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ESET 2021 antivirus review

ESET offers very good malware protection with a light touch

ESET 2021 antivirus review
(Image: © ESET/Future)

Our Verdict

ESET's security software is fast, accurate and thorough. It lacks some extra features we take for granted but has a very light impact on your system performance.

For

  • Very good protection
  • Remarkably light performance penalty
  • Includes webcam protection, secure browser and AES-256 encryption
  • Single-license sales

Against

  • Lacks file shredder or VPN
  • Can get expensive
ESET 2021: Specs

Malware protection: Good
System impact, background: Very light
System impact, scans: Light
Windows compatibility: 7 to 10
Anti-theft: Yes
Backup software: No
File encryption: Yes
File shredder: No
Firewall: Yes
Game mode: Yes
Hardened/secure browser: Yes
Parental controls: Yes
Password manager: Yes
Performance scanner: No
Ransomware rollback: No
System optimizer: No
Webcam protection: Yes
Virtual keyboard: No
VPN: No
Wi-Fi scanner: Yes
Support options: Business-hours phone, email

ESET balances the competing interests of scanning accuracy and performance impact better than the competition — it has a very small performance penalty while quickly scanning through a system for threats.

ESET's malware detection is nearly as good as the best antivirus programs offered by Norton, Kaspersky or Bitdefender. It can stop the latest ransomware, phishing attempts and spyware, but goes a step further with webcam protection, browser security extensions and an innovative scanner that looks for threats hiding in the Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) repository.

The miser inside all of us will love the ability to buy ESET antivirus licenses one device at a time so you won't have to pay for unused capacity. That said, there's no unlimited-device plan to help users with many devices save money. ESET software also lacks some features now commonplace in antivirus software, such as a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service, a file shredder and apps for iPhones and iPads.

Still, ESET security software is only a half-step behind the best in the business. With a few more well-chosen features, it could get even better.

Read on for the rest of our ESET 2021 review.

ESET 2021: Costs and what's covered

ESET offers a 30-day free trial to check out any of its three Windows antivirus programs. The company is unique in that it allows you to buy exactly the number of device licenses you need rather than being stuck with three, five or 10 licenses at a time. On the other hand, this pricing scheme can get expensive if you have a lot of computers at home, because ESET lacks an unlimited-device plan.

ESET's NOD32 Antivirus is for Windows systems only, while there are separate NOD32 Antivirus for Linux Desktop and Cyber Security for Macs programs. NOD32 Antivirus costs $40 per year for a single PC and $10 for each additional PC up to five in total.

It provides basic defenses against phishing, ransomware and script-based exploits and has a gamer mode, adware blocking, protection against phishing and spyware and defends the computer's UEFI start-up sequence. New additions include scanners for the Windows Registry and the Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) repository.

ESET Internet Security adds hardened browser extensions for banking and shopping online, parental controls, webcam protection and a two-way firewall. It bundles in antivirus software for Macs, Android devices and Linux computers. ESET Internet Security costs $50 per year for one device, $60 for two, $90 for five and $140 for 10 systems.

At the top is ESET's Smart Security Premium, which sells for $60 per year for one computer, $70 for two, $100 for five and $150 for 10. It adds a password manager and AES-256 file encryption, but there's no file shredder or VPN access. This puts it at a disadvantage compared to the likes of Bitdefender and Kaspersky, which charge less but provide a fuller set of security and privacy features.

Unlike its peers, ESET does not discount the first year of coverage for any of its antivirus suites. It does, however, lower the price if you buy two or three years of protection at once.

The ESET applications work with Windows 7 (with Service Pack 1), 8.1 and 10, plus Macs running macOS 10.12 (Sierra) through 11 (Big Sur). Linux systems need to have Debian, Fedora, Open SUSE, Red Hat or Ubuntu distributions and Android devices require version 4.1 or newer.

ESET 2021: Antivirus protection

In addition to conventional comparisons of suspect files to a database of known threats, ESET's malware engine continually monitors the behavior of key system activities for the signs of an infection. 

