avast! SecureLine review

avast! integrates its SecureLine VPN service into its antivirus offering to protect users when they connect to unsecure wireless networks. While the service is stable in the States, its overseas access isn't, so look elsewhere for more reliable service.
Photo of avast! SecureLine

SecureLine ($7.99 per month) is a personal VPN service from the antivirus outfit avast! Nothing really sets it apart from all the other VPN services currently flooding the market—it is easy to use, hides your online activity from eavesdroppers, and allows you to spoof your IP address to view content that’s restricted to a certain geographic location. It has a cleaner interface and simpler setup than most of the competition, but the support for international servers is, at best, still hit-and-miss.

There are many VPN services on the market, some of which we’ve reviewed, such as Norton Hotspot Privacy, VPN Direct, and HideIPVPN.

How VPN Services Work
Your computer has an IP address assigned by your ISP which someone can lookup to try to figure out your geographic location. Sometimes, you may want to change that address so that it will be harder to trace online activity back to you. Perhaps all the recent revelations about the government snooping through records of what users are doing has you feeling paranoid. SecureLine overrides the IP address with one drawn from its pool of servers, so you can suddenly pretend you’re in a different state or  country of your choice from a list of options.

VPN services are useful if you frequently log into wireless networks other than the one you control, such as coffeeshops and airports. On a recent trip, I used it when I logged into Google Apps to check my email and my bank account. SecureLine is not intended to replace my corporate VPN as it won’t let me connect to work servers, but it did encrypt my network connection regardless of which site I was on.

Installation
When installing the free antivirus, I had the option to perform a typical installation, which includes the real-time shields in the antivirus tool, along with a firewall, antispam tool, browser protection, and the SafeZone feature. I didn’t really want to install all those features on this device, though. I already have a firewall I am happy with, and my mail server includes antispam functionality. I was pleased to see the “minimal” installation, which just installs the antivirus, browser protection, and SecureLine.

I was glad to see the service wasn’t restricted to just people who had paid for avast! antivirus, but was available to the free users, as well. However, even users of the free antivirus have to pay for SecureLine, for $7.99 per month. Yearly plans for $59.99 are available, as well. Users can also try out SecureLine for free for 24 hours. The “market” tab in the avast! user interface has an easy way to pay for and to add SeucreLine protection.

Since the antivirus software is a Windows-only product, SecureLine protects only Windows users. However, avast! has released a separate iOS version of the VPN service.

It is clear, however, that SecureLine is an add-on feature, and intended only for avast! users. If you already have antivirus protection you are happy with and don’t want to replace it with avast!, you won’t be able to use SecureLine—because it’s not a good idea to run more than one AV app at the same time: they tend to conflict. On one hand, this is a great way for avast! to extend network protection to its users, and I am glad to see more and more antivirus vendors beginning to realize that many of their users are at risk each time they hop on to an open Wi-Fi hotspot. On the other hand, considering SecureLine is not a bundled service but one I have to pay for, it seems a little shortsighted to integrate it so tightly that it can’t be a stand-alone product, like Symantec’s Norton Hotspot Privacy.

Getting Started
I clicked on SecureLine from the left pane on the avast! user interface and uploaded the license file to activate SecureLine. If I didn’t have the license file, I would have to go to the Market and pay for my SecureLine subscription first. Once activated, SecureLine appeared as its own icon in my system tray, independent of avast! antivirus.

Once activated, it was pretty simple to use. I could choose any one of the servers in Dallas, Miami, New York, Seattle, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Prague, and Singapore and hit “connect.” I could also set avast! to prompt me to start SecureLine whenever I connect to an unsecure Wi-Fi network.

That’s it—nothing else to clutter up the interface, and no advanced features that can be overwhelming for users.

SecureLine has the easiest installation I’ve ever seen. There is no message about installing the WinTAP adapter, no software installation, zilch. You just enable the service, and everything is handled in the background quietly and efficiently.

