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ESET 2020 Antivirus solutions review

Highly configurable security with some expert-level features

ESET 2020 Antivirus
(Image: © ESET)

Our Verdict

ESET NOD32 Antivirus has had some disappointing independent testing lab results and it's not always easy to use, but experienced users should still appreciate its advanced features and low-level configurability.

For

  • Minimal performance impact
  • Highly configurable
  • Expert-level device control

Against

  • Some poor results from testing labs
  • Not many features
  • Can be complex
  • ESET Internet Security is only a little more expensive
Please note

This is our all-in-one roundup reviewing every ESET consumer security solution for 2020. On this page, after our brief intro, you’ll find

(a) a full evaluation of the entry-level ESET NOD32 Antivirus, along with our reviews of the additional features incorporated with the rest of the range: 

(b) ESET Internet Security, and

(c) the top-end package ESET Smart Security Premium

You can jump to the reviews of those individual products by clicking on the links in the bar at the top of this page, but bear in mind that this article is really designed to be read all the way through, as the features of ESET NOD32 Antivirus are also present in the higher-level security suites, of course.

Bratislava-based ESET was founded by a group of friends some 30 years ago to market their NOD antivirus software. These days it has a broad portfolio of products covering all the major platforms, and is used by 110 million customers all around the world.

ESET's home user range begins with ESET NOD32 Antivirus, a stripped-back product which focuses on the antivirus, anti-phishing and anti-ransomware basics. But there's still a major plus in that it supports Windows, Mac and Linux devices (remember, many baseline antivirus products are now Windows-only).

Prices are mid-range, running from $40 for a single device, one-year license, up to $160 ($240 on renewal) to cover five devices for three-years.

ESET Internet Security adds a spam filter, parental controls, and a secure browser to protect online banking transactions. The package enables blocking unauthorized apps from accessing your webcam, while an anti-theft feature (Windows-only) could help locate your missing laptop.

There are multiple layers of network security, including a firewall, monitoring for dangerous traffic patterns, and a Connected Home Monitor which scans your home devices for vulnerabilities. ESET Internet Security includes Android support, too.

Prices start from a reasonable $50 for a single device, one-year license, and rise to a more costly $190 ($270 on renewal) outlay to cover five devices over three-years. That's not expensive – Kaspersky Internet Security is priced much the same – but there are better deals around. For example, Bitdefender Internet Security 2020 charges a standard $170 for the same five device, three-year protection.

ESET Smart Security Premium extends the suite a little more with a password manager and encryption for your files and folders. These are very useful, but also relatively small additions, and the kind of features you'd see in mid-range suites elsewhere.

The package looks fairly priced for a single device at $60 for a one-year subscription, but as with Internet Security, it doesn't compare well with the competition as you extend the license. A five device, three-year license costs a chunky $220 for the first term, $300 on renewal, for instance. Bitdefender Total Security 2020 could cover the same devices for $140 initially, $200 on renewal. And products which are priced similarly to ESET usually have more functionality.

Avira's Prime suite is also $270 to cover five devices for three-years, for instance, but that's because it includes unrestricted access to Avira's VPN, a very valuable extra.

ESET NOD32 Antivirus

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Installing ESET NOD32 Antivirus is fairly straightforward: hand over your email address, choose a few key settings (would you like the app to detect potentially unwanted programs, are you happy to share data about how you use the program with ESET?), and it's up and running.

After installation is complete, ESET NOD32 Antivirus automatically launches a full system scan. That might not always be convenient, but it doesn't use many resources (around 20% CPU and 20-40% for our drives) and we were able to continue using our review system as usual.

If you enabled the 'check potentially unwanted programs' feature, there's a chance you'll get more warnings than you expected. We were repeatedly warned about copies of an IObit Malware Fighter installer, for instance – it's not the best of antivirus apps, but it's not in any way a security threat, either.

ESET's executables and data files grab approaching 800MB of hard drive space, relatively high for a plain antivirus package, but testing shows it's surprisingly lightweight. PassMark's Consumer Security Products Performance Benchmarks 2020 Edition 2 report looks at the performance impact of 15 Windows internet security products across 23 metrics. It's a very detailed study, and ESET's results are hugely positive, with the company making an impressive third place (Norton Security came top, Kaspersky Internet Security was second).

The package did well with our self-protection results, too, where we simulate various attacks to see if malware can disable a security app. We tried deleting files, terminating processes, closing internet connections, disabling filter drivers, removing autostart settings and more, but none of our efforts put the tiniest of dents in ESET's digital armor, and we weren't able to compromise its protection.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Interface

ESET NOD32's interface works much like many other antivirus apps: a simple dashboard displays your current security status, you can launch a full system scan with a click, and there is a sidebar which enables browsing the program's other features and tools.

This looks basic, at least initially, but even the greenest of security newbies should quickly feel at home. There's not much to learn: you can leave ESET NOD32 running in the background most of the time, and if you need to scan something, you're able to do it in a click or two. But don't be fooled, there's more to the app than you might think.

The dashboard window is resizable, for instance, and many panels rearrange their layouts to match. It's a tiny tweak for the interface, but a smart one, and an easy way to more comfortably view complicated reports and reduce scrolling.

Some powerful features only become obvious if you take the time to explore the interface. The Log Files panel may look like an ordinary table of recent antivirus events, but then we right-clicked, and a menu appeared with a host of powerful tools: filtering by multiple parameters, copy and delete options, search tools, exporting to multiple formats.

There are some inconsistencies. You can use Ctrl+A and Ctrl+C to copy everything in the Log window, for instance, but not the list of running processes. And there's no right-click option for the Processes menu, either.

ESET's interface is still more interesting than most of the competition, though. If you're a technical type, be sure to left-click every link and right-click every object to get a feel for what it can do.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Antivirus

ESET's scan types are more limited than most of the competition: there are just Full System, Removable Devices and Custom scans (the latter checks your choice of files, folders or drives).

There's no Quick Scan, at least as standard. You can create scan profiles to run more limited checks, but it's far from intuitive, and unless you go exploring ESET's menus you may never realize the option exists.

In theory ESET should only check new or modified files after its first run, speeding up subsequent scans and making a Quick Scan option less relevant, but this didn't appear to make much difference on our system.

There's better news in the Settings dialog, where ESET enables controlling everything from the basic objects you'd like to scan (boot sector, network drives, archives, whatever it might be) to fine-tuned details like the email protocols to check or ignore, and the level of nested zip files ESET should scan (zips within zips).

This flexibility continues almost everywhere you look. Right-click a file in Explorer and ESET NOD32, like everyone else, gives you the option to scan it for danger. But you can also check the file reputation to find out more about it; scan the file without cleaning it, just to get an immediate verdict; or manually quarantine a file even if it's not been flagged as malware, a very useful way to safely archive a file you're concerned about.

The results from these scans were variable. The reputation scan, in particular, regularly suggested that entirely safe executables from completely legitimate developers were 'risky.' But it did also give us some useful information, such as when ESET first saw the file, and on balance we're glad it's included with the package.

AV-Comparatives

(Image credit: AV-Comparatives)

Protection

AV-Comparatives' July to October 2019 Real-World Protection report is an interesting comparison showing how 16 top antivirus engines performed against the very latest malware.

ESET's results weren't good. In fact, they were bad. ESET's test product blocked only 98.4% of test threats, putting the company into a distant last place. Even the 15th-placed Tencent blocked 99.1% of malware.

You shouldn't necessarily read too much into one bad set of results, but ESET's problem is there's a pattern here. The earlier February-March 2019 summary report reached a very similar verdict, again showing an average 98.4% protection rate, but this time ranking ESET next to last.

SE-Labs October-December 2019 Home Anti-Malware Protection report uses a different methodology, and it's far more generous to ESET, placing the company equal 6th in a field of 15. There's little difference between most of the top-ranked products, too – ESET was just a point or two away from making third place.

So there is one poor set of results, and one decent set. We would normally look to AV-Test's latest reports to break the deadlock, but it has not checked ESET's regular PC products since 2017.

Our own small-scale tests can't compete with the major labs, but we were still interested to see how ESET might handle our own custom ransomware threat. As this is a test app unique to us, ESET wouldn't have seen it before, in theory making this a useful exercise in determining how the package handles brand new malware.

In practice, although it was our own code, ESET recognized the simulator as a ransomware-like threat anyway, wiping it out before it could even launch. This wasn't the behavior monitoring test we were hoping for, but ESET deserves some credit anyway – most antivirus packages either wait until the simulator has encrypted a few files before they step in, or they never notice it at all.

Our tests can't make up for ESET's terrible AV-Comparatives results, but they and the SE-Labs report show it's not all bad news – clearly ESET can perform well in some situations.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Blocking malicious sites

ESET NOD32 Antivirus comes with two URL filtering layers: the simplest protects you from phishing sites, while the other uses multiple technologies to block more general website dangers.

Conveniently, both layers are built into the core engine. There's no need to install browser extensions or worry about which browsers are protected or supported, you're automatically covered for everything that accesses the web.

There are a lot of configuration options, too. Most are on/off switches which you'll rarely use – you can disable scanning for HTTP sites, for instance, though that's probably a bad idea – but there are a few exceptions. For example, a handy Address List feature enables creating lists of sites which will always be allowed, always be blocked, or won't have their content scanned (useful if a legitimate website is incorrectly blocked).

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

ESET isn't included in AV-Comparatives' latest anti-phishing test, and we weren't able to get our own automated testing software to fully work with the app, so we can't give a definitive verdict on its URL blocking abilities.

Simple manual checks found ESET blocked everything we threw at it, though, including some very new phishing links provided to us by security testing company MRG Effitas.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

The program is smart enough to recognize some web threats by analysis, too, as well as simply looking up a URL blacklist. When we pointed it at a new link containing a Bitcoin miner script, for instance, ESET checked the script, spotted the danger and alerted us to a 'potentially unwanted application.'

Much like ESET's antivirus protection, we don't have enough data to be completely sure how good its URL filtering might be, but small-scale testing does show some very positive signs.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Device control

ESET's bonus tools start with Device Control, an unusual feature which enables defining what happens when users connect a host of device types to the system: external storage, a USB printer, Bluetooth device, scanner, smart card reader, modems and more.

Options include making devices read-only, displaying a warning to users or blocking them entirely. Rules can apply to all or specific devices (‘block all USB storage apart from x, y, z’), some or all user accounts, and the system logs all device connections for review later.

This is a very powerful system, but it's not easy to set up. There's no simple library of prebuilt rules, and no user-friendly visual rule creator. Instead you're mostly choosing technical options from lists and hoping you understand them correctly (check the Help page on the feature).

Beginners should probably leave the Device Control screens alone, then. But if you're an expert looking to really lock down your system, this gives you options you'll rarely see elsewhere.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

More features

ESET NOD32 Antivirus doesn't have the lengthiest of feature lists. There's none of the generic privacy or security tools you'll often see elsewhere: no password manager, no 'file shredder', no junk file cleaner or anything similar.

The few extras you get are tucked away on the Tools menu. Here, you can view logs, see what the program has blocked, watch running processes, download ESET's bootable SysRescue cleaning tool, and more.

Some of these are a little dubious. The System Cleaner claims to warn you of key Windows settings which have been changed from their defaults, for instance, perhaps because of malware. Sounds great, but in reality it doesn't give you nearly enough information to make a clear decision.

For example, System Cleaner highlighted Windows System Restore on our review system, saying 'Windows System Restore settings allow you to revert your system to a previous state.' Yes. We know that. System Restore was turned on for our system drive, though, so what problem was ESET trying to describe? We've no idea.

It's the same elsewhere, with for instance System Cleaner telling us it would like to reset our 'System folders configuration' and 'Executable files configuration' but without offering any explanation as to why, or what changes it wants to make. Why should we allow ESET to reset whatever it's complaining about, when we've no idea what that is? Simple answer: we shouldn't, and neither should you.

There's much better news elsewhere, fortunately. ESET SysInspector is a particular highlight, an excellent tool which takes a snapshot of your system and highlights interesting items: running processes, network connections, critical files (HOSTS), important Registry entries and more. It's not for beginners, but if you've used tools like Sysinternals' Process Explorer you'll soon feel at home.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Final verdict

An interesting antivirus that boasts some expert-level tweaks and tools, but is let down a little by a run of poor test results at AV Comparatives.

ESET Internet Security

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

IF ESET NOD32 Antivirus looks short on features, that's probably because the company has saved most of its tools for ESET Internet Security.

Upgrading gets you a firewall, for instance. A spam filter. Parental controls, webcam protection, network monitoring, extra network attack and botnet protection, plus an anti-theft feature for Windows.

All this can be yours for just $50 for a single device, one-year license. That's only $10 more than an equivalent ESET NOD32 Antivirus license, and you can save even more money by adding devices and years.

Is the suite really worth your time, though? Let's see.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Firewall

Install most security suites and you'll get a firewall that blocks network attacks, and makes at least some effort to intelligently decide which of your apps should be allowed to make internet connections, and which should be blocked. Suites from providers including Bitdefender and Symantec do a great job of making these decisions all on their own.

Install ESET Internet Security and its firewall starts in automatic mode, which allows all outgoing traffic without making any filtering attempts, and blocks uninitiated traffic from the web. That has a little value in a technical sense, but you could do much the same with Windows' built-in firewall.

The first problem here is that, unless you go exploring the Firewall settings, you may never realize there's no filtering for outbound traffic.

The second problem is that even if you spot the problem and enable ESET's alternative Interactive Mode, the firewall still won't make any decisions itself, and instead asks you whether it should trust any application which makes an outbound connection.

We do mean any application, too. While smarter firewalls might know to trust Chrome, for instance, ESET's offering raised an alert.

We could make this go away forever in a couple of clicks, telling ESET to allow Chrome in future, then click Yes to confirm the subsequent UAC prompt. When it's something obvious like Chrome, that's fine, but other alerts might leave you less clear about what's going on ('64DriverLoad.exe is trying to communicate with remote site 255.255.255.255', for instance). Even experts aren't going to be able to give a definitive verdict on every prompt, at least not without some explanation, and the more prompts there are, the more likely users will click 'Allow' just to make them disappear.

ESET also offers a firewall Learning Mode which the company says 'automatically creates and saves rules according to predefined parameters.' Sounds easier, but ESET also warns that the mode is intended for initial configuration only, and shouldn't be used permanently, which doesn't sound encouraging. If you need outbound filtering long-term it seems like you'll be the one making all the key decisions.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Spam filter

ESET's spam filter is a capable junk mail blocker which works by integrating into Microsoft Outlook, and, just in case anyone is still using them, the ancient Outlook Express, Windows Mail or Windows Live Mail.

Although that sounds very dated, the Outlook extension is surprisingly capable. You can choose whether to scan incoming, outgoing and read emails, select an action to take (delete, move to the Junk or a specified folder), add custom text to the subject line, and log the spam score to understand any false detections.

There's even the ability to process all the existing emails in the current folder, perhaps to clean up a cluttered Inbox because you've not had a decent spam filter before.

Properly measuring antispam accuracy takes a very long time and a large number of samples, but to get an idea of ESET's capabilities, we presented it with 100 emails flagged as spam (some correctly, some not) by the commercial SPAMfighter.

The results were good, with ESET correctly marking 84% of the messages as spam, and recognizing that 10% of messages incorrectly flagged by SPAMfighter were legitimate. It did let through six junk mails, but we can forgive that if a spam filter is less likely to block real messages, and overall ESET's mail filter worked very well.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

More features

The company doesn't boast about it, but ESET Internet Security includes webcam protection which aims to prevent your webcam from being hijacked by malicious apps.

We tried this out by running an obscure command line tool to grab a webcam image, and ESET noticed it immediately, popping up a warning, and not allowing webcam access until we had approved the app.

This is powered by a very configurable rules-based system, so you can always allow access to some apps, always block others, maybe prompt for a few, or, if you never use the webcam, just automatically block everything. You don't have to explore these rules if you're not interested – ESET will manage everything automatically – but we're happy to have the option.

The Banking and Protection feature opens your default browser in a hardened form which ESET says makes it more difficult for keyloggers to capture personal data. We were able to set up keyboard capture in a separate app, though, and have it record whatever we typed in the browser, so this didn't work for us. This feature isn't a patch on the custom browsers provided by Bitdefender and Avast, which run on a separate desktop and both managed to defeat our key logging efforts.

ESET's Parental Controls are also very basic, only letting you filter websites by content. That might be useful, but most suites do much more, for example restricting internet access or device use by time. It works, but doesn't add a lot of value to the package.

ESET's Anti-Theft feature works much like many competitors, and may enable you to track your device location, use webcam image capture to get a view of its location, or send a message to its finder. There are plenty of mobile services which do much the same, but it's good to have one that covers Windows.

Elsewhere, ESET's Connected Home Monitor lists devices connected to your network and raises alerts for any new connections. It can scan your network for open ports, weak router passwords and other vulnerabilities, too. The module didn't find anything interesting for us, but it's worth a quick check, anyway.

ESET Internet Security has a long list of features, and some are impressive, but others are underpowered and can't match the competition. If you're an ESET fan or need this precise feature set, the suite might be interesting, but everyone else will find better protection elsewhere.

ESET Smart Security Premium

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Top-of-the-range security suites usually add some major new features to tempt potential customers, like the full VPN access you'll get with Avira Ultimate.

At first, ESET Smart Security Premium looks relatively disappointing, with the package only adding a password manager and file encryption system to the ESET Internet Security feature list.

In reality, the suite is better than it sounds. The password manager isn't the usual underpowered app you'll get with some security suites, for instance – it has a surprising number of features. And the encryption system uses the same DESlock technology as ESET's business-oriented Endpoint Encryption products.

Pricing starts at a reasonable $60 for a single device, one-year subscription. There are discounts as you add more devices and years, but these aren't as good as you'll see with some vendors, so ESET Smart Security Premium can seem relatively expensive if you're covering a lot of devices.

Is the suite worth a look? That's your call, but these are the extras you'll get.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Password manager

ESET's Password Manager isn't as powerful as specialist standalone apps like Dashlane and LastPass, but it's smarter than the efforts you get with most security suites, and it covers the basics well enough.

Setup requires a little more work than usual. The service can integrate with Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Internet Explorer, for instance, but ESET won't do this itself – it just opens the relevant extension store URLs and leaves you to install them manually.

Once you're up and running, the browser extensions allow you to generate secure passwords, saving your credentials, syncing them across all your devices and automatically filling in web forms.

You can also create one or more Identities, with personal details which can automatically be entered into web forms: name, address, date and place of birth, common forms of web ID (email address, Skype name, Yahoo ID), credit card information and more.

The service highlights particularly weak and reused passwords, helping you spot potential problems before any vulnerable accounts are hacked (well, hopefully).

The Password Manager isn't about the browser extensions, though. A native Windows app enables browsing your logins and launching whatever sites you need. A Sharing Center can securely share data with other ESET users, and it's even possible to capture and reuse passwords for Windows applications, as well as websites.

The top password managers may give you even more tools and options, but there's plenty of functionality here, and many users won't need anything else.

ESET 2020 Antivirus

(Image credit: ESET)

Secure data

ESET's Secure Data feature facilitates the creation of an encrypted vault on a hard drive, USB stick or other device.

Open the vault with the correct password and it acts like a virtual drive or folder. Save or copy files to the vault and they're automatically encrypted; open or view them and they're decrypted. You don't have to worry about the technicalities, though, because the vault works just like any other drive or storage device.

Once you're logged out, though, the vault is inaccessible to any else. If you lose a protected USB key and the finder plugs it into another computer which doesn't have ESET's Secure Data installed, they won't see the encrypted folder. If they have Secure Data they'll be prompted for the password, but unless they know or can guess it, your data will be safe.

Secure Data is a simple and effective way to protect your most important files from snoopers, and it's not a feature you'll get with most security suites. You can get freeware tools that perform similar tasks, though, and on balance we're not sure Secure Data or the Password Manager are enough to justify signing up for ESET Smart Security Premium. Issues and limitations with ESET's suites mean ESET NOD32 Antivirus is our pick of the range.