You might expect that a free antivirus company would offer basic protection for free, but reserve advanced bonus features for the paid edition. However, in the real world, many of the most popular free antivirus tools pack full-scale protection along with a ton of extra features. Avast Free Antivirus gives you more than many competing commercial products. On top of excellent antivirus protection, it adds a network security scanner, a password manager, browser protection, and more. It’s an amazing collection of security features, considering that this product is free.
Avast acquired rival free antivirus company AVG in 2016. Fans of both companies can rest easy; there’s no plan to merge them into a single product. Both have many thousands of users worldwide, but each is strong in geographical areas where the other isn’t. And the underlying antivirus engine is exactly the same in Avast and AVG AntiVirus Free, as demonstrated in my tests and independent lab tests.
This product is only free for personal use. In the past, those wishing to use Avast in a business setting had to upgrade to Avast Pro Antivirus. Currently, Avast is de-emphasizing the Pro product; it didn’t get an upgrade with the rest of the product line. When you try to use a Pro-only feature in the free antivirus, the product advises that you upgrade to the Avast Internet Security suite.
During installation, Avast offers to install Google Chrome and to install the Google Toolbar in your other browsers. Unless you opt out, the toolbar makes Google your default search engine, but it doesn’t take over your home page. The installer also presents a full page devoted to explaining how Avast uses your nonpersonal data, and how you can opt out if you wish.
The biggest part of Avast’s main window is a slate-gray rectangle with a bit of texture, decorated with a status icon and a big button titled Run Smart Scan. A left-rail menu lets you switch from the main Status page to Protection, Privacy, or Performance. Across the bottom, you find a banner offering you a welcome gift. Unwrapping the virtual gift reveals a discounted upgrade to Avast Internet Security. If you reject the upgrade, it offers a 60-day trial. Avast really wants you to experience the suite!
One of this product’s features needs special mention, because it’s virtually invisible. If you install another antivirus with Avast already on the system, it automatically goes into Passive Mode. To avoid conflicts, it disables all real-time scanning and other active protection. You can still launch scans manually. There’s precedent for this behavior—Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center does something similar.
Lab Scores High and Plentiful
It may seem counterintuitive, but antivirus makers typically pay for the privilege of having products included in testing by the independent labs. The companies do benefit from testing, in two ways. A high score gives the company bragging rights, while if the score is poor, the lab helps the company improve by reporting what went wrong. When the antivirus doesn’t bring in any income, a company might be tempted to skip the expense of testing. Not Avast. I follow four independent testing labs that regularly release reports on their results; all four of them include both Avast and AVG.
The analysts at AV-Comparatives perform a variety of security tests, of which I follow four. Products that do well enough to pass the test receive a Standard rating, while those that show advanced features and capabilities can rate Advanced or Advanced+.
Out of the four tests, AVG and Avast both earned three Advanced+ ratings and one Advanced. That’s quite good, though Bitdefender Antivirus Plus took Advanced+ in all four tests.
AV-Test Institute reports on antivirus capabilities in three areas: protection, performance, and usability. With six points possible in each category, the maximum score is 18 points. Avast got all six points for usability, meaning it didn’t screw up by flagging valid programs or websites as malicious, and earned six more points for malware protection. It came close in performance, with 5.5 points. AVG precisely matched that score.
A total of 17.5 points is high enough for AV-Test to designate Avast a Top Product. Avira, Bitdefender, Kaspersky Free, and Vipre managed a perfect 18 points.
Trying to emulate real-world conditions as closely as possible, the experts at SE Labs capture drive-by downloads and other web-based attacks, relying on a replay system to hit each tested product with the exact same attack. The very best products receive AAA certification; others may be certified at the AA, A, B, or C level. Like AVG, Avast received AA certification.
Quite a few products managed AAA certification in the latest test from SE Labs. Among them were Norton, Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security, and Microsoft Windows Defender.
MRG-Effitas reports test results a bit differently from the other labs. Products that don’t manage perfect or near-perfect protection simply fail. Avast passed the banking Trojans test, and achieved Level 2 certification in the all-types malware protection test, meaning that it let at least one attacker install, but remediated the problem within 24 hours. AVG also received Level 2 certification, but the lab didn’t include AVG in the banking Trojans test.
Of the many antivirus products I track, 10 don’t appear in results from any of the labs. AVG and Avast are among the impressive 10 featured in all four lab reports. I use an algorithm that normalizes all the results to a 10-point scale and produces an aggregate score from 0 to 10. The aggregate score of 9.4 points for these two free antivirus products is impressive; only a few have done better. Bitdefender is at the top, with 10 of 10 points, and Kaspersky runs close behind with 9.9 points. Avira Antivirus made a decent showing, with an aggregate score of 9.1 points based on results from all four labs.
Very Good Malware Protection
Malicious software from the Internet has to run the gauntlet of numerous defense layers before it can infect your PC. Avast could block all access to the malware-hosting URL, for example, or wipe out the malware payload before the download finishes—I’ll discuss those malware protection layers shortly. If a file is already present on your computer, as my malware samples are, Avast assumes it must have gotten past the earlier protection layers. Like AVG, Emsisoft, McAfee, and a few others, it checks those files one more time before they execute.
To test Avast’s malware-blocking chops, I opened a folder containing my current collection of malware samples and tried to launch each one. Avast blocked about three quarters of them immediately, wiping them out so fast it left Windows displaying an error message reporting that the file could not be found. It killed off most of those that managed to launch before they could fully install. I tested AVG simultaneously, with precisely the same results.
Both products detected 89 percent of the samples and scored 8.9 of 10 possible points. That’s not bad, but Cylance, F-Secure Anti-Virus, Norton, and McAfee share the top spot, with 9.3 points.
When tested with my previous malware collection, Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus earned a perfect 10 points. Given that the samples were different, I can’t make a direct comparison with more recent tests, but a perfect score is impressive.
On detecting a file that’s completely unfamiliar, Avast prevents that file from launching and sends it to Avast headquarters for analysis. Avast quite reasonably found one of my hand-coded analysis tools suspicious, so it killed the process, triggering a Windows error message. To show it wasn’t really an error, Avast attached a CyberCapture tab to the error message.
Unusual activity by few other files merited deeper examination. Avast displayed a message stating, “Hang on, this file may contain something bad,” and promising an evaluation within 15 seconds. All my hand-coded testing utilities triggered this warning; all three got a clean bill of health. AVG offers precisely the same protection for unknown and suspicious files.
The samples I use for the malware blocking test stay the same for months. To evalute each product’s ability to deal with the very latest malware, I start with a feed of malware-hosting URLs supplied by MRG-Effitas. I try to launch each one in Internet Explorer, recording whether the antivirus blocked access to the URL, vaporized the malware download, or totally failed to notice anything wrong.
I test URL after URL until I’ve recorded data for 100 verified malware-hosting URLs, then tally the results. Avast blocked access to about 60 percent of the URLs and eliminated almost another 30 percent at the download stage, for a total of 91 percent protection; AVG turned in identical results. That’s pretty good, but quite a few products have done even better. Symantec Norton AntiVirus Basic and Bitdefender share the top score, 99 percent protection, with McAfee and Trend Micro close behind at 97 percent.
Excellent Phishing Protection
Phishing websites are significantly easier to create than websites that secretively launch malware attacks. All they do is create a convincing replica of a sensitive site, perhaps a bank, or PayPal, and broadcast links to that fake site around the Web. Any user who logs in, not recognizing that the page is fake, has just given account access to the fraudsters. If a thousand web surfers spot the fraud and just one falls for it, that’s a win for the bad guys. And when the authorities quash the fraudulent site, the fraudsters just pop up another one.
I test antiphishing using the very newest phishing sites, preferably ones that haven’t yet been fully analyzed and blacklisted. I launch each probable phishing URL in four browsers. The product under test protects one of the browsers, naturally. The other three rely on protection built into Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. As with my other hands-on tests, I challenged Avast and AVG at the same time.
Any schmoe can write a phishing protection module that blocks blacklisted sites. The best products use real-time analysis to identify frauds that are too new for the blacklists. Avast clearly has this capability; the company touts its enhanced real-time phishing detection technologies. In testing, it proved quite effective.
With an impressive 98 percent detection of phishing frauds, Avast joins an elite group with top scores in this test. Trend Micro, ZoneAlarm, and AVG also managed 98 percent. Bitdefender weighed in with 99 percent, while both Kaspersky and McAfee AntiVirus Plus managed a perfect 100 percent detection.
If you just click the big button in the middle of Avast’s Status screen, it runs a Smart Scan. Its features overlap the Computer Scan in AVG, in that it checks browser add-ons, scans for active malware, and identifies performance issues. But Avast also checks for network security problems, flags software that lacks security patches, and warns about weak passwords. The scan finished in less than ten minutes on my test system. It found several vulnerable apps and, at my request, updated them. It flagged a network problem; more about the network scan below. And, like AVG, it found performance problems but wouldn’t fix them unless I updated to the premium cleanup product.
Clicking Scan on the Protection page gets you more choices. The Full Virus Scan took a bit over two hours on my standard clean test system. That’s about the same time as AVG’s Deep Scan took, and it’s well over twice the current average of 50 minutes. I recommend running that full scan at least once soon after installation, to root out any existing malware. After that, the product’s real-time protection layers should fend off any further attacks.
Like AVG, Avast offers a boot time scan, designed to eliminate pernicious and persistent malware that resists normal cleanup. Because the scan runs before Windows boots up, the Windows-based malware doesn’t have any chance to defend itself. AVG’s boot scan requires installation on first use, while Avast’s is ready to go out of the box. With either product, you should set aside plenty of time for the scan. Note that Bitdefender’s Rescue Mode reboots in a non-Windows operating system for even more power against Windows-centered malware.
Avast was one of the first security products to add a network security scanner to its product line. Despite “Wi-Fi” in its name, the Wi-Fi Inspector can report on all the devices connected to any network, wired or wireless, and flag devices with security problems.
On my test system, the scan ran quickly and displayed my devices in a series of concentric rings, with the router at the center and the devices that connected most recently in the inner circles. Avast reported a problem with the Wi-Fi router, flagging its password as weak. When I repeated the test on a wired network, it warned that the HTTPS port on the main router was visible from the Internet (a necessary configuration setting for my Network Attached Storage backup device).
Avast does its best to identify each device by name and type, but it can’t always get that information. If you have some network skills, you may be able to identify a device from its IP address and MAC address. You can change the type of any device to any of five dozen choices, among them security sensor, head mounted display, and hand-held gaming console. You can also change the name to something more recognizable than, say, Unknown70259bb1f4e. And Avast remembers your changes for future scans.
Avira users can install Avira Home Guard from the main Avira launcher; it works very much like the Wi-Fi Inspector. Bitdefender Home Scanner is another similar (and free) network security scanner, one that goes into more depth about possible security problems.
Simple Password Manager
Password management is an unexpected feature for a free antivirus, though Avira offers Avira Password Manager as a companion to its free product. Avast Password Manager handles all the basic functions, and does them well, but that’s as far as it goes.
To get started, you activate the password manager as an extension in Chrome and Firefox. Next, you create a master password that will protect all your website passwords. Avast no longer offers advice on the construction of a strong password, so be sure to choose something that you can remember, but that nobody else would guess.
In either supported browser, Avast offers to save the login credentials you enter for secure sites. When you revisit a website, it fills in your saved credentials. If you have multiple accounts on the site, you can click a little key icon in the username field to get a menu of all your choices. And it does handle Gmail and other two-page logins.
With many password managers, clicking the toolbar icon gets a menu of logins. Avast works differently. If you’ve saved one or more sets of credentials for the current site, it displays those in a popup window. If that’s not what you want, there’s a link to open the app. From the same window, you can invoke the password generator, which creates 15-character passwords using letters and digits (but not punctuation) by default.
In the app, you can edit your saved passwords to give them a friendly name. You can also add Secure Notes and Credit Card details. When you visit a web form that asks for credit card data, you click the Avast key icon to fill in the card of your choice. In addition, you can sync password data to Avast’s iOS or Android apps.
Avast isn’t much help if you’re switching from another password manager. It can import passwords stored in Chrome or Firefox, but that’s it. There’s no import from competing products, or even from plain CSV files. In addition, the password manager no longer reports on weak or duplicate passwords.
Some password management features hide behind a paywall, with a list price of $1.58 per month, currently discounted to $0.99 per month. Paying customers get tech support on a 24/7 basis, receive an immediate alert on detection of a password leak, and can log into the mobile apps with a fingerprint. These aren’t very impressive as premium features. Truly advanced features like two-factor authentication and secure password sharing just don’t appear. If you want more from a password manager, you’re probably better off adding a separate free password manager.
Avast Online Security
Like the password manager, the Avast Online Security extension installs in Chrome and Firefox. If you don’t see it, dig into settings; I found that I had to enable the extension manually. Note that the similar AVG Web TuneUp is no longer installed as part of AVG’s free antivirus.
Online Security marks up your search results in popular search portals. Green means all clear, red means stay away, and gray means the site hasn’t yet been analyzed. You can click the toolbar icon to give a simple thumbs-up or down to the current page.
If Online Security detects any advertising trackers or other trackers on the current site, it displays how many it found as a number overlaid on the icon. Clicking the icon gets you a summary of found social media, advertising, and web analytics trackers. You can dig in for details and block some or all trackers on the current site or automatically block all trackers on all sites.
You won’t easily see the SiteCorrect feature in action. It kicks in when you misspell a popular domain name, steering you away from typosquatting sites that try to capture your clicks.
Online Security also watches out for dangerous and fraudulent websites. However, this feature is less important now that Avast filters out such sites before they even reach the browser.
Bonus and Premium Features
Software is created by humans, and hence imperfect. White hat and black hat hackers are constantly finding security holes, and security companies strive to patch them as soon as possible. If you fail to apply security updates, you leave your computer open to attacks that exploit those holes. Avast’s Software Updater scans your computer and reports any out-of-date software it finds. You can click a link to find out what changed in each product, or click a button to install the updates. If you try to turn on automatic updates, you learn that this is a feature of the paid security suite.
Avast’s Driver Updater promises to reduce crashes by updating old and broken drivers. It installs the first time you try to use it. On my test system, it found exactly one outdated driver. I clicked to replace the antique driver…and ran into a paywall, hidden behind several layers of other windows. Boo!
Avast Cleanup Premium is a bit more honest; you know right away that it’s a premium-only feature. Oh, it happily scans your system for performance problems, but if you want to do anything about those problems, you must shell out for a subscription.
At least you don’t have to pay for Do Not Disturb mode. This kind of feature is becoming very common in antivirus products. When it’s active, the antivirus postpones scheduled scans and suspends all but the most critical notifications. Many products automatically switch to Do Not Disturb when you launch a full-screen program. As with the similar feature in AVG, Avast requires that you list the programs for which you want Do Not Disturb mode active.
Like the similar feature in AVG, the SafePrice add-on helps you find the best prices when you’re shopping online. Just click its toolbar icon to see what details it found. It also offers coupons, when available.
On the Privacy page you’ll find a link for Avast SecureLine VPN. This one isn’t precisely a premium feature, in that it lets you use the VPN in trial mode for 60 days. But after that you’ll have to pony up $1.99 per month.
Have you ever noticed those ads that seem to follow you from site to site? Advertisers track your web surfing and preferences, so you can’t escape. Or can you? AntiTrack Premium apparently supplements the Do Not Track protection found in Avast Online Security. Unlike most of the other premium features, you don’t even get a peek at what this one does until you subscribe.
You’ve seen that some apparent features of the free antivirus aren’t free; when you try to use them, you get a prompt to pay for an additional subscription. For quite a few other features, there’s no confusion at all. The component’s icon on the Protection or Privacy page displays a lock icon, and clicking any of those icons instructs you to update to Avast Internet Security.
On the Protection page, locked icons include: Firewall, to keep hackers out of your system; Sandbox, to run suspicious files without risk; Real Site, website confirmation beyond detection of phishing frauds; and Ransomware Shield. This last item deserves some explanation. Avast’s regular behavior-based detection should catch ransomware just as it does other types of malware. On the off-chance it might slip up, Ransomware Shield bans unauthorized modification of your documents and other sensitive files.
There are also several Pro-only privacy features. You must upgrade to get the secure deletion Data Shredder (AVG gives you this feature at the free level). The Sensitive Data Shield scans your documents for sensitive data that could be vulnerable to exfiltration, and helps you protect it. And the Webcam Shield offers a degree of spyware protection by limiting webcam use to known, trusted programs. If these features seem intriguing, you may want to consider Avast’s full security suite.
An Excellent Free Antivirus
Avast Free Antivirus offers antivirus protection that earns good scores in my hands-on tests and very good scores from the independent testing labs. As for bonus features, it offers much more than many competing commercial products. Yes, some of the bonus features require a separate purchase, but that’s a relatively minor point. Avast remains an Editors’ Choice product for free antivirus.
The base antivirus engine in AVG Antivirus Free is exactly the same as Avast’s, but AVG just doesn’t offer the wealth of additional security features that you get with Avast. Go ahead and try it if you like, but we’re no longer calling it an Editors’ Choice.
Kaspersky Free is our other Editor’s Choice free antivirus. Where Avast gets very good ratings from the four independent labs that I follow, Kaspersky gets the very best marks. It comes with a bandwidth-limited VPN, but not many other frills. The key with Kaspersky is getting antivirus protection loved by the labs without any cost.