ESET NOD32 Antivirus: Way Beyond the Essential
PC Magazine|December 2021
An effective antivirus for the tech-savvy
NEIL J. RUBENKING

The core task for every antivirus utility is to exterminate any malware infestations that took root before its installation and then maintain vigilance to prevent any further attacks. Some products stick to those essential activities, while others, like ESET NOD32 Antivirus, go quite a bit beyond them. Among other bonus features, NOD32 includes a Host Intrusion Prevention System, a scanner for your PC’s firmware, and an elaborate device control system. It scores well in most tests, both lab tests and our hands-on tests, but it did turn in a few poor scores. In addition, some of its advanced features may be too complex for the average user.

HOW MUCH DOES NOD32 COST?

A NOD32 subscription costs $39.99 per year. Each additional license adds $10 per year. Kaspersky, Bitdefender Antivirus Plus, Webroot, and quite a few others come in at or near that $39.99 price for one license. McAfee costs $59.99 per year, but that lets you install McAfee protection on every device in your household, including devices running Windows, macOS, Android, or iOS. It’s not immediately obvious, but a NOD32 subscription offers its own kind of cross-platform security: You can use your licenses to activate an installation of ESET Cyber Security for Mac, if you wish.

GETTING STARTED WITH NOD32

Just about every antivirus program includes the ability to detect and remove potentially unwanted applications (PUAs)—programs that, while not actively malicious, cause problems that outweigh any virtues they may have. Some default to removing these PUAs, while others leave them alone by default. NOD32 makes you actively choose whether to remove PUAs during installation. I enabled PUA detection, and I advise you to do the same.

The main window includes plenty of white space, along with a picture of ESET’s blue-eyed cyborg mascot. To launch a scan or an update, you can use either the left-side menu or a pair of large blue panels near the bottom of the window. If there’s a configuration problem, the green security banner changes color. When NOD32 needs your attention—to show the results of a completed scan, for example—you see the number of notifications next to the corresponding menu item.

Like Norton AntiVirus Plus, NOD32 gives you a ton of settings for tweaking its configuration. As with Norton, you don’t have to page through all those options to find the one you want—you can just start typing in the search box. This may not even be an issue, though, as the software’s default configuration is tuned for optimal security.

ESET NOD32 Antivirus

PROS

Some excellent scores from independent labs. Some good scores in our hands-on tests. HIPS component blocks exploits. Comprehensive device control.

CONS

Poor score in our hands-on malware blocking test. Device control is too complex for most users. Ransomware protection isn’t effective in testing.

BOTTOM LINE

In lab tests and our own hands-on tests, ESET NOD32 Antivirus earns some impressive scores. It also packs extras that go far beyond the antivirus basics, such as exploit protection and device control.

MOSTLY GOOD LAB RESULTS

Three of the four independent testing labs I follow include NOD32 in their testing, and its scores are mostly excellent. Tests by London-based MRG-Effitas are especially grueling. Out of a dozen products tested, only ESET, Bitdefender, and Norton pass both this lab’s tests in the latest round.

Experts at AV-Test Institute examine antivirus products for three important criteria. Protection is important, naturally, but so is a low impact on performance. Wrongly flagging valid programs as malicious is detrimental to a program’s usability. Antivirus tools can earn up to six points each for Protection, Performance, and Usability, for a maximum score of 18. Any antivirus that earns at least 17.5 points is named a Top Product. More than half the products in this lab’s latest test earn a perfect 18 points. Another quarter of the products, ESET among them, take 17.5 points.

At AV-Comparatives, testers don’t assign numeric scores. A product that passes any test receives Standard certification, while those that go beyond the minimum passing score can take Advanced or Advanced+ certification. In the three tests from this lab that I follow, NOD32 takes one Standard, one Advanced, and one Advanced+ rating. Bitdefender is the only product with Advanced+ in all three.

For each product that receives scores from at least two labs, my scoring algorithm maps all the results onto a 10-point scale and generates an aggregate lab score. ESET’s 9.3 aggregate score is decent, though not up to the 9.9 score it held when last reviewed. Among products tested by all four labs, Kaspersky Anti-Virus is the big winner, with an aggregate score of 9.9.

UNUSUAL SCAN CHOICES

I timed a full scan of my standard clean test system and found that NOD32 finished in just under half an hour. That’s quite a bit better than the current average of 66 minutes. During that initial scan, NOD32 also optimizes for subsequent scanning, marking known good programs that don’t require another look. A second scan finished in just four minutes.

NOD32 doesn’t offer the quick scan option found in many antivirus products, but it gives you several custom scanning choices. You can drop suspect files or folders on the scan page for a quick checkup. It offers to scan each removable drive you mount. From the custom scan menu you can scan memory, boot sectors, or any local or network drive.

The boot sector scan I mentioned also triggers NOD32’s UEFI scanner. UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) is what modern computers use instead of the antique BIOS. The UEFI scanner also runs in the background, making sure no malware has subverted your firmware. I have to assume it works, but I have no way to trigger its protection for testing purposes. Firmware protection is important. Any malware that weaseled into the firmware would have total control over your computer. One aim of the stringent security requirements for running Windows 11 is to protect the firmware and the entire boot process.

NOD32 can actively scan the WMI database. WMI (Windows Management Instrumentation) is best known to programmers as a source of system information. For example, my boot-time performance test for security suites queries WMI to get the start time of the boot process. The WMI scan looks for references to infected files within the database and for malware embedded as data. Likewise, the Registry scan checks for such references and embedded malware throughout the Registry. As with the UEFI scan, we have to take these activities on faith, as there’s no easy way to test them.

MIXED MALWARE PROTECTION SCORES

I’m always happy to have results reported by the independent labs, but not every product makes it into those reports. Even when results are available, I still run hands-on malware protection testing to see the product’s defenses in action.

When I opened the folder containing my current collection of malware samples, NOD32’s real-time protection gave them the once-over. But it eliminated only 32% of them at this point. That’s uncommonly low—most products score in the 80s or better. Adaware Antivirus Free impressively eliminated 90% of this same sample collection on sight, though it came up short in other areas.

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