New potential threats are uploaded to the company's Live Grid cloud lab where machine learning techniques dissect the software. ESET distributes new malware signatures and other updates to its 110 million users as needed.

All three ESET security suites have dedicated anti-phishing defenses, block script-based attacks and protect the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) start-up code. The improved Ransomware Shield uses heuristic monitoring to uncover threats, such as unwanted programs hidden in the system Registry.

ESET is one of the first security programs to look for threats within the Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) repository, which stores the system's metadata and definitions that the operating system and apps use to function.

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None of ESET's programs have a quick-scan option to examine files likely to become infected. On the other hand, its full scans are so fast and efficient that after a couple of passes, they are almost as fast.

Should your computer become overwhelmed by malware, the company's downloadable SysRescue Live software can help; the ESET programs include a link to it. After installing the software on an external drive, flash key or optical disc and starting the system with it, the computer is scanned and cleaned in a secure Linux environment.

ESET 2021: Antivirus performance

ESET's malware scanner offers very good protection against all sorts of threats. Combined with ESET's fast scans and low system impact, this makes it among the most efficient antivirus programs in the business.

Latest test results as of January 2021
Malware detection rates AV-Test zero-day AV-Test widespread AV-Comparatives SE Labs
Bitdefender 100% 100% 99.6% n/a
ESET 100% 100%99.3% n/a
Kaspersky 100% 100%99.7%100%
McAfee 100% 100%98.5%100%
Microsoft 100% 100%99.5%97%
Norton 100% 100%99.5%100%
Sophos100% 100%98.3% 86%
Trend Micro 100% 100%100% 92%

Results from the German AV-TEST lab in November and December 2020 showed that the ESET scanner detected 100% of both known, widespread malware and brand-new "zero-day" threats. It registered no erroneous false positives during the test period.

ESET did nearly as well in the September-October round of tests, again catching all malware while registering two false positives. Both sets of evaluations improved on ESET's scores in some earlier 2020 rounds, in which ESET failed to catch all zero-day malware.

Most of the other paid antivirus products we review also had perfect AV-TEST scores in recent tests. That wasn't the case with Austrian lab AV-Comparatives, whose tests make it hard to get a perfect score without racking up lots of false positives.

In four rounds from July to October 2020, ESET blocked an average of 99.3% of "real-world" online malware, a mix of widespread and zero-day threats. Trend Micro led the group with 100% detection, but at a cost of 63 false positives compared to ESET's one.

London-based SE Labs goes a step further and examines how antivirus products handle malware after it's been detected. ESET slipped a bit here in the lab's July-September test run, letting one piece of malware infect the machine despite it being detected and coming out with a 97% protection score. 

That's not terrible, but ESET wasn't back for SE Labs' October-December 2020 round. Of all the antivirus products we review, only Kaspersky consistently gets perfect scores in SE Labs' tests.

ESET 2021: Security and privacy features

All three of ESET's antivirus programs can block phishing attempts, dangerous scripts and ransomware. It scans the UEFI boot-up sector, the Windows Management Instrumentation interface and the Windows Registry looking for problems.

ESET's Host-based Intrusion Protection, which acts like an early-warning tripwire, has been made more sensitive for 2021. The protection now offers the choice of several modes, including a self-learning option that improves over time. However, ESET's Social Media Scanner has been discontinued.

ESET Internet Security and Smart Security Premium include ESET Parental Controls, online services that take a few minutes to set it up for each child. The software allows website filtering based on category or age, lets you control what apps your kids can use and locate a child (or at least his or her phone).

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The top two ESET suites also block spam, have a two-way firewall to replace the Windows Defender Firewall. ESET's Banking and Payment Protection browser extensions work with Edge, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox (but not Safari) to secure online commerce and banking by requiring an encrypted session, blocking other extensions and encrypting your keystrokes. 

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The Connected Home Monitor scans your home network, looking for rogue connections, such as a neighbor using your Wi-Fi, and searching for out-of-date firmware and weak passwords on any connected device, from a computer or tablet to a network-accessed hard drive or a smart thermostat.

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While none of the ESET products have a file shredder, Smart Security Premium does have AES-256 encryption to create a virtual encrypted drive or a removable one.

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ESET Smart Security Premium's password manager stores an unlimited number of encrypted login credentials and works with Edge, Chrome, Firefox and Safari, but requires a separate download and installation.

ESET 2021: Performance and system impact

ESET does an excellent job in balancing the competing interests of performance and malware detection with one of the lightest and most effective scanners available. To measure ESET's impact on performance, we used our custom benchmark test, which measures how long the CPU takes to match 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 61.2GB of files.

System performance impact as of January 2021
System hit Post-installation Full scan Quick scan
Bitdefender 19% 33% 31%
ESET 2%12% n/a
Kaspersky 12% 26% 22%
McAfee 9% 96% 37%
Norton 5% 51% 22%
Sophos 6% 47% n/a
Trend Micro 4% 57% 35%

Prior to the installation of the ESET software, the ThinkPad took an average of 10.2 seconds to finish the name-matching benchmark. That rose to 10.4 seconds after ESET Smart Security Premium. This 2% loss in background performance is negligible, particularly compared to Bitdefender's 19% drop under the same conditions.

While ESET ran a full system scan, the ThinkPad took 11.4 seconds to churn through the benchmark, resulting in a 12% performance decline from the pre-installation baseline and a 10% drop from the post-installation background load.

Like the 2% background hit, these are the smallest scan-time performance drops we've seen for any 2021 antivirus products and are well below the average, in a good way. You probably won't notice any system slowdown when ESET's scanner is operating.

Not only does it have a light touch, but the ESET scanner is quick. It took 29 minutes and 40 seconds to complete its first run through the system drive, examining 352,358 items. 

After ESET learned which files to ignore, subsequent passes averaged 5 minutes and 20 seconds, only slightly longer than Trend Micro and Bitdefender's quick scans, which look only at certain parts of the system. That may be why ESET doesn't have its own quick-scan option.

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ESET 2021: Interface

ESET's interface design hasn't changed much over the past few years. The home page prominently displays ESET's mascot robot; a large green bar and checkmark next to the robot's head indicates that the system is secure. The interfaces for all three of ESET's antivirus products can be viewed at full screen size, a big benefit for anyone tired of squinting.

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ESET's Taskbar notification icon lets you pause the firewall or antivirus protection plus check for updates or block network traffic. That said, scheduling an ESET nightly scan is tedious; it's a five-step process that many users will not see to through to the end.

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ESET 2021: Installation and support

It took me less than six minutes to install ESET Smart Security Premium, plus another two minutes to set up the password manager, making it one of the fastest security suites to set up.

You first need to download and run a 6MB beachhead installer, which in turn downloads and installs the main program.

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I needed to turn three items on or off during installation: ESET's ability to collect data from my system, a detection monitor for Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUP) and whether I wanted to send feedback to ESET. All three settings can also be changed later.

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ESET support technicians are available on the phone only from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific Time for U.S. customers; Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Norton provide 24/7 support. You can also seek help via email and ESET's website offers troubleshooting help, instructional videos and descriptions of commonplace attacks.

ESET 2021 review: Bottom line

Only a half-step away from the top security suites, ESET's malware defenses are very good and improving with an enviable combination of fast scanning, and a light touch. 

With AES-256 encryption, webcam defenses and secure browser extensions, ESET's defenses are nearly complete and, unlike its competitors, you can buy individual licenses to customize protection.

On the other hand, all of its products lack a few mainstays of modern antivirus suites, such as a VPN or a file shredder. Those looking for the complete approach to security should check out the top suites from Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Norton, but each comes with greater performance impact. If you like things light and efficient, ESET provides your kind of protection.