addition to a firewall and spam filtering, is solid and ultra-efficient protection against viruses and other forms of malware like spyware, rootkits, and phishing Web sites.

Interface
One of the challenges when using security software, especially for the nontechnical user, is the bewildering array configuration options typically available. ESS tries to simplify things a bit by offering two interface modes, standard and advanced.

The former mode presents users with an extremely minimal set of options — a bit too few in our opinion. In Standard mode you can do little more than initiate a system scan and toggle between a strict or relaxed firewall settings to determine whether or not your system will be visible to other systems on the LAN (and be able to participate in resource sharing with them). You can also download the latest signatures or temporarily — and individually — disable the firewall or antivirus/antispyware protection, as may be necessary from time to time (for example, when installing certain kinds of trusted software).

Switching to the advanced interface mode, on the other hand, swings to the other extreme, sacrificing user-friendliness upon the alter of flexibility. Advanced mode unlocks access to the full array of ESET Smart Security's configuration options (of which there are many), allowing you to tweak individual settings to the umpteenth degree.

All of ESS's settings can be accessed within a single hierarchical list, making it easy to jump back and forth between different areas, but which can also make locating particular settings tricky until you become familiar with the placement of configuration categories.

ESS includes a manual in the form of a local help file that includes a lot of useful information, but it's annoyingly locked in the Always on Top mode, so unless you've got the desktop space to run the application and help windows side by side, you must minimize the latter to see the former (or keep the help window so small that it requires lots of vertical and horizontal scrolling).

Features

ESS's firewall offers three security modes to choose from depending on your security preferences and how much advance rule defining and responding to alert dialogs you're willing to do. The default Automatic mode is the simplest, allowing unimpeded outbound traffic and blocking unsolicited inbound traffic.

The interactive mode will prompt for action whenever no rule exists that pertains to a particular kind of traffic. Finally, those that want to start from the most secure stance possible can opt for policy-based mode, which will without fanfare drop any traffic for which a rule does not explicitly apply.

ESS's anti-spam feature integrates with Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, or Vista's Windows Mail clients, providing a toolbar that makes it easy to flag messages as spam and build whitelists and blacklists by designating addresses as trusted or not.

We wish ESS's antispam integration extended to non-Microsoft mail clients like Mozilla Thunderbird or Eudora — this is admittedly not a common feature, but McAfee's Internet Security Suite now includes it. The spam filtering in ESS was decidedly hit-or-miss at first — it didn't erroneously flag any legitimate messages, but it let a fair amount of spam through its net. After a day or two of training, the spam recognition did seem to improve quite a bit.

ESS's relatively lightweight system footprint is plainly evident during system scans for viruses, spyware, and other unpleasantness. While ESS was conducting a full scan of an XP system (with a dual-core Athlon 64 and 2 GB of RAM), the machine's responsiveness to other tasks and applications was slightly more lackadaisical than normal, but still quite good overall.

By comparison, most other security applications we've used have bogged down the system to a significant degree. ESS's scanning duration was also impressive — it took 59 minutes to scan the system (encompassing well over 800,000 items in all), while Norton Internet Security 2007 took nearly three times longer — 2 hours 44 minutes to be exact.

Pricing
ESET Smart Security is compatible with Windows Vista, XP, and 2000 and is now available for purchase as of 11/05/07. A full-featured 30-day trial is also avilable for download.

ESS's price tag is $59.99 for a single system, or 10 bucks more to install on two systems. In comparison, two PC installs for $70 is one less than most of the competitive suites typically give you for the same price. (A Business Edition of ESS adding centralized deployment and administration is due for release on November 26th at $40.99 per seat for a minimum of five seats.)

On the downside, ESET Smart Security doesn't offer the same soup-to-nuts list of features you get with the security suites from major vendors, and its feast-or-famine interface doesn't always provide a happy medium between novice and advanced users. In spite of these shortcomings, though, ESET Smart Security does provide thorough system protection from a variety of malware threats without excessively bogging down your system, easily making it worthy of consideration in the current morass of bloatware security tools.

Pros: NOD32's superb antivirus engine combined with thorough anti-spyware, anti-spam, and firewall capabilities; ultra-efficient operation with minimal system overhead — no Internet security bloatware here; attractive, intuitive interface

Cons: Lacks some of the additional features provided in security suites from major vendors like McAfee and Symantec, such as parental controls, backup features, etc.; interface doesn't always provide a happy medium between novice and advanced users; a bit pricier than competing security tools (2-system license is about the same as the cost of competitors' 3-system licenses)

Adapted from winplanet.com.

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