ESET Smart Security 7 review

The independent testing labs like ESET Smart Security 7's antivirus component, and its spam filter proved highly accurate. However, not all of the other components come up to this standard.
Photo of ESET Smart Security 7

Some security suite vendors seem to change up the product’s user interface with every new edition. Not ESET. I had to look really hard to find any differences between ESET Smart Security 7 ($59.99 per year direct; $79.99 for three licenses) and its predecessor. Some of the enhancements show up only when you log into ESET’s online portal; others are feature enhancements “under the hood.” In truth, I didn’t see a lot of evidence for those hidden feature enhancements.

Is it a robot, or a crash test dummy? ESET’s blue-eyed mascot still stares confidently from the main window, letting you know that maximum protection is enabled. You can quickly launch a scan or update, access a collection of tools, or enter a simple setup screen that lets you turn components on and off. The advanced settings window offers very fine-grained control over product configuration.

New in this edition, ESET runs a scan for active malware before installation. If it finds any, it runs a specialized cleaner to remove any malware that might interfere. That’s smart!

High Marks from Labs
ESET’s antivirus technology gets high marks in almost every area from the independent testing labs. I described its results in great detail when I reviewed ESET NOD32 Antivirus 7. This suite offers exactly the same protection, so I’ll just summarize here and let you get full details from the antivirus review.

I sort lab results into five categories: Detection, Cleaning, Protection, False Positives, and Performance. ESET’s results in the first four categories merited five stars. Of special note, it got an AAA rating, the best possible, from Dennis Technology Labs. It also earned VB100 certification in all 12 of the last 12 tests by Virus Bulletin. A lower score for Performance reflects the fact that one lab rated it high, another low. For full details on how I boil down many different test results into these five categories, see How We Interpret Antivirus Lab Tests.

ESET Smart Security 7 lab tests chart

Shared Antivirus
As noted in my earlier review, ESET didn’t score terribly well in my new test that involves blocking very new malicious URLs. It blocked 41 percent of the hundred-odd URLs I tried, about half at the URL level and half by halting the download. The best score among the half-dozen products I’ve tested in this way goes to avast! Internet Security 2014, which blocked 79 percent.

Recent products have started clustering at the top score level in my own hands-on malware blocking test. Five products tie for first place with 9.4 points, among them F-Secure Internet Security 2014 and Avira Ultimate Protection Suite (2014). With 9.2 points, ESET is in second place, along with McAfee Internet Security 2014 and Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security 2014. For an explanation of how I perform and score this test, see How We Test Malware Blocking.

ESET Smart Security 7 malware blocking chart

The product’s protection against malicious websites also blocks phishing sites—fraudulent sites that masquerade as, say, a bank, and try to steal your login credentials. As with the malicious URL blocking test, ESET didn’t score terribly well. Its detection rate was a full 58 percent lower than that of Norton Internet Security (2014), putting it in the bottom third of recent products. To learn more about how I obtain the very latest phishing URLs and score this test, please read How We Test Antiphishing.

ESET Smart Security 7 antiphishing chart

Fast Malware Scan
A full scan of my standard clean test system took about two-thirds as long as the average for recent suites. As for installing in the face of ransomware or resistant malware, ESET has a full set of tools, starting with the pre-install scan. Its bootable rescue CD or USB can thwart ransomware, and installation problems may be solved with the online scanner or no-install scanner. Tech support can get system info from a built-in diagnostics too and, if necessary, remote-control your PC to get rid of the stubbornest malware.

Other Shared Features
Like the standalone antivirus, this suite offers a collection of tool for system analysis and security. These include the SysInspector diagnostic tool, a process manager, and a social media scanner, among other things. The Tools page also offers centralized access to all of the suite’s log files. In addition, both products offer a full-scale automated training system to enhance your knowledge and understanding of security issues.

You access the social media scanner via your ESET account online. Also available through this online portal is a simple anti-theft system.

The anti-theft system automatically checks for configuration problems that would give a thief easy access to your data. For example, it will warn if you’ve got any Windows accounts that don’t have a password. If you do have passwords but have enabled automatic login, it can disable that feature remotely. ESET also offers to set up a phantom Windows account, a never-used user account that has no access to your other accounts.

When you report your device stolen via the online portal, ESET remotely reboots the system and logs into the phantom account. It sends you screenshots and, if a webcam is available, photos of the thief. It will track your device’s location, if the hardware supports location services. You can even send a message that will appear on the desktop, perhaps offering contact information so an honest finder can return the device.

Simple Firewall
By default, ESET’s firewall runs in what it calls automatic filtering mode. In this mode, the firewall allows all outbound network and Internet connections. The only thing it blocks are inbound connections that weren’t requested, or any connections blocked due to custom rules.

At this basic level, you don’t really have program control. If you switch the firewall to interactive filtering mode, you’ll get the familiar popup query every time a new program asks for network access. Should you allow or deny the request? Honestly, most people have no way of knowing.

More advanced firewalls automatically configure permissions for known good programs and keep a watch on unknowns. Rather than quiz the uninformed user, they make access decisions internally. Norton was among the first to implement this method. Avast! does something similar, and Kaspersky Internet Security (2014) deals with the problem by assigning different levels of trust to unknown programs.

In order for this old-school style of program control to manage a connection attempt, it has to see that attempt. Leak test programs try to connect invisibly by manipulating trusted programs. When I tried a dozen leak test utilities, ESET blocked half of them; the rest managed to make a surreptitious connection.

On the plus side, ESET correctly stealthed all ports and resisted my Web-based attack tests. It’s also a tough little firewall. All my attempts to disable protection in ways that a malicious application could ran into “Access denied.”

Version 7 boasts enhancements in its Host Intrusion Protection System (HIPS) and shielding of vulnerabilities. However, when I attacked the test system using exploits generated by the Core IMPACT penetration system, I didn’t notice much difference. These aren’t the same exploits I used to test ESET Smart Security 6, since I always swap in newly-discovered ones. Even so, both suites actively balked around two-thirds of the exploits, and in both cases no exploit actually penetrated security.

BullGuard Internet Security (2014) and avast! blocked closer to three-quarters of this same group, while Norton blocked every single exploit.

ESET’s firewall is decent, though I’m not a fan of the old-school ask-the-user style of program control. It will definitely give you more protection than Windows Firewall alone.

Accurate Antispam
The spam filter in this suite handles both IMAP and POP3 email accounts; quite a few others work only with POP3. It integrates with Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Windows Live Mail, and Thunderbird. You can use the toolbar in your email client to mark messages as spam or not spam, and whitelist or blacklist the sender. Those using another email client won’t get that toolbar, and will need to define a message rule to divert the spam.

When I let Outlook download thousands of messages from my real-world spam-infested test account, the download speed was barely affected by ESET’s scanning. You definitely wouldn’t notice a difference.

After all the messages arrived, I sorted the Inbox into valid personal mail, valid bulk mail, and undeniable spam, discarding any that didn’t clearly fit one of those categories. After doing the same for the spam folder, I ran the numbers.

ESET proved impressively accurate. It didn’t commit a single false positive faux pas; every valid message correctly reached the Inbox. And it only missed 4.1 percent of the undeniable spam. It’s just a fraction behind Norton, which missed 3.9 percent of spam with no false positives. If your email provider doesn’t perform on-server spam filtering, ESET will do a good job for you. To learn more about my antispam accuracy calculations, see How We Test Antispam.

ESET Smart Security 7 antispam chart

Parental Control, Barely
ESET’s parental control system does one thing and one thing only. Once you enable it and set it up for each user account, it blocks access to websites in the specified unwanted categories. By specifying the age of each user, you pre-configure the collection of blocked categories.

ESET offers to block 46 distinct categories, quite a few more than in the previous edition. Where many parental control systems organize categories into broader categories like social media, mature content, and illegal activity, ESET instead groups categories by age range. Note that the “Security and malware” and “Criminal & Questionable” categories are blocked by default even for adults.

The content filter is browser-independent, and unlike some products, ESET has the ability to block even secure (HTTPS) websites. That means your clever kids can’t subvert filtering by using a secure anonymizing proxy. Weirdly, though, this feature is disabled by default. ESET also doesn’t succumb to the simple three-word network command that eliminated content filtering in Ad-Aware Total  Security 11 and BullGuard.

The parental control system logs all blocked websites, identifying the user involved, the date and time, the URL, and the reason for blocking. However, the log display is so cramped that it can be tough to read.

That’s the extent of parental control in this product. There’s no time scheduling, no forcing Safe Search, certainly no advanced features like parental notification and remote control. If you really need parental control, this component just won’t do the job. Consider a standalone solution like Editors’ Choice AVG Family Safety.

Small Performance Impact
As always, I took simple  system performance measurements with no suite installed and then with ESET, comparing the two to determine how much impact (if any) the suite had on performance. ESET did pretty well.

Like BullGuard, it had no measureable impact on simple file manipulation. A script that moves and copies a collection of huge files between drives didn’t take longer due to ESET’s presence. Another script that zips and unzips that same collection took 4 percent longer. Given that the average for current suites is 14 percent, that’s pretty good.

The one place I measured a noticeable impact was in my boot-time test. My script measures the time from the start of the boot process until the system is ready for use (defined as ten seconds in a row with under five percent CPU used). That test took 39 percent longer with ESET installed, rather more than the average of 25 percent. On the other hand, many people reboot the computer no more than once per day, so this may not be a worry.

For a more detailed explanation of my performance testing methods, see How We Test Security Suites for Performance.

ESET Smart Security 7 performance chart

Highs and Lows
The independent testing labs rate ESET’s antivirus protection very high, though it didn’t do as well in my own testing. Its spam filter is very accurate, but not its phishing protection. And while its parental control system resists attack, it’s very limited.

Choosing ESET for your security suite won’t make your system unsafe, but I think you can do better with a suite that’s hitting on all cylinders. If you don’t need antispam or parental control, Comodo Internet Security Complete 2013 can be a good choice, and at $39.99 for three licenses it’s a bargain. For a full-featured suite, try Norton Internet Security (2014). Both are Editors’ Choice suites.

Parental Control:

The independent testing labs like ESET Smart Security 7's antivirus component, and its spam filter proved highly accurate. However, not all of the other components come up to this standard.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc