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.
Avira Internet Security 2012
Avira Operations GmbH & Co. KG.
Starts at $59.99 (1 PC/year)
Pros: Standard and advanced option selections simplify configuration
Cons: Scanning and detection disrupt workflow; false positives
Rating (1-5): 3.0
Avira feels like a program that needs more work to be really palatable. It's littered with annoyances that make living with it less pleasant than the competition, and doesn't have enough really standout features of its own to make the drawbacks worth tolerating.
We've come a long way from the old days of security suites, when most every single action on your part required you to secure the program's approval. Avira is a bit of a throwback to those times, unfortunately. Right after installation it asked for approval to allow access for at least one common system network service, although at least it didn't ask me to say yes to every single conventional program that needed network access (Chrome, Firefox, etc.). Most of the really important stuff seems to be pre-approved out of the box.
The interruptions become pretty blatant when a virus is detected. If you elect to take action, the program pops up a "Scanning…" dialog which can't be minimized (although at least you can put other windows over it). Ask for more detailed information, and the resulting system scan can take a several seconds or more to complete--another delay.
You can set the program to automatically quarantine a suspect file without prompting you, though. The program also doesn't seem to give the option of scanning USB media when attached, although it did find the sample malware I placed on an attached USB drive when I attempted to launch the file in question.
I also wasn't thrilled with the false positives I got. During a manual system scan, Avira flagged a program believed to be virus-free (ArcSoft Media Player) as a false positive. Also, if you change the default list of object types to detect, you may get that many more false positives as well. When I included "unwanted programs" as part of the scan, a number of relatively innocuous utility programs -- like a tool I use for viewing which .DLL files are registered with Explorer -- were flagged as "unwanted". The default scanning options seem scrutinous enough for most people.
Most of the program's features are familiar territory: firewall, live protection, email scanning, parental protection, and a backup utility (the latter mostly eclipsed by the native functionality in Windows 7). There's little which really stands out, save for a feature or two. I liked the option that prevents a common malware trick, the unwarranted termination of other processes--e.g., killing Windows Update.
The program's interface also has your choice of standard or expert-level options, the former of which filters out most of the stuff that doesn't need to be tweaked for everyday use. There's also evidence some of the engineers over at Avira have a sense of humor: when a file scan is in progress, the window that appears is named "Luke Filewaker." But let's face it, a program like this needs more than a sense of humor.
Avira's at-a-glance interface lets you know what needs attention.
G Data InternetSecurity 2012
G Data Software, Inc.
Starts at $34.95 (1 PC/year)
Pros: Built to avoid hogging system resources
Cons: Optional components aren't as vital
Rating (1-5): 4.0
Here's another suite which I knew nothing about before starting this review, but which I plan to keep an eye on--not just for its remarkably low price but also for its solid feature set.
G Data seems to have been built with a good deal of attention towards considerate use of system resources. The program features two separate virus scanning engines: one which scans more intensely but at the risk of slowing your system, and another which imposes less of a load but is less rigorous.
Both are active by default, but you can choose which ones are used in both manual and automatic scans. Scanning can also be automatically paused during high system load -- a nice way to keep the program from interfering with things like major file-copying operations or CPU-intensive work.
Even the program's updater has been put together with some thought toward how to accommodate the user's behavior. Updates can be fetched every x hours (the default setting is one hour), daily, or whenever an Internet connection is newly established. This last option makes the most sense for notebooks.
For additional background scanning, G Data includes a screensaver that runs malware scans whenever your system is idle, but you can always replace this with your own conventional screensaver if you don't want it.
G Data has a couple of optional components that can be set up at install time -- a clutch of parental-controls options, and a data shredder tool. The latter doesn't seem any different from standalone programs like Eraser, and in fact has far fewer options than that program. The former lets you define both sites to blacklist or whitelist, as well as provide timeouts for both Internet and computer usage by the week, month, or day of the week.
Custom block/allow web filters can also be created, based on keywords in the URL, page title, metadata or document body, although you'll want to craft these to be as specific as possible to avoid overzealous blocking. (You can also manually whitelist sites to avoid this problem.)
The vast majority of the default settings need no tweaking. The firewall, for instance, is set by default in "autopilot mode," where the user is never queried about creating firewall rules for applications. Instead, G Data performs its own heuristics to determine what should be allowed access. An experienced user can switch to manual mode and set up rules on his own, but autopilot seems to work fine for most everyday activity.
I was surprised, in a good way, when G Data complained about my wireless network's security, since I use WPA2-PSK encryption, which is about as good as it gets for a home setup. Apparently G Data felt my password was sufficiently insecure, and gave me suggestions on how to improve it.
G Data includes a tool for building a Linux boot CD (or a bootable flash drive, if you have the know-how). Boot it and you'll be taken to a self-contained system-scan tool, a good way to manually mop up after an infection if you're reluctant to do that from within a potentially infected system.
G Data's dual-engine scanning technology, hinted at in its main status window, allow you to balance scanning speed against protection.
ESET's rising reputation is entirely deserved: they've created a solid, fleet-footed program that does its job and stays out of the user's way. G Data's suite is also impressive, equally unobtrusive and with some good thought put toward protecting users systems without hogging their system resources. Avira's suite, though promising, needs more polish in parts of both its interface and user-interaction behaviors before it can really shine.