Founded in 1988, Avast Software has grown into an antivirus giant which claims to be number one in the consumer security market, with more than 435 million monthly active users worldwide.
Avast Free Antivirus is a capable tool which provides all the core antivirus essentials for Windows, Android and Mac. Real-time detection picks up known threats as they appear, web filtering blocks access to dangerous links, and unknown files are analyzed in the cloud to spot the very latest malware. And even if all that fails, Avast's behavior monitoring can detect and alert you to any process carrying out malware-like actions.
Unlike some of the competition, the package doesn't have any hidden restrictions or limits designed to make you upgrade. There are no third-party ads, it doesn't have fewer antivirus updates or do anything else to weaken your security.
If you need more power at a later date, Avast Internet Security adds plenty of valuable security layers: a firewall, spam filter, extra ransomware protection, a secure DNS system and a sandbox to more safely run suspect apps. It's yours from £49.99 ($70) a year for a one computer, one-year licence.
The Avast website has a fair amount of information about what its free product can do, and a comparison table clearly highlights key differences with its commercial cousins. Spend a couple of minutes browsing and most people should have an idea whether the program is right for them, and if you're tempted, the Avast Free Antivirus installer can be downloaded with a click.
If you're tired of bloated antivirus packages installing pointless extras, you'll love the control you get with Avast products. Choose the Custom Installation option and you're able to browse 14 separate Avast modules and apps to decide what you want to install, and what you really don't. It's a welcome approach which we'd love to see adopted by other antivirus packages.
Some antivirus installers demand that you remove competing products, but Avast offers a little more flexibility. If it detects another antivirus package on your PC it will install itself in Passive Mode, essentially turning off real-time protection but still allowing you to run scans and use other program features. This works well, in our experience, but if you're happy to risk antivirus conflicts, you can turn off Passive Mode and see if your antivirus apps will work together.
Competing software aside, there were no other installation hassles. In particular, we didn't have to register, create an account or follow any of the other made-up procedures companies typically use as an excuse to get your details. The closest the installer got was an offer to send us a download link for the Android client if we handed over our email address, but this was clearly optional and we ignored it without any problems at all.
Avast Free Antivirus has a lot of features – more than some commercial products – but it does its best to keep them out of your way, at least initially. At a minimum you can just launch the app, click Smart Scan and watch as it automatically checks your PC for malware, missing software patches, dubious browser extensions and performance issues.
While this sounds great, there's an immediate problem. Although Avast can check for and report performance-related problems like broken Registry keys and space-hogging junk files, this can make for a much longer scan time, and the standard Free Antivirus can't fix these issues, anyway. Ask the app to resolve any problems and all it does is offer to install a trial of Avast's commercial Cleanup software.
Fortunately, this is easily fixed. Head off to the Settings dialog and you'll find a huge number of tweaks and options, including the ability to decide exactly what you want the Smart Scan to do. Clear one checkbox and Avast Free won't scan for performance issues in future.
Another option is to head off to the Scans dialog, where Avast provides options to scan specific folders or drives, your entire system, or to run a scan at the next reboot, before Windows starts.
Experts can also set up and schedule custom scans which carry out the precise actions the user defines. You're able to choose the areas to scan and exclude, file types to check, archive formats to expand, actions to perform, and more.
You can schedule these tasks to run automatically, too, so you could perhaps set up a full check to run every day, with speedy and more basic scans running every few hours. Anyone who likes to fine-tune their security will appreciate the control on offer.
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Avast's web filtering abilities are mostly handled by its browser extensions. The Chrome add-on worked well for us, highlighting dangerous links in our search results and alerting us to problems if we clicked on malicious links elsewhere.
Bonus features start with Avast's excellent Wi-Fi Inspector. This powerful tool starts by scanning your local network and reporting on any connected devices and their types, which is handy as a way to see who else might be using your Wi-Fi. Each device is checked for security issues such as weak passwords and poorly configured network settings, with Wi-Fi Inspector highlighting any issues and recommending what to do next.
Software Updater is a simple but effective module which scans commonly exploited software for missing updates, and offers to download and install them for you. Supported applications include Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Java, Flash, Adobe Reader and Adobe Air, and we found Software Updater was able to download and silently install any required updates with a click.
Game Mode automatically turns off Avast notifications and boosts your game process priority to optimize performance. Despite the name, it doesn't just work with games – you can use it with any application.
The Avast interface also has icons for many other tools, including the firewall and sandbox, which aren't available in the free version, and ask you to upgrade if you select them. This can initially be annoying, but most are marked with a padlock to indicate they're not available, and it doesn't take long to realize which features you can use, and which you can't.
If you have any problems with how Avast works, heading off to the Settings dialog reveals an extensive range of options and tweaks. These include the ability to turn off irritating audio alerts, have scan reports emailed to your chosen address, decide how and when Avast updates are allowed, plus you can password-protect areas of Avast to prevent others tinkering with your settings. And if the program is seriously misbehaving, it’s possible to restore factory defaults to bring Avast back to a known working state.
Novices should leave most, if not all, of these settings alone, but more experienced users will find they get an unusual and very welcome degree of fine control over Avast Free and its actions.
The huge popularity of Avast Free Antivirus means it's included by default in just about every testing lab report, which is very useful when you're trying to assess how accurate it might be.
AV-Test's February 2018 Home User report shows Avast doing very well, blocking 100% of sample threats and raising fewer false alarms than average.
The report suggests it may slow down some actions more than usual, but not by enough that you're likely to notice any difference. For example, its figures could mean an application launch which takes 5 seconds without antivirus, and 5.3 seconds with an average antivirus app, might increase to 5.5 seconds with Avast. Hardly a deal breaker.
Avast doesn't do quite as well at AV-Comparatives, where the last summary Real-World Protection report for July-November 2017 placed the company tenth out of 21 with a 99.5% detection rate. That's not bad, though, and it's broadly comparable with many other big-name companies (Kaspersky and Avira rated 99.7%, ESET managed 99% and McAfee scored 98.9%).
SE Labs uses its own custom scoring system, but this also gives Avast a decent mid-range placing of fifth out of 13. That's just behind products from Norton, Kaspersky, ESET and Avira, and ahead of Trend Micro, F-Secure and Bitdefender.
Each lab has its own testing procedure and there are always variations in results, but the broad picture is clear. Avast Free Antivirus may not quite match the market leaders, but it does deliver quality protection that effortlessly outperforms many commercial products.
A powerful antivirus which offers solid all-round protection. Experienced users in particular will appreciate its lengthy feature list and the fine control they get over how the package works.
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