App Features and Performance
I could also connect using “best possible network” by clicking on the “connect” button directly from the systray icon. Once I was connected, I verified that my IP address had changed by checking my public IP address. It’s not enough to just have my IP address change—I want the assurance that my network traffic is passing through an encrypted tunnel so that my information stays private from snoops. I hit a few websites while connected to SecureLine and kept an eye on the packets being generated in WireShark to verify that the data were not being transmitted in cleartext and that everything was encrypted.

I took the laptop to a few places with wireless networks and tried connecting. Whenever I connected to an open wireless network, I was prompted to enable SecureLine. I was a little disconcerted the first time the computer “spoke” to me about SecureLine, as I hadn’t realized audio notifications were on by default—Next: Measuring Network Performance on SecureLine

While SecureLine was on, I watched some music videos on YouTube, played some music on Pandora, and uploaded large images to my Picasa account. I didn’t notice any lag to make it harder to perform these tasks on their own. Uploading images took a bit longer when I was playing music at the same time, but that was more of an issue with my overall Internet bandwidth than SecureLine itself.

To measure network speed, I ran the speed tests from SpeedTest.net. The tests are designed to measure download and upload speeds when connecting to servers in different cities. I connected to a server, and then looked for a server closest to that location on SpeedTest to run the tests. I ran the test twice with the VPN service turned off, and again when turned on, and picked the best measurements. The figures below are over a wired connection.

Performance was surprisingly consistent within the U.S. While there was a bit of a performance hit for download speeds, the VPN service actually tripled my upload speeds. However, I had some difficulties with the overseas servers.

After I connected to the server, I verified that my IP address changed, and then checked the geo-location associated with the new address. As part of the verification process, I also loaded SpeedTest.net, google.com, and yahoo.com to find out where the servers thought I was located. If I was really outside the country, Google and Yahoo is supposed to redirect to the localized pages.

When connected to the Amsterdam server, Google and Yahoo loaded the U.S.-pages and SpeedTest and the geolocation site said I was in Salt Lake City, Utah. (I checked four different sites, including ip2location.) Since SpeedTest never recognized my computer as being “in” Amsterdam, I didn’t run the tests. It took me about four tries to finally establish a connection to the Frankfurt server. Once I was connected, Yahoo redirected to the German site, but Google still displayed its U.S. version. It also took me three tries to successfully connect to the London server, but when it did, both Google and Yahoo redirected correctly. Prague connected correctly each time, but Google and Yahoo never redirected to  Czech pages. Like what happened with the Amsterdam server, SpeedTest and geolocation said the Singapore server I was allegedly connected to was actually in Utah.

I’ve never seen this level of erratic behavior in a VPN service before, and the final score suffered as a result.

Compared with the other services, the U.S. servers used by SecureLine have a lower performance hit on download speeds, while tremendously boosting upload speeds. In fact, if you look at it as a U.S.-only service, performance is actually much better than the competition.

A Valuable Add-On 
I think it’s great that more security vendors are beginning to invest in VPN services to protect their end-users. They have the name recognition and already have the users’ trust. Instead of forcing them to trust yet another company who may or may not be keeping its promises about what information it is logging, or what it is doing under the hood, the vendors are in a unique position of being able to say, “You trust us to protect you from malware. Now let us protect your network connection.”

That said, I am not sure I approve of the fact that SecureLine is available only to avast! users. I get it from a marketing standpoint, but it seems to restrict just who can use the service.

The low score reflects the fact that connecting to international servers wound up being so erratic. I am concerned that despite having an IP address that is allegedly in the correct country, Yahoo and Google did not notice the change. They are generally good about serving up the correct localized pages. If you need to connect to international servers, or if you are overseas and need to connect to one of the “local” servers and not one of the U.S. ones, I highly recommend looking at the Editors’ Choice Private Internet Access, or even Symantec’s Norton Hotspot Privacy. 

However, if you are already an avast! user and don’t plan on ever taking advantage of overseas servers, SecureLine is well worth the monthly investment. No need to add another tool to your computer if you don’t have to.

Specifications
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8
Type Personal

Verdict
avast! integrates its SecureLine VPN service into its antivirus offering to protect users when they connect to unsecure wireless networks. While the service is stable in the States, its overseas access isn't, so look elsewhere for more reliable service.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc