avast! Mobile Security & Antivirus (for Android) review

avast! has just about every security feature you could want, and then several more, but this free app will appeal mostly to tinkerers willing to learn avast!'s ins and outs.
Photo of avast! Mobile Security & Antivirus (for Android)

If you’ve been saving yourself for the free Android security suite that does just about everything, then friend, have I got a deal for you. avast! Mobile Security & Antivirus (free, Google Play) is from the familiar name in free PC and Mac antivirus, and packed with a huge array of powerful tools and fine-grained controls. These benefits outweigh its cluttered interface and lockscreen issues to take the Editors’ Choice for free Android security apps.It stands next to Bitdefender Mobile Security and Antivirus, our Editors’ Choice for paid subscription Android security apps.

Anti-Malware
In truth, anti-malware is not where the Android security begins and ends. It’s very unlikely that you’ll encounter malicious software on your phone, but it is generally foremost on the minds of consumers.

When AV-Test rated avast! in June 2013, they found that the software detected 100% of the 2,545 samples the company used. Even better, AV-Test reports that it had no false-positive detections. This is a marked improvement over the previous test, which rated avast! slightly lower and with only half the sample size.

PC Mag relies on third-party testing labs for information about the accuracy of Android security app malware scans.

In my testing, I noticed that the accuracy came at a price. avast! took 66.06 seconds to scan just the apps on my Samsung Galaxy S III , and a whopping 132.2 seconds to scan apps and files. This is on par with TrustGo Antivirus and Mobile Security, but far longer than TrendMicro Mobile Security & Antivirus. Bitdefender uses ultra-speedy cloud scanning that completes a scan in just over 10 seconds. Though the scans are long, avast! plays nice with other apps. With a scan running in the background along with 12 other apps, I didn’t see any stuttering while playing Minecraft.

Also, though the scan is slower, it can be performed at any time and checks every file on your device. Bitdefender’s cloud-based approach only focuses on executable files, and needs an internet connection to scan. Their approach is to only focus on the files that could be a threat, and is far more targeted than avast!’s brute-force approach. That said, avast! is well-positioned to guard against new threats that use novel attack vectors we’ve yet to imagine. It’s also good for the kind of user who roots their device and side-loads everything.

avast! will also keep an ever-vigilant eye on your device, warning you as soon as it detects something it doesn’t like. This includes during a malware scan; the app triggers an alert as soon as it detects something, and you can uninstall the offending app and pick up the scan where you left off.

Though many security apps can scan all the files on your device, avast! goes one step further with the File Shield. When active, File Shield will scan every file when used, either read from or written to. It’s cool, but totally overkill and turned off by default as it eats into battery life.

Anti-Theft
Theft and loss is the biggest threat to your device and your data, since a thief has direct access to both. In this department, avast! has an impressive slate of features and controls. However, inexperienced users might be intimidated by the lengthy set-up and somewhat confusing web interface.

Most security apps simply have you activate administrator access and create an account for their web portal. avast! requires you to download a separate module, which is also available in the Play store. If you’re security minded, you can download the module directly through the app and re-name the module in order to hide it from attackers. If you’re really security minded and have root access on your device, the module can be buried in the OS partition of your device’s storage. My device is not rooted, but avast! tells me that installing the module in this manner would protect it from factory resets  and avast! can continue securing your device.

Like nearly every Android security app, avast! includes a web portal where you can remotely lock, locate, or wipe your device. You can also set off an alarm, though this is also triggered with the device is locked. I was particularly impressed that the alarm was not only loud, at 96 dB, but also highly illustrative. “This phone has been lost or stolen,” said my S III, cycling between that phrase and what sounded like a Star Trek warning klaxon. I really liked this approach since it makes it abundantly clear to everyone nearby that your phone has been lost or stolen. If that’s not good enough for you, upload your own sound files to use as an alarm.

avast! can also be configured to set off its alarm when the SIM card is removed. However, I felt that the app was a little uneven here. Once I dismissed the alert using my PIN, it didn’t return when I rebooted the phone, or when I took the SIM out later. Also, while avast! did send me an email, the web portal still showed that my SIM was still in the phone.

Instead of triggering individual features remotely you can simply mark the phone as Lost. Doing so automatically locks the device, sets off the alarm, and begins tracking your phone. You can still toggle these individual features off once it’s Lost, but it’s a single action that really locks down your phone.

I particularly appreciated this because, like many security apps, avast!’s lockscreen isn’t entirely secure. While avast! does block access to the task manager and home screen, it does let you access the notification tray. From here, a thief could see incoming messages and more importantly toggle the phone into airplane mode, preventing you from using the anti-theft features. However, Lost-mode means that even if the attacker was clever enough to do this, nearly all of avast!’s anti-theft features have already been engaged.

avast! also takes the standard anti-theft features a bit further. For instance, when locating the phone you can chose how often the phone reports back and view all of those locations on a single map. If you’re trying to determine where a thief lives, this is your best bet. You can also set the app to send you an SMS warning when the battery level drops too low, similar to Lookout Mobile Security Premium’s Signal Flare feature. This gives you the phone’s last location before it stops running.

While my review is focused on the app itself, I should mention that the anti-theft web interface is confusing. This is particularly frustrating since most users will probably only use the web portal when their phone is lost—a bad time to try and learn anything. I also noticed that the website simply didn’t behave properly sometimes, which didn’t give me a lot of confidence when using the web interface. Lookout has a stellar website that makes it easy to send commands and get information about a missing device.

Notably, avast! currently does not have the ability to remotely activate the front-facing camera. Some security suites, like Kaspersky Mobile Security, can do so on command. Others, like TrustGo, will automatically activate the camera after three failed login attempts. is the lack of a spy camera mode is disappointing, since it gives a victim of theft some power over the thief. However, you can activate a Remote Call, which locks the device with a black screen and places a call to a number you provide. With this, you can listen in on a thief, or provide voice instructions directly to someone who has found your phone.

Call and SMS Features
Like Bitdefender, avast! lets you control certain anti-theft features via text message, as well as call and SMS blocking. It’s a pretty easy process: simply send an SMS message with one of a 40 command phrases along with your avast! PIN to your device. This is particularly useful in situations where your device is not connected to Wi-Fi—which is probably most of the time after it’s been stolen. You can also define which phones can send SMS commands to your device, ensuring that no one could turn these features against you.

Several of the SMS commands will only work on rooted devices, but just about everything from the web portal can be executed via SMS commands. There are other, deeper commands like retrieving the call and SMS log, launching and closing the Anti-Theft interface, or even changing the avast! PIN. All this makes the part of me that loves features really happy, but it’s also a bit overwhelming.

Using the SMS commands was simple, and the ones I tested performed as expected. I was blown away by some, like the GET SMS command, which sent a designated number of SMS messages from the avast! protected phone to the phone I used to send the commands. This speaks to the power of avast!, but I wonder if some of these features couldn’t be abused.

Annoyingly, I couldn’t find a listing of SMS commands on my own and had to be directed the staff at avast!. I wouldn’t have recognized that the commands were even an option if I hadn’t spotted a pertinent setting during my testing. Bitdefender includes a list in their app, and also a help command which returns a list of all available commands. In future versions, avast! should make it clearer that SMS commands are available and make the list of commands more readily accessible from their security web portal.

Unique to avast! is Forwarding, where the phone you nominate receives alerts when your lost or stolen phone receives calls or SMS messages. You can also Silent Forward SMS messages, which will delete the original messages on the lost device.

For call and SMS blocking, avast! sports an impressive array of fine-grain features. You create groups of people, and then designate when they should be blocked. For instance, you can lump all your co-workers together and block all their calls after 5PM and on weekends. The only catch is that if you just want to straight-up block someone all the time, you have to tap every single option. I would have liked the fine-grain features to be optional.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that if you receive a text or a call from someone who isn’t in your contacts list, avast! will offer to block them before you even respond. The app also logs the blocked calls and the full text of the blocked messages, but I’d like these to be exportable somehow. This information could be critical in a court case, particularly ones about domestic abuse or stalking, and being able to quickly and easily submit the information as evidence would be great.

On that note, anyone planning on using avast! to completely shut someone out of their life should be aware that blocked calls will dump directly to your voicemail. If you want to block someone completely, consider Kaspersky Mobile Security instead.

Web Protection and Firewall
Though malicious apps are the most direct way to attack mobile devices, phishing sites and other web-based threats can still be a problem. avast! includes robust web protection that, once enabled, keeps you secure when using the stock Android browser, Google Chrome, Amazon Silk, Boat Browser and Boat Browser Mini, as well as experimental support for Dolphin and Dolphin Mini. Best of all, when avast!’s web protection is enabled there’s no noticeable difference in website load times.

In addition to blocking known malicious sites, avast! also claims it will fix spelling errors in the address bar. Unfortunately, I was unable to see this feature in action—despite my worst efforts at typing.

There’s also a Firewall feature, where you can control which apps access the internet through which means. Since Google Play requires you to accept all permissions for an app before installing, this lets you take back some control for internet access, though avast!’s developers characterize this feature as more of a power-saving tool. Because the devices I tested on were not rooted, I was unable to test avast!’s firewall performance.

 Privacy Advisor
Security companies are starting to pay more and more attention to Android Device Permissions, which is that big list of things apps can access that you tap through without reading. Companies are starting to incorporate privacy advisors into their apps, which show you which apps have access to what permissions.

With avast!, the apps are organized by permission, so you can see all the apps that can access your location, for example. Each app has its own entry in avast!, which includes a brief description of what each permission requests. Unfortunately, permissions on Android are all or nothing, and it’s often difficult to tell from these entries whether an appis being too loose with your personal information.

From these screens you can uninstall an app, or end all its activity. However, the most interesting feature to me was the Network Meter. This shows how much information is being sent to and from your device by each app. This gives you a better indication of what apps are doing, and might help track down apps that are draining your battery.

Is avast! For You?
If it’s not clear already, avast! is something of a kitchen sink product: it does just about everything. But it isn’t perfect: I was troubled by the fact that a thief could access the notification tray and switch off GPS and other features when the device is locked with avast!. Also, avast!’s sheer number of features work against it as the sprawling app easily has more screens to navigate than any security app I’ve reviewed.

avast! isn’t like Bitdefender or Lookout, which are slick and easy and work right out of the box. Instead, avast! feels like a security tinkerer’s dream, with features so powerful I wonder if they’re not going overboard. If you’re rooting your phone or want the most customization available, avast! is what you want.

Normally a wonky lock screen that allows a thief to prevent further commands from being sent to the device would preclude an app from receiving an Editors’ Choice award. However, avast! balances this problem with a heap of other powerful tools to secure your phone. Hopefully avast! will address that in the future, but, for now, it’s our Editors’ Choice for free Android security suites. If you’re looking for a smoother, faster experience and can part with $9.95 a month, consider Bitdefender which is our Editors’ Choice for paid subscription security apps on Android. 

Specifications
Type Personal
Free Yes

Verdict
avast! has just about every security feature you could want, and then several more, but this free app will appeal mostly to tinkerers willing to learn avast!'s ins and outs.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc