Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5 review

Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5 cleaned up malware-infested test PCs with hardly a hitch, and turned in the best malware-blocking score among recent programs. It joins AVG as Editors' Choice for free antivirus.
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Ad-Aware originated in 1999 as a tool to warn users about “Web beacons”—tiny, invisible images used by advertisers to track online activities. It evolved into an antispyware tool and then into a full antivirus, capable of fighting all types of malware. The latest edition, Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5, turned in an impressive performance in PCMag’s own antivirus tests.

The previous Ad-Aware, version 10.0, was a thorough rewrite; I noted in my review that it felt more like a 1.0, with the concomitant glitches. Version 10.5 seems much more stable and didn’t exhibit the problems that caused me to downgrade the score of version 10.0.

Smooth Operator
When you launch the Ad-Aware installer, it downloads the very latest components, to ensure you don’t immediately have to update. It also downloads the latest antivirus definitions. Once you’ve rebooted, its protection is completely ready.

Ad-Aware installed without a hitch on ten of my twelve malware-infested test systems. Ransomware on one system hid the desktop, making it inaccessible, but tech support supplied advice that let me get Ad-Aware installed on this one.

Malware on another test system interfered with the installer’s ability to download fresh components, making installation impossible. Tech support supplied an alternate full-product installer that contains all components, with no need for downloading. That one installed just fine.

A couple of the test systems hung repeatedly during the clean-up phase after a full scan. Retrying the scan helped one of those; retrying in Safe Mode let the other one complete its cleanup. What a difference from version 10.0, which effectively “killed” one test system, making it unbootable. The current Ad-Aware gets five stars for ease of installation.

Good Malware Cleanup
On finishing a scan, Ad-Aware summarizes its results and offers a button to “Fix All Now.” Naturally I dug a bit deeper, opting to view the files it had found. I was pleased to see that the scanner defaults to Disinfect for virus-infected files; all too often antivirus products will simply quarantine those files. I let Ad-Aware take the recommended action for all found threats and then tallied the results.

Ad-Aware detected 83 percent of the threats, more than any other product tested with this current set of samples. Yes, you’ll see in the chart below that Emsisoft Anti-Malware 7.0 “with help” detected 86 percent, but it reached that detection level with hours and hours of work by tech support using over a dozen third-party tools. I can’t count that as a score earned by the product itself.

avast! Free Antivirus 8 only detected 75 percent of these samples, but due to more through cleanup of what it did find, it scored the same as Ad-Aware, 5.8 points. Emsisoft (without tech support help) also detected 75 percent, but came in with just 4.8 points.

Tested with my previous malware collection, AVG Anti-Virus FREE 2013 detected 87 percent and scored 6.5 points, just a hair below Norton AntiVirus (2013) and Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus 2013. Norton and Webroot are both Editors’ Choice products for overall antivirus protection.

In addition to the detection rate and overall score for each product, the chart below also offers a score for ease of installation. As noted, Ad-Aware gets five stars because it installed with hardly any help from tech support. AVG and avast! rated just two stars because of the huge amount of work needed to get them installed and fully functional. For details about my malware removal test, see How We Test Malware Removal.

Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5 malware removal chart

Impressive Malware Blocking
The real-time component in most antivirus products scans all files on any access, even the minimal access performed by Windows Explorer when it displays the filename in a folder. There are a few exceptions. For example, Emsisoft defaults to checking files only when they’re created, modified, or written. Ad-Aware definitely belongs to the scan-on-sight group, and its accuracy proved amazing.

When I opened a folder containing my current collection of malware samples, Ad-Aware got to work quarantining those it recognized. Within a couple minutes it had wiped out fully 94 percent of the samples, vastly more than any other product confronted with this same sample set. Avast! wiped out 78 percent on sight, as did mega-suite Kaspersky PURE 3.0 Total Security.

The few samples that made it past the initial cleanup installed without any hindrance from the rest of Ad-Aware’s real-time protection, leaving it with 94 percent detection rate and 9.4 points for malware blocking. That’s quite a bit better than the 8.5 points earned by Kaspersky PURE and avast! Looking at products tested with my previous collection, Webroot topped the list with 9.9 points, AVG scored 9.3, and only two other products beat Ad-Aware’s 9.4 points.

Ad-Aware always quarantines known malware on sight, but also includes the ability to manage “suspicious files” matching over a dozen behavioral categories. By default it quarantines such files. However, it apparently distinguishes truly suspicious files from valid files performing the same type of activity. I installed twenty old, unsigned PCMag utilities that definitely match some of the suspicious categories without any complaint from Ad-Aware, which is good.

A behavior-blocking feature in Emsisoft interfered with more than half of those samples. ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus + Firewall 2013 and Comodo Internet Security Premium (2013) also blocked both bad and good programs.

I also attempted to re-download the same malware collection, to see how Ad-Aware handles malicious URLs. It didn’t block any of the downloads at the URL level, but protection kicked in during the download to block 76 percent of the samples that were still present online. Overall Ad-Aware turned in an impressive performance in my malware blocking test. For a full description of the way I perform this test, see How We Test Malware Blocking.

Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5 malware blocking chart

Lab Results Minimal
I do like to refer to results from the independent testing labs, to see whether they jibe with my own tests. However, Lavasoft doesn’t participate in many tests. In the last several years Virus Bulletin has tested Ad-Aware twice and Lavasoft’s Total Security product twice, awarding VB100 certification three of those four times. Other products have done much better. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2013, for example, participated in all of the latest ten tests and received VB100 in all ten.

Researchers at German lab AV-Test have recently modified their real-world antivirus test. Previously products were rated on Protection, Repair, and Usability; now the criteria are Protection, Performance (previously included in Usability), and Usability, with a separate test in the works for Repair. A product can earn up to six points in each of the three categories. In order to receive certification, it needs a total of ten points, with at least one point in each category.

Ad-Aware passed handily with 13 points, but once again others have done much better. Bitdefender beat the rest with 17 of 18 possible points. 16 of the 25 other programs scored higher than Ad-Aware. For a description of the independent labs and their tests, see How We Interpret Antivirus Lab Tests

Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5 lab tests chart

Bonus Features
By default, during installation Ad-Aware sets your browsers to use the Lavasoft SecureSearch portal for your home page and as the default search engine. The toolbar offers fast access to search and includes a red or green banner reporting the current site as safe or unsafe.

My Ad-Aware contacts explained that the different Ad-Aware products have different levels of phishing protection, with additional protection in the suite products. Let’s hope the suites do test out better. In my standard antiphishing test, Ad-Aware’s detection rate came in 87 percentage points below Norton’s. I had to test dozens and dozens of recent phishing sites before even seeing Ad-Aware block a single one.

Ad-Aware also lagged 32 percentage points behind Internet Explorer 8′s SmartScreen Filter, joining the 70-odd percent of current security products that are less effective at detecting fraudulent sites than Internet Explorer alone. Fortunately, this isn’t a central feature for an antivirus product. For details on how I obtain very fresh phishing sites and test phishing protection, see the article How We Test Antiphishing.

Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5 antiphishing chart

The toolbar also includes a somewhat redundant button that brings up the browser’s browsing history deletion dialog, along with a potentially dangerous tool called Toolbar Cleaner.

The Toolbar Cleaner lists all of the plug-ins for all of your browsers and makes it super-easy to wipe them out. If you do, you’re in trouble. Next time you visit a website that needs Java, Flash, Silverlight, or any other common add-on, that site won’t work. And there’s no provision for restoring the add-ons you wiped out. In a similar fashion, it can wipe out all Startup program links, including Ad-Aware’s own. This component needs some re-thinking.

After installation, Ad-Aware will nag you to enable Identity Monitoring. It’s a free service, provided by partner ID Watchdog, but it’s fairly limited. Naturally once you sign up, you’re encouraged to upgrade to the $9.95/month premium service.

Impressive Improvement
I wasn’t terribly impressed with Ad-Aware’s version 10.0, but Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5 is looking much better. I encountered next to no installation problems, it did a good job in my malware removal test, and it did a better malware blocking job than any other product tested with my current collection of samples. Yes, its phishing protection could use work, but that’s just a bonus.

I’m impressed enough with Ad-Aware to make it Editors’ Choice for free antivirus, sharing that honor with AVG Anti-Virus FREE 2013. If free antivirus is what you need, give both of these a try and pick the one that suits you best.

Specifications
Tech Support Email, Ticket, Forum, Self-Serve, Live-Help & Toll-Free via Premium.
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8
Type Personal
Free Yes

Verdict
Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5 cleaned up malware-infested test PCs with hardly a hitch, and turned in the best malware-blocking score among recent programs. It joins AVG as Editors' Choice for free antivirus.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc