It’s pretty easy to define a full-blown antivirus program—it’s one that removes any malware that may be present on your system and prevents any attacks going forward. The definition of a security suite isn’t so simple, because different vendors choose to meld different components when creating a suite. Antivirus and firewall components are de rigueur, and many suites also include spam filtering, parental control, and protection against malicious or fraudulent websites. ESET Smart Security 9 includes all of the components I’ve mentioned, along with some interesting bonus features. However, it doesn’t quite measure up to the very best suites.

Like most security vendors, ESET will happily sell you a single license ($59.99 per year) or a three-license pack ($79.99 per year). Unlike most, ESET leaves you free to choose precisely the number of licenses you need, and the length of your subscription, all the way up to a two-year 10-license subscription for $459.90. Of course, if you really need to protect 10 computers, you might be better off with Symantec Norton Security Premium ($89.99 per year for 10 licenses) or  a business-oriented endpoint security solution.

Those who’ve used ESET before will find that the current edition looks rather different. The company’s design team did extensive research into just what users want, and came up with a new, streamlined interface. ESET’s blue-eyed cyborg mascot still gazes at you from the main window, along with a large banner that reflects your current security status. A left-side menu provides access to tasks like running a scan and configuring security, while a set of button across the bottom let you log into ESET online, launch ESET’s online cybersecurity training, or invoke a protected browser for banking (more about that protected browser later).

Shared AntivirusAs is typical, the antivirus protection in this suite is precisely the same as what you get with ESET NOD32 Antivirus 9. You can read my review of the standalone antivirus for full details—I’ll simply summarize here.

ESET’s technology gets some very good marks from the independent testing labs, though it stumbled a bit in the latest report from AV-Test Institute. On the plus side, Dennis Labs rated its protection AAA, the best rating.

ESET also achieved VB100 certification in all of the latest 12 tests by Virus Bulletin. Bitdefender Internet Security 2016 is also 12 for 12 with Virus Bulletin. Bitdefender and Kaspersky Internet Security (2016) score at or near the top with all of the independent labs.

In our own hands-on malware-blocking test, ESET didn’t fare as well. Its real-time protection component wiped out barely over a third of my samples on sight, whereas some competitors instantly eliminate 80 percent or more. Its final score, 8.6 of 10 possible points, is in the bottom half of current products. Bitdefender and Avast Internet Security 2016 share the top score in this test, 9.3 points.

On the plus side, ESET did very well in my malicious URL blocking test. It headed off 84 percent of the malware-hosting URLs, blocking half of those entirely and wiping out the other half during the download process. Top score in this test, 91 percent, is shared by Norton and McAfee LiveSafe (2016).

ESET also did a good job of fending off fraudulent (phishing) websites. Its detection rate in testing came in just 8 percentage points below that of perennial phishing champ Norton, and it soundly drubbed the phishing protection built into Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.

See How We Interpret Antivirus Lab Tests

See How We Test Malware Blocking

See How We Test Antiphishing

The suite and antivirus share a number of other handy features. A Host Intrusion Protection System aims to block exploit attacks. The Running Processes list shows all processes running on your system, along with their prevalence in the ESET network. SysInspector gathers information to help tech support understand any problems you may have. And the bootable SysRescue antivirus handles malware that prevents booting Windows, or prevents the regular ESET antivirus from functioning.

Basic FirewallESET’s firewall component successfully fended off all the port scans and other Web-based attacks that I threw at it. In some cases, it popped up a transient notification specifically identifying the attack as a port scan.

Preventing attack from outside is one face of firewall protection; the other is managing programs that attempt Internet access. By default, ESET’s firewall runs in automatic mode, which only offers the most limited form of program control. It allows all outbound traffic, and blocks all inbound traffic that isn’t specifically allowed by a firewall rule. In learning mode, the firewall allows any Internet activity a program requests and creates a rule to always allow that access.

For testing, I switched the firewall to interactive mode. This is the painfully familiar mode that gave early firewalls a bad name. Every time a program attempts to access the Internet or network, ESET pops up and asks you, the user, to decide whether it should allow or block access. You can make your answer a one-time thing, or check a box to create a firewall rule.

The best firewalls, like those found in Norton and Kaspersky, handle such decisions internally. Others, like Check Point ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2016 rely on a huge database of known good programs to automatically configure almost all permissions. ESET? It will ask you what to do about every single process, including browsers, browser add-ins, and internal Windows components. Worse, when you do answer its query you’ll find that you must also respond to a User Account Control popup. Other firewalls, even those that rely on popup queries, manage to avoid the UAC popup.

On another system I left the firewall in its default automatic mode. It still blocked a number of connections, including Windows’s own SSDP Discovery and DNS Client. Other blocked connections included a local network backup and my Plex media server. Fortunately, the firewall offers a troubleshooting page that lists recently blocked processes and lets you unblock them. If some network-connected device or service suddenly stops working, take a look at this page.

I mentioned that the standalone antivirus includes a Host Intrusion Prevention System. When I hit the antivirus with about 30 exploits generated by the CORE Impact penetration tool, it foiled about 45 percent of them, identifying most by the official CVE name. Since the suite includes a full firewall, I reran that test…but the results came out just the same. Norton is the hands-down winner here, blocking 100 percent of the exploits at the network level, before they even reached the test system.

As far as I can tell, malware coders won’t manage to disable ESET’s firewall protection. I didn’t find any significant Registry settings unprotected, and when I tried to terminate its two processes, I just got Access denied. Its single Windows service is hardened—I couldn’t stop it, and I couldn’t set its startup mode to Disabled.

ESET’s firewall offers basic protection, and it doesn’t seem vulnerable to direct attack. However, if you enable actual program control it will drive you batty with popup queries, and it didn’t show any particular ability to detect and block exploits in my testing.

Fast, Accurate AntispamESET integrates with Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express / Windows Mail, and Windows Live Mail to eliminate infected email messages and identify spam. In the incoming POP3 or IMAP email stream, it marks spam messages by adding [SPAM] to their subject lines. If you’re using a supported email client, it also moves spam messages into their own folder; if not, you can just define a message rule to do that job.

When you dig into ESET’s advanced settings, you’ll find that there are a lot of spam configuration choices. By default, ESET whitelists contacts from your Address book, and people to whom you send email. Since my aim is to test the product’s ability to distinguish good mail from spam, I didn’t attempt to configure the blacklist or whitelist. As for the other settings, I left them all at their default values, just as most users will do.

With ESET watching carefully, I downloaded all the messages from a real-world account that gets both spam and valid mail. I discarded anything more than 30 days old, and then sorted the Inbox into valid personal mail, valid bulk mail, and undeniable spam, discarding any messages that didn’t clearly fit one of those categories. After performing the same triage on the spam folder, I ran the numbers.

I also measured the time required to download 1,000 messages with no spam filter and with ESET active. It didn’t put any significant drag on the download process. When I tested the previous edition, I found that downloading email took four times as long, so this is a big improvement.

Missing an important meeting or failing to close a deal because your spam filter mistakenly threw away a valid message is a huge problem, much worse than forcing the user to endure a few pitches for male enhancement or Canadian pharmaceuticals. I’m pleased to say that ESET didn’t misfile a single valid message. It did let 6.1 percent of undeniable spam into the Inbox, which isn’t too bad. Bitdefender and Trend Micro Internet Security 2016 mistakenly discarded just 0.1 percent of valid mail and missed 1.8 percent and 3.9 percent of the spam, respectively.

See How We Test Antispam

Problematic Parental ControlBy default, ESET’s parental control is disabled. That makes sense; many users have no need for this feature. In fact, this feature is a bit hard to find—you must click Tools, then Security Tools, in order to find it. When you turn it on, you’re asked to password-protect your settings, so the kids can’t just turn off parental control. Note, though, that this means you’ll need to enter the password for any change to ESET’s settings.

ESET offers per-user configuration based on Windows user accounts. Many parental control systems offer predefined profiles, perhaps Child, Preteen, and Teen. With ESET, you set the age for each child’s account, from one year to 30+. I’m not sure why settings exist for ages above 18, but they do.

By choosing an age for the child, you configure ESET’s multitude of website categories. It’s possible to configure categories manually, but their sheer number is daunting. At the top level, they’re divided into five age-based groups, ages under 5, 8, 13, 16, and 18 respectively. There’s also an age-neutral group. Each group contains up to 15 subgroups for a total of more than 40 subgroups. And each subgroup contains one or more categories.

As an example, the Age under 18 group includes a sub-group titled Adult Content. This in turn contains R-Rated, Dating, Abortion – Pro Choice, Abortion – Pro Life, Pornography, and several other categories. Unlike most similar products, here a checkmark next to a category means that it’s allowed, not blocked.

I set one of my sample user accounts to be 11 years old and tried out a bunch of inappropriate sites. It correctly blocked all of them. On some inoffensive sites, it allowed access but popped up warnings that it blocked access to one or more URLs. Many of these were related to website analytics, things like and This plethora of relatively irrelevant URLs also overwhelmed the log of filtered websites, making it near-impossible to find actual inappropriate sites.

I verified that the content filter worked for any browser, even one I wrote myself. It wasn’t affected by the simple three-word network command that disables some less-brilliant parental control systems. It also correctly filtered secure (HTTPS) sites by category, so your brilliant preteen won’t evade parental control using a secure anonymizing proxy.

The system broke down when I tried some image searches. Despite the content filter, searches such as “girls with no clothes” got up to 10 results, many wildly inappropriate. Scrolling down the page showed box after box with no image, and the content filter warning messages stacked up wildly—I easily reached a count of 1,000 pending messages. Worse, the same thing happened with innocuous searches like “puppies” and “kitties.” There’s a real problem here.

Content filtering is the enter extent of ESET’s parental control. It does the job for wholly inappropriate websites, but its blocking of Web analytic sites and other less-relevant categories screws up its reporting. And in my testing, it interfered with all image searches, while passing a handful of images for any category, even porn. Don’t rely on ESET for parental control.

Banking and Payment ProtectionIt’s always smart to stay alert when randomly surfing the Web. Even an established popular site can give you problems if it’s infected by a malvertising attack. Surfing for the best cat videos is one thing; interacting with your bank online is completely different. ESET’s new Banking & Payment Protection aims to ensure that your online financial transactions are completely safe.

When you try to visit a known banking or financial site in your unprotected browser, ESET offers to open it in the secure browser instead. You can choose to have it always open this particular site in the secure browser. Kaspersky’s similar Safe Money feature launches a secure browser to protect your transaction. Bitdefender’s SafePay launches a hardened browser in a separate desktop. ESET applies its protection to the browser you already use; I tried it with Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.

You can easily see when this mode is active. The browser gets a green border, and a Secured by ESET tab appears in its title bar. When you close the secured browser, all traces of your actions vanish. You can also launch this feature directly from the suite’s main window.

Unusual Anti-TheftAnti-theft is a common feature for mobile security products—indeed, loss or theft of a mobile device is more likely than a mobile malware attack. McAfee and Symantec offer mobile device anti-theft. ESET offers the unusual ability to track your Windows computers in the event of loss or theft. Clearly this is most useful for laptops; desktop computers are less likely to be stolen.

Bitdefender Total Security 2016 offers a similar feature. It keeps track of your device’s location and lets you remotely lock or wipe a missing device. The Find My Laptop feature in ZoneAlarm Extreme lets you locate the device, capture screenshots or webcam photos, and optionally back up data before wiping an unrecoverable device.

In order to make use of this feature, you must first enable it on the affected device. Once Anti-Theft is enabled, you still have a couple of simple tasks to perform. ESET makes it easy. Clicking one button sets up what they call a phantom user account. If necessary, clicking another reconfigures your device so it doesn’t automatically log in to your usual account. That’s it!

In the event your device is lost or stolen, you log into ESET’s online console and click a button to report the loss. This reboots the device, blocks access to all but the phantom Windows account, and starts device monitoring, which includes location, screen captures, and webcam photos. It also presents the finder with a message containing your contact info, on the chance that the device is merely lost, not stolen. Of course, the device must be online to receive instructions from the anti-theft system.

Once you’ve marked your device as missing, you still have to wait for the next check-in. At that point, ESET reboots the system and logs into the limited phantom account. The thief (or finder) has no access to your files, and ESET starts sending location info, screenshots, and webcam photos. If you determine that the device has been found by a nice person, you can send a message with your contact information.

I ran into serious trouble getting this feature working, trouble that required live chat tech support and phone support as well. At one point, the live chat technician duplicated my problem. To summarize literally hours of tech support, it turns out that rebooting before ESET has finalized the phantom account can leave anti-theft non-functional, and this finalization can take 10 minutes or more. In fact, my test systems didn’t go into anti-theft mode until more than an hour after I clicked the button to activate that mode.

Device Control for ExpertsWhen you click Setup and choose Computer Protection, you’ll find a choice entitled Device Control. It’s disabled by default; enabling it requires a reboot.

Once Device Control is enabled, you gain the ability to define specific rules about all kinds of devices that connect to your computer, USB drives, Bluetooth devices, smartcard readers, and more. For individual devices or device types you can choose whether to block all access, allow access, or allow access with a warning that this access is logged. If the device includes storage, you can choose to enable it for read-only access.

Your rules can apply to all users, or to specific users or groups. However, in order to specify a list of users, you have to dig down into the awkward Windows dialog titled Select Users or Groups. Really, only the most expert users will find this feature manageable, and the average user probably doesn’t have any need to set limits on attached devices. I see this feature as being much more useful in an office setting.

Performance HitPerformance is as important as protection in a security suite; if the suite gets in the way, the user may get disgusted and turn it off. Vendors know this, so modern suites tend to have very little effect on performance. I was somewhat surprised to find ESET’s performance hit on the high side, given that the previous edition evidenced a much smaller slowdown. But rerunning my baseline (no suite) tests and my tests with ESET installed yielded the same results.

I calculate the time required to boot the test system by waiting for 10 seconds in a row with CPU usage of five percent or lower. Once the system reached this ready-to-use state, I subtract the start of the boot process, as reported by Windows. Averaging multiple runs with no suite and with ESET installed, I found boot time increased by 22 percent. That’s more drag than many suites, but do note that this 22 percent represents just 12 seconds more actual time.

Somewhat surprisingly, my file move/copy test took 61 percent longer with ESET installed. This test simply measures the time required to run a script that moves and copies a large collection of files between drives. A repeat of the test yielded an even bigger slowdown; I stuck with the first measurement. The related zip/unzip test, using the same file collection, took 35 percent more time under ESET’s protection.

ESET slowed both of the file-related tests more than almost any recent suites. Even so, I didn’t observe any feeling of sluggishness while running my tests. Note, though, that some competing products display almost no impact on these simple test. Webroot SecureAnywhere Internet Security Plus hold the record here. The average of its three performance scores is just 1 percent.

See How We Test Security Suites for Performance

Uneven ProtectionThe antivirus component in this suite is quite good, as are the antiphishing and spam filter components. However, parental control is both limited and problematic, the firewall offers just the basics, and I ran into some serious trouble with the anti-theft component. For some business settings the Device Control may seem compelling, but the average user should stick with one of our Editors’ Choice suites.

The security components in Bitdefender Internet Security and Kaspersky Internet Security are all top-notch, and these two companies get excellent marks from the labs. If you need to protect many computers, McAfee Live Safe or Symantec Norton Security Premium will cost you much, much less than ESET, and will do a better job. 

Sub-Ratings: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.Firewall: Antivirus: Performance: Antispam: Privacy: Parental Control: