It's in the corners and crevices that some of the most enlightening discoveries can be made. Likewise, some of the best software out there for any purpose doesn't always get the attention or praise it deserves. Here are three PC security programs that recently came into our sights -- one which boasts a longstanding reputation even if it isn't quite a household word yet, and two entirely new to us.
ESET Smart Security 5 (126.96.36.199)
ESET spol. s r.o.
Starts at $59.99 (1 PC/year)
Pros: Unobtrusive, little tweaking needed
Cons: Fullscreen mode behaves a little strangely with some programs
Rating (1-5): 4.5
ESET's become a familiar name and face in the last couple of years, thanks to the blue-and-white Android avatar in the company's ubiquitous ad campaigns--if still not as automatically familiar as the likes of Symantec or McAfee.
But their product doesn't need gimmicky ad campaign to succeed. It's a genuinely good all-in-one protection suite that stays out of your way, protects well, and has a bevy of intelligent touches that show some insight into how people actually use their system. ESET's products have won "Product of the Year" two years in a row (2006 and 2007) from the AV-Comparitives testing organization, and continue to get consistently high marks from them across the board.
Once installed, ESET requires no tweaking to work well, as the defaults are sane and don't inhibit you from getting right back to work. I observed no discernible impact on system performance or network speeds, and I didn't need to manually whitelist the applications I used.
I did elect to set my web browser (Chrome) to "active" web access protection, which allowed ESET to more directly scrutinize web traffic for possible threats at a slight cost of compatibility with some sites. ESET's parents control system also integrates directly with Windows 7's own native parental controls for further ease of use.
One thing you may want to tweak is the spam control system. Depending on your ISP and your mail client, you may already have strong enough spam protection that ESET's additional screening isn't needed.
You may also want to control how removable drives are scanned when attached to the system, since drives with a lot of files do take a while to finish, but you can have the scan continue in the background while you get work done.
Security suites have to balance warning the user against unnecessarily annoying them. ESET has a compromise of its own for such a dilemma: "gamer mode." When manually activated, or when an app runs fullscreen, ESET pauses scheduled tasks and suspends displaying any pop-up notifications.
If you're leery about leaving protection continuously off, you can have gamer mode disabled automatically after a chosen number of minutes. Note that some fullscreen apps I tested (e.g., iTunes) still didn't allow ESET's warnings to appear even after the timeout period, probably due to the way they handled being fullscreen.
ESET also includes a rescue-disc creation system, where you can create a CD or bootable USB stick to bring the system back to life should things go south. Unfortunately, it requires some heavy lifting on your part to set up--you have to install the Windows Automated Installation Kit and manually supply some files. Also, I noticed Windows Defender was not automatically disabled when ESET was running, but the two don't seem to interfere with each other--if anything, they operate synergistically.
ESET's clean and simple user interface matches its lack of obtrusiveness and solid functionality.