Avast Free Antivirus: Solid protection – and it’s free
Avast Free Antivirus has long been our favourite free security package. This is partly down to the excellent protection stats it has maintained over the years – and we’re happy to say that those haven’t slipped.
AV-Test found that the software achieved an excellent 99.4% protection rate against zero-day threats, and an even more impressive 99.9% against established malware. That’s a better performance than free rival AVG, and a long way ahead of Windows Defender. It even outpaces paid-for packages from BullGuard, Eset and McAfee.
Avast is one of the more pleasant packages to use, with the latest version offering a tasteful white and orange interface. Considering it’s free, the feature set isn’t bad either – although it isn’t as generous as the four-tab interface (divided into Scan, Tools, Passwords and Store) might initially suggest.
For starters, the Scan menu simply offers a range of options for launching specific types of scan, such as searching exclusively for viruses, network threats, browser add-ons, and so forth. To be fair, most packages offer such controls, but we’ve never seen the sense in scanning only for specific types of threat and ignoring others. In Avast’s case, the whole tab is superfluous: you can just press the orange “Smart Scan” button in the middle of the main page to scan for all issues at once, which took less than a minute on our mid-range laptop.
The Tools menu exposes further functions, including the option to create a bootable Rescue Disk (on a CD or USB flash drive) for cleaning up an infected PC. There’s also a shortcut to SafeZone, Avast’s Chromium-based safe browser that’s designed to be hard to hijack since it doesn’t allow extensions, and automatically blocks suspicious content. It can be launched from its desktop icon, too, if you want to make it your default browser. The optional Bank Mode runs SafeZone in an isolated environment, for extra protection against keyloggers and the like.
Avast’s third menu option – Passwords – offers a fully featured password manager, which presents the ability to synchronise credentials across multiple devices, as long as they’re all connected to your Avast account. You could always use a free service instead, but if you’re using Avast anyway then the integration has appeal. A Secure Notes feature lets you note down sensitive information that can only be accessed with your master password. We’re not sure you’ll really use this, but there’s no harm in having it.
So far so good, but as usual with free antivirus software, there’s a catch. In the case of Avast Free Antivirus, that manifests partly in the form of sporadic pop-ups urging you to upgrade to one of the company’s premium packages. Most notifications can be disabled in the Settings window (including the laughably prim voice alerts that trigger when malware is found), but these ones are unavoidable for free customers. If you simply ignore them, however, they go away on their own after 20 seconds.
The program also has an annoying habit of pushing you toward features that aren’t actually included in the free product. Case in point: after we’d carried out our first scan, the front page of the interface popped up a warning about “performance issues”: namely, unneeded files and programs, plus a few Registry settings that it reckoned could be tweaked for better performance. When we clicked to resolve these issues, a fresh window opened to reveal that optimisation features required a £15 annual subscription.
Similarly, in the Tools menu you’ll find the option to launch Avast’s SecureLine VPN – but click and you’ll discover that you get only a seven-day trial, after which it’s £45 a year. There are links for sandbox and firewall functions too: these don’t even offer you a trial, but rather bounce you directly to a purchase page for Avast Internet Security.
A final foible that’s specific to Avast is its impact on loading times. AV-Test found that websites opened and applications launched 23% more slowly with the software installed. It isn’t the end of the world, but it places Avast in the lower half of the pack.
While Avast Free Antivirus isn’t perfect, then, it remains the best option for those who don’t want to pay. Once you’ve figured out what’s included and what isn’t, you can leave it running in the background and enjoy exceptional protection. The occasional pop-up, and a tiny extra delay as programs or web pages open up, are a small price to pay.