avast! Free Antivirus 2014 review

avast! Free Antivirus 2014 boasts a newly streamlined user interface and some interesting new features. With 200 million users it's definitely a contender in the free antivirus space.
Photo of avast! Free Antivirus 2014

Silver is the traditional gift on a twenty-fifth anniversary, and Avast is one of the few antivirus companies that’s been around long enough to reach that milestone. The installer for avast! Free Antivirus 2014 celebrates the company’s silver anniversary status as well as the company’s 200 million users worldwide.

As part of the celebration, the product’s user interface has gotten a complete makeover. The main window reports security status and offers three big icons linking to important program features, plus a fourth marked “Add.” Click that last one to add your own favorite feature, or right-click any of the four to swap features you use most; nice!

The 2014 edition also streamlines its collection of real time “shields” against malware. Previously users were confronted with status and configuration options for eight distinct shields. Those eight have been rolled up into three easy-to-understand shields: File System Shield, Web Shield, and Mail Shield. I like the new approach.

Good Ratings from the Labs
Avast participated in all of the last 12 tests by Virus Bulletin and received VB100 certification in ten of those tests. ICSA Labs and West Coast labs both certify Avast’s technology for virus detection; Avast didn’t participate in the malware cleanup test by those labs. AV-Comparatives rated Avast ADVANCED for file detection; it rated STANDARD in another test that specifically measured how well products cleaned up malware they detected.

Protection against new malware attack is an essential antivirus feature, and Avast did well in several tests aimed at measuring protection. AV-Comparatives rated it ADVANCED+, the top rating, in a dynamic test using the very latest malware. AV-Test gave it 5.5 of 6.0 possible points for protection, and Dennis Technology Labs certified Avast at the AA level (AAA is the top rating).

False positives, valid programs blocked as malicious, can be a real problem. Avast didn’t lose points for false positives in tests by AV-Comparatives or Dennis Labs. Getting a good Usability score from AV-Test requires few or no false positives; Avast earned 6.0 of 6.0 possible points. However, as you’ll see later, it generated some significant false positives in my own tests.

In two performance tests, Avast’s results differed quite a bit. AV-Comparatives rated it ADVANCED+, while AV-Test assigned it 3.0 of 6.0 possible points. Overall, Avast gets good marks from the labs.

For a full explanation of the way I interpret and aggregate tests results from the various independent testing labs, please see How We Interpret Antivirus Lab Tests.

avast! Free Antivirus 2014 lab tests chart

Decent Malware Blocking
Starting with this review, I’ve added a new malware blocking test using a feed of malicious URLs supplied by MRG-Effitas. Each URL is no more than a day or so old, but even so by the time I use them in testing many are already defunct. I keep trying URLs until I’ve accumulated a hundred or so, recording whether the antivirus blocked access to the URL, quarantined the download, or just did nothing.

Avast’s Web Shield jumped in to block URL access for 69 percent of the samples. It quarantined another 10 percent at some point during the download process, for a total of 79 percent blocked. Since this is the first data point for this test, I can’t say whether that’s a good score or not; time will tell.

Continuing my malware-block testing, I opened a folder containing my current collection of malware samples. For many antivirus products, the minimal file access that occurs when Windows Explorer checks a file’s attributes for display is enough to trigger an on-access scan. Avast! waits for a click, so I dutifully clicked up and down the list, noting which items got sent to quarantine. In the end, avast! whacked 78 percent of the samples.

I launched the remaining samples and noted the product’s behavior. In one case, it launched the new special DeepScreen scan, then quarantined the file. However, it missed several others. Its overall detection rate was 92 percent. That’s decent, but AVG AntiVirus FREE 2014, Avira Free AntiVirus (2014), and Ashampoo Anti-Virus 2014 all managed 97 percent.

With 8.9 points overall for malware blocking, avast! is in the lower half of products tested with the same malware collection. Quite a few products are tied for first place, 9.4 points, including AVG, Avira, and Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5. For full details on how I perform this test, see How We Test Malware Blocking.

avast! Free Antivirus 2014 malware blocking chart

Unfortunate False Positives
For every antivirus review I run a simple false positive sanity check by installing twenty-odd old PCMag utilities. None are digitally signed, and most perform some actions that might be considered suspicious, like installing Windows hooks or setting themselves to launch at every startup.

This test reveals over-aggressive behavior-based detection by some antivirus products. In avast!’s case, it turned up over-aggressive “evolutionary generic” detection, Evo-Gen for short. The File System Shield quarantined two of the utilities on sight, the moment I clicked on them. It ran a DeepScreen evaluation on three others, but let them pass.

Note that advanced users can enable the new Hardened mode at one of two levels. The Moderate level simply blocks any program that would have merited examination by DeepScreen, while the Aggressive level blocks any program with low prevalence.

Avast! also wiped out several of my hand-coded testing tools. Given that those tools are found nowhere but on my test computers, they’re definitely of extremely low prevalence, so I can’t blame avast! for suspecting them. However, I had quite a bit of trouble getting them excluded from future scans.

The popup that reports detection of a suspicious file includes a link to put that file on the Exclusions list; it didn’t work. I went into the Virus Chest (avast!’s name for quarantine) and chose the option to restore my program and put it on the Exclusions list. I verified that it appeared on the list. When I tried to run it again, avast! whacked it again. In the end I had to mark my “Tools” folder to be excluded from all scans.

Malware Cleanup Choices
Just about every antivirus gives you three scan choices: quick, full, and custom. With avast! you can also choose a boot-time scan. The program itself will offer a boot-time scan after any scan that turns up malware.

The boot-time scan’s big virtue is that it runs before Windows is fully loaded, and hence before most (if not all) malicious processes are loaded. Note, though, that you need to keep an eye on it. The first time it detects a problem it will stop and wait for orders, and even if you choose an action for all items, it may stop again if it detects malware in the Windows folder.

At the end of a regular scan, it reports what it found and awaits your confirmation that it’s OK to proceed with cleanup. That does mean that if malware manages to abort the scan, cleanup won’t happen. I prefer an antivirus scan that wipes out threats as it finds them rather than waiting until the end.

Unlike some antivirus products, avast! can install and scan in Safe Mode, which may be enough to defeat malware that tries to block its installation. A bootable rescue disk (CD or USB) offers another line of defense, especially useful if ransomware has taken over the desktop. If all else fails, tech support can remote-control your system to get avast! installed and working correctly.

As I explained in a recent blog post , I discovered that a rather nasty bot had taken up residence in my malware-infested test systems. I didn’t put it there, but the existing malware samples invited it in. Rather than risk the possibility that my testing might have harmful effects, I’m now relying on the independent labs to evaluate how well antivirus products clean up malware. Fortunately, many of the labs now use the kind of hands-on real-world approach that I’ve always preferred.

Dual Phishing Protection
During the install process, avast! adds a security plug-in to your browsers. Among other things, this plug-in serves to steer you away from fraudulent sites that attempt to steal your security credentials. In addition, the Web Shield blocks access to some fraudulent sites, labeling them with names like “Phishing-Q” and “BankFraud-N”.

Despite this double-barreled antiphishing approach, avast! scored poorly in my real-world antiphishing test. Its detection rate was 32 percentage points below Norton’s. Very few products do as well or better than Norton in this test. Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition (2014) is one of the few, edging out Norton by a single percentage point. For an explanation of how I obtain the very newest phishing sites and put security solutions to the test, see How We Test Antiphishing.

avast! Free Antivirus 2014 antiphishing chart

Website Reputation
The avast! browser plug-in marks up results from popular search engines with icons indicating website reputation, good, iffy, or bad. You can also click the toolbar button for details about the current site including its reputation within the avast! community and whether avast! found any traces of malware or phishing.

Long-time avast users may remember that in the past the website reputation feature allowed users to flag a site with five good and five bad attributes, and to rate it on a five-point scale. In the current, simplified system you just give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, with no attributes.

New in this edition is an active Do Not Track system similar to what’s offered by AVG and Avira. Site details include a list of advertising systems, social media, and Web analytics systems that have placed tracking cookies on the current page, with many blocked by default. You can turn blocking on or off for whole categories, or hover for more fine-grained control.

Bonus Tools and Statistics
The Browser Cleanup tool isn’t designed to wipe your browsing history clean. Rather, it scans all your browsers for toolbars and other add-ons that “have a poor reputation.” If you wish, you can set it to also show safe add-ons.

A Rescue Disk can be a lifesaver if ransomware somehow gets past your antivirus, or if malware makes your system unbootable. Before anything like that happens, be prepared. Use the Rescue Disk tool to create a bootable rescue CD or USB.

Without you ever lifting a finger, avast! works in the background to make sure your browsers and other important applications are fully patched with all the latest security updates. It will notify you if it finds any that need update. In most cases clicking the Update button will take you to the update online.

If you click the “Activate automatic updates” button, you’ll find it doesn’t. Rather, you’ll get an offer for an upgrade to avast!’s Premier suite. The AccessAnywhere tool is also a Premier feature, and the SecureLine VPN requires a separate purchase.

Wondering what avast! has done for you lately? The Statistics page will show data for your system as well as a wide collection of global statistics drawn from avast!’s millions of users. In addition, the Component Status page reports useful info like how many items are in the Virus Chest, how many outdated programs were detected, and whether Browser Cleanup found any problems.

Much to Like
I’m pleased with avast!’s user interface makeover, and the independent labs give it good marks overall. Checking for unpatched programs is a nice feature, and avast! offers a variety of options to defeat entrenched malware. On the other hand, I’m not pleased with the too-aggressive heuristic detection that quarantined two perfectly valid PCMag utilities, and it didn’t earn a top score in my malware-cleanup test.

The nice thing about free antivirus solutions is that you can easily try out different ones before making a choice. If you like avast!, go ahead and join the other 200 million who use it. But do also consider our Editors’ Choice free antivirus products AVG AntiVirus FREE 2014 and Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5.


Verdict
avast! Free Antivirus 2014 boasts a newly streamlined user interface and some interesting new features. With 200 million users it's definitely a contender in the free antivirus space.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc