Centurion SmartShield Plus Antivirus (2022)


  • Pros

    Virtualizes all changes to file system and Registry, wipes them out on reboot. Can exempt work folders from virtualization. Antivirus aims to protect when virtualization is off. Simple user interface.

  • Cons Mode change requires reboot. Must unlock to update Windows and apps. Antivirus component not effective.
  • Bottom Line

    With SmartShield Plus Antivirus on the job, any malware infestations, even ransomware attacks, vanish upon reboot. However, the antivirus component, which aims to protect you when the virtualization system is off, needs work.

By Neil J. Rubenking Picture this: Your computer is unusable because all your files have been encrypted, and the ransomware that did the dirty deed demands 300 euros, or else it will throw away the encryption key. What a nightmare! Wouldn't it be great if your antivirus would let you go back in time, before that nasty ransomware attack?Well, that's precisely what Centurion Technologies's SmartShield Plus Antivirus ($39.99 per year) does. It does a fine job rolling back system changes, but the antivirus component needs to step up its game.

SmartShield's essential Drive Locking component runs in three modes: Unlocked, Work, and Locked. When it's in Unlocked mode, it's not doing anything; your only protection is the antivirus module. In Locked mode, it virtualizes absolutely every change to the file system and Registry, but responds to all programs as if those changes were real. When you reboot the system, all of those virtual changes vanish, as if they never existed.

Of course, if some of those "changes" were files representing your homework, or edits to the latest chapter of your novel, you don't want to obliterate them. The handy Work mode behaves exactly like Locked mode, except that it refrains from virtualizing the folders you specify. In the ransomware scenario mentioned above, rebooting would get rid of the malware but retain your work.

Educational Installation
To get started, you'll download and launch the 32-bit or 64-bit edition of the program. You'll need a license key to complete the installation; there's no free trial. You'll also create a password to protect your settings. The installer warns that if you forget this password it can't be recovered. That worried me; could you be locked into a Groundhog Day scenario, never able to make changes that would last past a reboot? My contacts at Centurion reassured me that their support team can restore the system to normal.

After the necessary reboot, the installer launches a quick guide to the program's features. This guide presents an explanation of the three functional modes. You use Unlocked to install programs and Windows updates. Work mode is for working, like it sounds, so the files you create and edit will be saved, but not any unwanted changes. And Locked mode is for just surfing the web, letting someone else use your computer, testing software, and so on.

Just to make sure you get the point, the guide offers a simple visual showing when your data and other changes do and don't get past the shield. It winds up with a detailed chart of how specific actions work in each mode. Whether you learn best by reading descriptions, seeing diagrams, or perusing charts, one of these pages will surely bring you to SmartShield enlightenment.

Drive Locking Settings
The program's pastel-decorated main window clearly identifies the current working mode. You can tweak a slider to change the mode, but actually implementing the change requires a reboot. SmartShield clearly shows the current mode and the mode that will be active after reboot.

By default, ten folders are identified as exceptions in Work mode. They are: Desktop, Documents, Pictures, Music, Videos, Saved Games, Downloads, Contacts, Searches, and Links. You can remove any of these, or add an arbitrary folder, for any user or for all users.

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SmartShield stores all of the virtualized system changes in one big file. Clicking Advanced Settings lets you change the size of this file, though you can't shrink it below the specified minimum. Naturally you can only resize this file and redefine which folders are exceptions when you're running in Unlocked mode.

Other Avenues
VoodooSoft VoodooShield 2.0 also aims to prevent harm by malicious programs, but it takes a very different approach. In Locked mode, it prevents execution of every unknown program, period. And it enters Locked mode automatically when you're online or when you have a USB drive mounted. It does include an option to sandbox unknown files. That's a kind of virtualization, but unlike SmartShield's virtualization system, VoodooShield's interfered with execution of many programs.

Anti-Executable 5.0 also blocks execution of any files not on its whitelist. However, Anti-Executable is significantly more complicated to use than VoodooShield.

The product most similar to SmartShield is Quietzone. Like SmartShield, it's simple to operate, and it virtualizes all system changes except in user-specified work directories. It doesn't have separate Locked and Work modes, but it does let you start virtualizing without a reboot. You still have to reboot to revert changes.

Some Limitations
Of course, if a data-stealing Trojan infests your system and sends your nude selfies to Elbonia, rebooting won't recall that data. Emails that you sent while in Locked mode don't vanish. Only changes to files and Registry items that remain on your computer can be wiped out, and this is true of any protection-by-virtualization product.

It's worth noting that the virtualization system has a maximum capacity. Most users won't ever overload the system, especially those who reboot frequently. I demonstrated for myself (and confirmed with Centurion) that overloading SmartShield can cause serious file system problems. If you encounter any odd error messages while copying or creating files, just reboot and the problem should vanish.

Silent Antivirus
You have to reboot into Unlocked mode any time you want to install a new program, get program updates, or update Windows. While you're in this mode, any malware that manages to slip onto your system can install itself and otherwise make permanent system changes. SmartShield's antivirus component, powered by Cyren, aims to protect your system while it's vulnerable. Unfortunately, it doesn't do a very good job.

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None of the labs I follow include SmartShield, and only a few test Cyren's technology. West Coast Labs and ICSA Labs certify Cyren for virus detection. Virus Bulletin includes Cyren in testing, but it doesn't do well. Cyren participated in nine of the last dozen tests by Virus Bulletin and only received VB100 certification in two of those. That's not much to go on.

When I opened the folder containing my current set of malware samples, SmartShield's antivirus component silently wiped out 43 percent of them. I proceeded to launch the surviving samples; the antivirus did nothing. On the plus side, a ransomware sample that forced a reboot effectively committed suicide—after reboot, not a single trace from any of the malware samples remained.

SmartShield doesn't add any browser plug-ins and doesn't attempt to block access to malware-hosting URLs. I ran my usual malicious URL blocking test regardless, expecting I would see the antivirus component quarantine the downloaded malicious executables. Of the 100 malware samples I downloaded, 99 came through unscathed. The one outlier repeatably caused a Windows error message; it couldn't be copied to the Downloads folder. I suspect SmartShield had a hand in that, though nothing appeared in the Quarantine list or logs.

You may notice the absence of my usual lab tests and malware blocking charts. I'm not treating this product as a regular antivirus; that's not its aim. The antivirus component just serves to limit what malware can do between reboots.

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The developers at Centurion are looking at using a different antivirus partner for the next version. Based on my experience, that's a very good idea. For now, you're better installing without the antivirus (that's an option) and using one of the better free antivirus utilities for protection between reboots. Don't just layer another antivirus on top of SmartShield's; you don't want dueling antivirus utilities. And remember that you need to switch to Unlocked mode to update the antivirus. You might also consider Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus (2015)$19.99 at Webroot; its behavior-based detection system makes it less reliant on updates than most.

Virtualization Works
With SmartShield Plus Antivirus installed, you can undo any harm caused by malware with a simple reboot. This can be useful for anyone, but especially on a shared or public computer. You do need to stop relying on Sleep mode; if you don't reboot regularly, SmartShield can't help. And don't rely on it for antivirus protection when the virtualization system is turned off. I look forward to SmartShield's next version; what I hear from the developers sounds quite promising.

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