Good antivirus lab scores. Enhanced home network scanner. New anti-theft component. Scans firmware for malware. Webcam control.
Anti-theft system slow to unlock in testing. So-so phishing protection. Device control too complex for most users. Old-school firewall.
- Bottom Line
ESET Internet Security offers a full array of suite components. The latest edition has an enhanced home network scanner, adds anti-theft protection, and even scans your firmware for malware.
There's a lot of variation in the components companies put in their security suite products. Antivirus is essential, of course, often joined by firewall, parental control, and spam filtering. ESET Internet Security has all these, plus device control, webcam protection, and browser protection for online banking. Version 11, reviewed here, adds malware scanning of your PC's firmware and enhances the suite's home network analyzer. The anti-theft component, previously available only in ESET's mega-suite, now comes with this entry-level suite.
You can use ESET to protect a single computer for $59.99 per year. Additional licenses, up to a total of five, cost $10 per year. A three-license subscription runs to $79.99, which is about the same as the three-license price for Avast, Bitdefender, and Kaspersky. Norton costs $89.99 per year for five licenses; that price would get you four ESET licenses. And then there's McAfee Internet Security—you pay that same $89.99 per year, but you get to install it on every Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS device in your household.
The basic layout of this suite's spacious main window is the same as that of ESET's standalone antivirus. The company's blue-eyed cyborg mascot and a big status indicator dominate the screen. A left-rail menu offers access to features and settings. Finally, three blue button panels at the bottom offer access to important features. In the antivirus, these buttons launch an antivirus scan, check for updates, and link to your ESET account online. The suite changes the latter two actions to launch the safe-banking browser and the network analyzer.
Not everyone needs parental control, or wants anti-theft, so it's fine that ESET doesn't configure these components by default. You get a screen that invites you to set up these additional tools.
Shared Antivirus Features
This suite builds on the powerful antivirus protection found in ESET NOD32 Antivirus. For a full understanding of features shared with the antivirus, you can read that review. I offer a digest of my findings below.
ESET participates in tests by all four of the independent labs whose reports I follow, with scores ranging from good to excellent. Just four products passed both of the tough tests from MRG-Effitas. ESET was among the winners, as were Bitdefender and Kaspersky. UK-based SE Labs certified ESET at the highest level, AAA.
The testers at AV-Comparatives rate products as Advanced+, Advanced, or Standard, depending on how well they perform. Of the four tests I track, ESET earned two Advanced and two Advanced+ ratings. However, in the three-part test administered by AV-Test Institute, ESET only earned 15.5 of 18 possible points. Its aggregate lab score of 9.2 is good; only three products have scored higher, including Bitdefender with 9.9 points and Kaspersky with a perfect 10.
In my own hands-on malware protection test, ESET detected 93 percent of the samples and earned 8.9 of 10 possible points. Tested with the same set of samples, both Norton and Webroot earned a perfect 10 points.
Challenged to prevent malware downloads from 100 very recent malware-hosting sites, ESET achieved a 90 percent protection rate. That's good, but others have done even better. Norton achieved 98 percent protection, and Trend Micro Internet Security managed 97 percent.
I also test each product's ability to warn the user about phishing sites, fraudulent sites that try to steal your login credentials. Using the same set of newly reported phishing URLs, I compare the product's detection rate with that of Symantec Norton Security Deluxe (a longtime top phishing fighter) and with the protection built into Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. ESET tied with Chrome and beat the other two browses, but its detection rate was 26 percentage points lower than Norton's. Only Bitdefender and Trend Micro have beaten Norton in recent tests.
Other Shared Features
New in this edition, ESET includes a UEFI scanner. UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) is what modern computers use for firmware instead of the antique BIOS. You won't see it at all, unless it detects a malware infestation in your PC's firmware.
A Host Intrusion Prevention System (HIPS) aims to prevent attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in your operating system or applications. Tested with exploits generated by the CORE Impact penetration tool, it detected and blocked almost 60 percent of the malicious payloads.
The Device Control system is more suited to a business setting than the average home. It can control the use of a wide variety of devices, including card readers, imaging devices, and Bluetooth devices, as well as more traditional external drives. You could, for example, ban all USB drives but allow exceptions for specific ones. Some geeky parents might use Device Control to keep their kids from mounting who-knows-where-it's-been USB drives, but most users should leave this feature alone.
Both products have an impressive page of security-related tools, some for your own use and some more appropriate for use by a tech support agent. The most important is SysInpector, which snapshots the state of your PC and includes the ability to show what changed from one snapshot to another. Definitely run this and save a baseline snapshot, in case you need it.
In testing, the firewall correctly stealthed all ports and resisted web-based attack tests. That's no great feat, though, as Windows Firewall can do the same. This test is just a sanity check, and it's relevant only if the firewall fails.
The flip side of blocking attack from the outside is preventing misuse of your internet connection by local programs. In its default Automatic mode, ESET's firewall doesn't really do program control. All it does is allow all outbound network traffic and block unsolicited inbound connections.
If you switch to interactive mode, it does actively watch for unknown programs attempting internet access. On detecting one, it asks you whether to allow or deny the connection. By default, it keeps asking on every connection attempt, but you can set it to remember your choice until the program terminates, or make a rule to remember it permanently.
Confused yet? For a really dizzying view, click the Details link at bottom. Now you can see the URL and port the application was trying for, and see ESET's view of its reputation. Only those with a degree in firewalls should take the next step, clicking Advanced Options. Doing so lets you allows creation of a very granular firewall rule. But really, don't do it.
In truth, ESET's popups are more annoying than most. If you've set a password to protect settings, as parental control requires, you must enter that password to create a firewall rule. In addition, you must respond to a User Account Control popup—every time!
This kind of painfully detailed firewall control is seriously old-fashioned. Norton handles security decisions internally, automatically setting permissions for known good programs, destroying known bad ones, and monitoring unknowns. Kaspersky's system of trust levels is similar. Check Point ZoneAlarm Extreme Security maintains a huge database of known good files, big enough that if it pops up a query about an unknown, you should really pay attention.
To get active program control without drowning in popups, you can run for a while in Learning mode. In this mode, the firewall allows every connection it sees, and makes a rule to keep allowing it. After a week or so, you can go back to Interactive mode with fewer popups. The tough Policy-based mode blocks any connection that doesn't already have a rule allowing it.
The firewall component does include an Intrusion Detection System (IDS), which goes beyond the HIPS component shared with the antivirus. However, when I repeated my exploit test I got the exact same results.
Security isn't worth much if malware can disable it, so I always try disabling protection using techniques available to a malware coder. ESET resisted my every attempt. It doesn't expose a Protection Off switch in the Registry, and when I tried to terminate its two processes and one Windows service, all I got was Access Denied.
This is a very basic firewall. It does handle outside attack, but so does Windows Firewall. At its default settings, program control does very little, but leaving the default mode exposes you to a blizzard of confusing popups.
Filter-Only Parental Control
Most parental control software keeps kids away from unwanted content and give parents control over their time online. Many add features like social media tracking, blocking games based on ratings, and detecting bad language in instant messages. Out of these possibilities, the one thing ESET does is block access to inappropriate websites.
Since not everyone needs it, parental control is off by default. Once you enable it, you must define a password to protect your settings and configure parental control for every Windows account, either flagging it as a parent account or entering the child's birthdate. ESET automatically decides which of its more than 30 categories to block based on the child's age. You can fine-tune these settings if you like, but the fact that you can only see three categories at a time makes the process tedious.
The browser-independent content filter did its job, blocking every naughty site I tried. It even blocked access to the websites for Victoria's Secret and Spanx. A three-word network command that throws poorly written content filters for a loop had no effect on ESET. It can filter out unwanted websites even if they use HTTPS, so your frisky teen won't evade it using a secure anonymizing proxy.
On ESET's log page you can view all blocked websites, with a date/time stamp, the username involved, and the category that triggered filtering. Kaspersky, BullGuard, Norton, and numerous others also list all websites the child visited, while ESET sticks to blocked sites.
This parental control system is very, very basic. No fancy features here, it just keeps the kids away from the seamy side of the Internet. If you're looking for a serious parental control system as part of your security suite, you should consider Symantec Norton Security Premium or Kaspersky Total Security.
More and more of us get spam filtered from our work email at the server and from our personal email by the webmail provider. But ESET's email protection is more than just a spam filter; it also checks for malware. Where many security products only handle the simple POP3 protocol, ESET also works with IMAP.
ESET integrates with Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, and Windows Live Mail for full control. Those using a different email client must define message rules to divert spam and infected messages into their own folders.
Between the spam filter and the email antivirus, ESET has a ton of configuration options. Fortunately, it comes configured for optimum protection. The one configuration element you may want to adjust is the whitelist and blacklist system. The spam filter automatically whitelists your contacts, people you send email to, and senders of messages that you reclassify as not spam. Mail from these people won't be blocked. You can manually edit the lists, if you feel the need.
If you're one of the few who still need a local spam filter, ESET's antispam component should do the job. And it also checks for malware in email messages.
Connected Home Monitor
Clicking the big Connected Home Monitor panel on the main window brings up a network map. Found devices appear as icons in concentric rings, with your local device and its router in the center. The next ring out shows devices recently contacted, and the outermost ring holds devices contacted within the last month. The display is just a bit awkward when you have a lot of connected devices. The inner ring shows six or seven at a time, with arrows to rotate others into view. There's no way to see all your devices at once, and no easy way to see how many devices the monitor found.
By clicking and counting, clicking and counting, I determined that it found 28 connected devices. I did notice that it identified two Android devices as printers, but correcting that error was easy enough. Note that when a new device connects to the network, ESET notifies you of the connection.
Clicking any icon gets you a detailed description, including the device name and type. If ESET can't come up with a name, it just shows the IP address. A network wizard who can figure out what that IP address means is free to edit the name. From the detail view, you can also click a Troubleshoot link to view any traffic from this device that the firewall blocked. This, too, is more useful to a network wizard than to the average person.
The previous edition included an option to scan your router and report if any settings aren't secure. New in version 11, the monitor can also scan all your devices for security problems including open ports, unsecured services, and weak passwords. As with Avast's similar scanner and Bitdefender Home Scanner, checking all your devices can take a while. On the computer I used for testing, it took about 25 minutes.
The scan reported that it found one problem. Port 443, the port used for secure HTTPS communication, was open on my router. In truth, that port is open so that my ISP can diagnose and fix any problems with my internet/phone/television router. It didn't report any problems with other devices, which I found a bit odd. On the same PC and the same network, Bitdefender's scanner found numerous causes for concern.
In previous versions, ESET reserved its anti-theft component for the mega-suite, ESET Smart Security Premium. With version 11, this feature comes to the entry-level suite, which is a significant benefit for those using ESET on laptops. Even if your installations are all desktop computers, it couldn't hurt to set up anti-theft protection.
Anti-theft is an expected feature in mobile security products, but it's uncommon in products aimed at Windows devices. Bitdefender Total Security is among the very few that can locate, lock, or wipe a stolen Windows laptop. ESET doesn't include the option to remotely wipe a stolen device, but it can locate the device, lock it down, and snap screenshots and webcam pictures.
You manage anti-theft through the My ESET online portal. If necessary, it recommends one or more optimization steps. If you've configured your device to log in automatically, without asking for a password, it restores the password prompt. In addition, it creates a phantom user account. On a locked system, only that phantom account is visible. There's no way to access other accounts or their files.
ESET checks in every 10 minutes when it's online, to see if you've marked the device as missing. When it detects that you've done so, several things happen. ESET reboots the system, automatically logging in to the phantom account and denying access to other accounts. It starts collecting location information and snapping screenshots. If you choose to, you can set a message with your contact info on the missing device, useful if the device is lost rather than stolen. Monitoring continues for 14 days. ESET notifies you by email toward the end of this time.
I marked my test system as missing, but after half an hour it still hadn't reacted. I opened ESET's settings to make sure anti-theft was enabled; at that point it rebooted into the phantom account. I tried to log into another account, but the other accounts didn't show up. I tried to access folders belonging to those accounts, but couldn't. The system proved thoroughly locked down.
Every ten minutes, ESET snapped a screenshot that I could view in the online console. It would have snapped webcam photos too, had a webcam been available.
ESET analyzes Wi-Fi signals to determine the device's location. My desktop test systems have wired connections, so it couldn't locate them. The help system points out that in a situation like this you can check the list of IP addresses to which the device has connected, and use an online IP geolocation service to get a rough idea of the location. I do mean rough; IP geolocation put my device in a pond in a nature area about eight miles from where the computer was actually located.
When I went back into the console and marked the device as recovered, I got an unpleasant surprise. Even after a half-hour, it remained locked down. Rebooting didn't help, but waiting did. After more than an hour it rebooted into an unlocked state.
In the real world, anti-theft protection is most useful on a laptop. A portable device is more likely to go missing than a desktop PC with all of its wires and cables. And a laptop has Wi-Fi, meaning you'll be able to track it. If you do install ESET on a laptop, make sure to follow the optimization steps, just in case you need the anti-theft features.
Banking and Payment Protection
There are just three big, prominent feature panels on ESET's main window, and one of them launches Banking and Payment Protection. Using it is simple. Click the panel to open a security-enhanced version of your default browser, with a green glow around the edge and a "Secure by ESET" banner in the title bar. Browser protection works with Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. If you're a Windows 10 user with Edge as your default browser, ESET launches a hardened Internet Explorer instead. At first launch, it displays a note suggesting that you use the secured browser only for sensitive transactions, not for everyday web surfing.
Like the Safe Money feature in Kaspersky Internet Security, this feature kicks in automatically when you attempt to visit a known financial site in the ordinary, unsecured browser. It offers to launch a secured browser instead, and there's an option to always open this site in the secured browser.
There are many kinds of spyware, but surely the creepiest is malware that lets some slimeball peek at you through your laptop webcam. ESET's contribution to spyware protection is an extension of Device Control that keeps untrusted programs from using the webcam.
The simplest way to use this feature is to just disable the webcam, then enable it when you want a video chat. With just a little effort, though, you can configure it to allow webcam use for specific, trusted programs. You can also set it to notify you when an unknown program tries to sneak a peek, so you can decide whether to allow it. The similar feature in Kaspersky and Bitdefender Internet Security always works this way, asking you whether to allow and trust each program that goes for webcam access.
Minuscule Performance Hit
If a security suite puts a drag on system performance, users will just turn it off, so avoiding resource hogging is actually a matter of security. I didn't notice any slowdown on the test systems with ESET installed, but just to be sure, I ran some simple hands-on performance tests.
My boot-time test reboots the system and launches a script that checks CPU usage once per second. I consider the system ready for use after 10 seconds in a row with no more than five percent CPU usage. Subtracting the start time of the boot process (as reported by Windows) yields the boot time. I averaged many runs with no security suite, installed ESET, and then averaged many runs again. Comparing the before and after times, I found that the boot process took a mere three percent longer with ESET installed.
A drag on common file manipulation actions would be more significant than a few extra seconds at boot time. For this test, I use a script that moved and copies an eclectic collection of files between drives, averaging many runs before and after installing ESET. There was no measurable difference in the two averages. Another script that repeatedly zips and unzips that same file collection took 2 percent longer with ESET installed.
Clearly ESET doesn't put a serious drag on system performance. It has a very light touch. Note, though, that adaware, Norton, and Webroot SecureAnywhere Internet Security Plus didn't have any measurable effect in all three tests.
ESET Internet Security combines ESET's powerful antivirus protection with all the expected suite features, and more. New in this edition, you can protect your computers with anti-theft. It automatically scans your firmware for malware. And the network scanner now checks for vulnerabilities in your devices, as well as in the router. The firewall is still awkward, and parental control does nothing but content filtering, but this is an improvement over the previous edition.
However, ESET isn't going to dethrone our Editors' Choice security suites, Bitdefender Internet Security and Kaspersky Internet Security. ESET's scores from the test labs are good, but Kaspersky and Bitdefender get perfect or near-perfect scores across the board. Upgrading to Bitdefender Total Security, our Editors' Choice for security mega-suite, even gets you anti-theft to match ESET's, along with a veritable cornucopia of features.
Note: These sub-ratings contribute to a product's overall star rating, as do other factors, including ease of use in real-world testing, bonus features, and overall integration of features.
Other ESET Suites
Neil Rubenking served as vice president and president of the San Francisco PC User Group for three years when the IBM PC was brand new. He was present at the formation of the Association of Shareware Professionals, and served on its board of directors. In 1986, PC Magazine brought Neil on board to handle the torrent of Turbo Pascal tips submitted by readers. By 1990, he had become PC Magazine's technical editor, and a coast-to-coast telecommuter. His "User to User" column supplied readers with tips… More »
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