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ESET 2020 antivirus review: Lightweight on all counts

ESET's antivirus software won't slow your machine much, but its protection is meh

ESET
(Image: © ESET/Future)

Our Verdict

ESET's antivirus software barely slows system performance, but it offers middling malware protection and can get expensive if you have a lot of machines to protect.

For

  • Fast scans
  • Small system-performance impact
  • File encryption, hardened browser, webcam protection

Against

  • So-so malware protection
  • Can get expensive
  • Lacks some extras other brands offer

ESET's antivirus and security suites quickly buzz through a computer looking for threats while only slightly slowing system performance. But on the downside, ESET's malware protection isn't as strong as some of the best antivirus programs.

ESET can block phishing attempts and stop advanced exploits and ransomware. It lacks some extra features that antivirus makers often add to entice customers, such as a virtual private network (VPN) or a file shredder. And if you've got a lot of computers at home, ESET's granular pricing system — no bundles, few discounts — means that it can get expensive quickly.

Those in search of the strongest malware protection should consider Kaspersky Total Security or Norton 360 Deluxe. Kaspersky's scanning is heavy, but it offers most of the extras you'd want. Norton has the option to add LifeLock identity protection. If you're on a budget, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus gives you good protection with plenty of extra features.

ESET costs and what's covered

ESET offers four security programs, any of which you can try free for a month. Multiyear subscriptions get half off for the second or third years, but ESET doesn't seem to offer the regular discounts that other brands do.

The entry-level ESET NOD32 Antivirus does the antivirus basics. It starts at $40 per year for a single PC; additional installations cost $10 each, up to $80 for five. NOD32 Antivirus protects against phishing attacks, advanced exploits, BIOS/UEFI attacks and script-based intrusions. It also has a ransomware shield and a gamer mode, which are features sometimes reserved for premium antivirus products.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Next up is ESET Internet Security, which starts at $50 per year and ratchets up to $140 per year for 10 devices. Its licenses can be applied to Macs (using either ESET Cyber Security and ESET Cyber Security Pro), Android smartphones or tablets (ESET Mobile Security for Android and ESET Parental Control for Android) or even Linux boxes (ESET NOD32 Antivirus 4 for Linux).

For Windows machines, ESET Internet Security includes a hardened browser for banking and buying online, a two-way firewall and defenses against spam, network attacks and botnets. There are also parental controls, webcam protection and an anti-theft tracker for laptops.

The top-of-the-line ESET Smart Security Premium starts at $60 per year for a single computer and goes up to $150 for 10 systems. It adds ESET's password manager and its Secure Data encryption software. But there's no VPN, file shredder, backup software or identity-protection service, all of which rival brands have added to their premium products in recent years to broaden their appeal.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

A fourth option is ESET Multi-Device Security, which is being phased out. You can still buy the program at $70 per year for three devices, ramping up to 10 devices for $140 per year. The company lets you choose between ESET Internet Security or ESET NOD32, but not ESET Smart Security Premium, for your Windows machines, plus the aforementioned offerings for Mac, Android and Linux.

Most other antivirus vendors sell device licenses in bundles of three, five, 10 or even 15, and you might end up paying for more than you need. ESET avoids that with its granular pricing, but protecting more than 10 systems — as you might for a family — could cost a lot more than it would with other brands.

Supported operating systems include Windows 7 through 10, OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) through macOS 10.15 (Catalina) and Android 4.0 or later. The Linux software supports a variety of mainstream Debian-based and RPM-based distributions, such as Fedora, RedHat, OpenSUSE, Ubuntu and the various Ubuntu derivatives.

ESET doesn't have consumer security apps for iPhones or iPads. Granted, no iOS apps can scan for malware, but many competitors offer web-screening and lost-phone apps.

Antivirus protection

ESET's traditional malware scanner looks for known threats, and its heuristic monitoring watches for strange behavior, such as unexpected changes to files. Anything suspicious is uploaded to the company's online lab for further analysis.

You can opt out of uploading files without losing protection. Malware updates are sent several times daily to ESET's 110 million consumer and business clients.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

ESET's specific defenses include locking down a PC's Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), which governs the boot-up sequence. ESET's HIPS (Host-based Intrusion Protection System) can block fileless malware.

Meanwhile, the program's Script Scanner works with Microsoft's Anti-Malware Scan Interface (AMSI) to sniff out hidden scripts. The level of protection can be adjusted with a series of on-off switches for defenses like the memory and exploit scanners.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

There's no quick-scan option, but you can start a full scan two clicks from the home screen. It's a very fast scan because it looks only at running processes, memory and new files. You can right-click a file in Windows Explorer to scan it, and ESET offers to scan any USB drive that's plugged in.

If there's a malware meltdown, download ESET's SysRescue Live disk, put it on a USB drive or a DVD, and boot the computer from that to scan and clean the hard drives.

Antivirus performance

ESET's anti-malware technology, which is used in all its Windows antivirus programs, doesn't do as well as other brands in lab tests.

ESET stopped an average of 98.4% of malware in all 2019 tests conducted by Austrian lab AV-Comparatives. Every other Windows antivirus program we review, including the built-in Microsoft Windows Defender, did better. ESET's 2018 numbers were a bit better, but still put it near the back of the pack.

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ESET was just about average in tests conducted in the second half of 2019 by London-based SE Labs. Kaspersky, Norton and Sophos scored better than ESET, while Windows Defender scored about the same.

For the last two years, ESET has skipped the consumer antivirus tests conducted by German lab AV-Test but has taken part in enterprise tests. It did not do well in the last 2019 enterprise round, catching only 97.5% of previously unseen "zero-day" malware.

That's a step down from the September-October round, in which ESET stopped 99.1% of zero-day malware. Enterprise products from Bitdefender and Kaspersky consistently did better than ESET.

Security and privacy features

We've mentioned some of the protections built into ESET NOD32 Antivirus already, but the program also includes a social media scanner that looks for dangerous links in Twitter, as long as you're running the Chrome browser.

ESET Internet Security adds email-attachment scans and parental-control software can filter objectionable websites and schedule screen time.

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Internet Security and Smart Security Premium include Banking and Payment Protection, which is a browser extension that works with Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Opera, but not Microsoft Edge. (We'd prefer to see a stand-alone hardened browser.)

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Connected Home Monitor on ESET Internet Security and ESET Smart Security Premium show what's on your network, whether it's a computer, digital thermostat or webcam. It warns about weak passwords and scans for old firmware on routers.

Performance and system impact

To measure ESET's impact on performance, we used our custom benchmark test, which matches 20,000 names and addresses in an Excel spreadsheet. Our Lenovo ThinkPad T470 test bed had a 2.5GHz Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid-state storage with 43.3GB of files.

Before we installed ESET, the T470 took 8 seconds to complete the benchmark task. That completion time rose to 8.4 seconds after Smart Security Premium was installed, indicating a 5% background performance hit, one of the smallest we've seen recently.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

During a scan, the ESET detection engine had a surprisingly light touch, letting the CPU finish the Excel task in 9.8 seconds. That's a 22.5% performance slowdown, one of the smallest we've recently seen for a premium security suite. Bitdefender Total Security had a full-scan hit of just 17.1% percent, but its background drain of 14.6% was nearly three times that of ESET.

ESET has no quick-scan option, but its full scans are lightning-fast. The first pass took just 8 minutes and 12 seconds to look at 239,111 files. By the third pass, that was down to 60 seconds. The full scan examines only processes, memory and new or changed files.

Interface

If you're a longtime ESET user, you'll feel right at home with the latest version. At the top of the Home screen, a green bar shows that everything is safe. The bar turns yellow if it needs your attention or red if it detects a threat. A column on the left lists major tasks, including Computer scan, Update, Tools, Setup and Help and support.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In Advanced Settings, you can fine-tune the webcam protection, look at the logs and toggle participation in ESET's Customer Experience Improvement Program. Clicking ESET's Windows taskbar icon displays alerts, manages malware protection and can block network traffic into the PC. It's got a direct link to the app's Advanced Setup section.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

ESET puts less stock in periodic full-system scans than its competitors (a lot of protection happens in the background) and scheduling a scan can be a hassle. You have to set up a task, pick the task and enter its frequency and start time.

The myESET online account lets you remotely use the stand-alone Social Media Scanner, but unlike with some other antivirus brands, there's no requirement to have the online account.

Installation and support

It took us nearly 13 minutes to install ESET Smart Security Premium. A 5.4MB initial installer file accepted our product license, looked for conflicts and downloaded the rest of the code base. We needed to separately set up the password manager, parental controls and anti-theft features.

ESET doesn't provide full-time customer support. Technicians answer phone calls, online queries and emails from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. PST for U.S. customers. There is a lot of DIY support on the ESET website, including videos, troubleshooters and a helpful encyclopedia of threats.

Bottom line

ESET's Windows antivirus products are great at balancing scan speed with performance, but their malware protection is merely average. For more security features plus better protection and a light touch, check out Bitdefender's Windows lineup. If you need the absolute best protection and all the extra features, and don't mind heavier scans, look to Kaspersky Total Security or Norton 360 Deluxe.