Avira Free AntiVirus (2014) review

Avira Free AntiVirus (2014) did a great job keeping malware out of a clean test system, and Avira's technology gets high marks from the labs. However, no tech support is available, so if malware cleanup does collateral damage (as it did in my tests) you're on your own.
Photo of Avira Free AntiVirus (2014)

Companies that offer antivirus protection for free are taking a bit of a gamble. Getting thousands or millions of non-paying users is only practical if the mindshare and reputation that’s created results in sales of higher-end for-pay security solutions. Some vendors go all in, making their free antivirus a showpiece. Avira Free AntiVirus (2014) doesn’t quite go that route. The free product lacks some features of the paid edition, and users aren’t entitled to any direct help from tech support. That can be a problem if malware cleanup causes system problems, as I discovered in testing.

Every feature that’s present in other Avira products, right up to the top-of-the-line “ultimate” suite, is represented on the free product’s main window, making it a bit busy. Features that aren’t actually available are simply disabled and grayed out. Hovering over grayed out controls gets a tooltip explaining that an upgrade is needed in order to use this component. Of course the real-time protection, system scanning, and update components are ready and available.

Trouble with Installation, Scanning
Ransomware on one of my test systems blocks access to the desktop, so getting antivirus protection installed is always a challenge. With no option for active tech support, I relied on the bootable Avira Rescue System to solve this problem; it did!

Malware on another system actively terminated Avira’s installer every time it launched. The Rescue System helped here too. After installing the antivirus I got a message that one of its services wasn’t working correctly. A full uninstall and reinstall solved that one.

When Avira detects active malware, it pops up a notification and makes an alert noise using the PC Speaker. In theory it should only pop up once for a given threat, but on one test system it detected the same items over and over, making quite a racket. In addition, the system kept spontaneously rebooting, perhaps due to partially-removed malware. I couldn’t complete an update or scan.

The Rescue System partially solved this problem, but it left the test system with no network connectivity. Finally, on one test system Avira never did manage to install, not even after a full scan by the Rescue System.

As noted, there’s no tech support for the free edition, so the average user would have needed to seek help elsewhere. Avira does offer an “Experts Market” where users can contact (and pay) experts for help, but of course reaching the market requires an Internet connection. And really, how happy would you be paying for tech support to fix a system problem caused by a free product? That would really be a crummy installation experience.

Mid-level Malware Removal
Avira detected 72 percent of the malware samples infesting my test systems and scored 5.7 points, a hair below the score achieved by avast! Free Antivirus 8 and Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5. Interestingly, the previous edition of Avira’s free antivirus earned almost exactly the same scores when tested with my previous malware collection.

The top scorer among current products is Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus (2014), with 89 percent detection and 6.6 points. AVG AntiVirus FREE 2014 did quite well, scoring 6.4 points, and Bitdefender Antivirus Free Edition (2014) managed 6.2 points.

Tested with my previous malware collection, the free, cleanup-only Malwarebytes Anti-Malware 1.70 beat all other free and paid programs, with a detection rate of 8.9 percent and a score of 7.1 points. For a detailed explanation of my malware removal testing methodology, please How We Test Malware Removal.

Avira Free AntiVirus (2014) malware removal chart

Very Good Malware Blocking
If you can ensure that your PC is malware-free before installing Avira, my tests suggest it will do a great job of keeping malware out. As soon as I opened a folder containing malware samples it started popping up alerts. Avira simply prevents the found threat from launching until you click Remove in the alert box. At that time, it runs a mini-scan to detect and remove any related malware traces. I had three or four of those mini-scans going on at once for a while.

Avira wiped out 86 percent of the samples during this simple, signature-based detection phase, and caught several more when I tried to launch them. One way or another, it detected 97 percent of the samples, the same as AVG did. It shares the top score of 9.4 points with AVG, Ad-Aware, and F-Secure Anti-Virus 2014. For details on how I run this test, see How We Test Malware Blocking.

Avira Free AntiVirus (2014) malware blocking chart

Avira does try to block access to malware-hosting websites, to prevent malicious files from ever reaching your computer. However, when I tested it by re-downloading my malware collection it blocked less than two thirds of those whose URLs are still valid. Webroot, F-Secure, and Norton AntiVirus (2014) managed a 100 percent block rate.

Excellent Lab Results
Avira’s malware blocking success was based in a large part to wiping out malware samples on sight by matching their signatures. Avira technology has received VB100 certification in all of the last ten tests by Virus Bulletin, and ICSA Labs has certified it for virus detection and cleanup. But how would it do with brand-new attacks, malware too new to have a signature?

I needn’t have worried. Avira’s technology earned the top rating, ADVANCED+, in file detection tests by AV-Comparatives. Their standard detection test is very similar to my own malware blocking test, while the retrospective test simulates zero-day detection by forcing each antivirus to use a signature database that pre-dates the samples involved.

AV-Comparatives also runs a months-long test that challenges twenty-odd antivirus products every day with dozens of brand-new malware samples. Avira rated ADVANCED in this test, the second-highest rating.

Avira also achieved certification in the latest two tests by AV-Test, averaging 12.5 points out of a possible 18. That’s impressive, but Bitdefender earned 17.5 points in each of those tests. For a more detailed explanation of the labs and their tests, see How We Interpret Antivirus Lab Tests.

Avira Free AntiVirus (2014) lab tests chart

Toolbar and Other Bonuses
The antivirus’s installer also offers a toolbar that combines an Ask.com-powered search box with a variety of security features. Just to make sure you don’t miss out, when the browser asks for confirmation of your search-provider change, Avira pops up pointers showing just where to click. Note that it also changes your homepage to Avira Search.

An icon on the toolbar reflects the current page’s status in Avira’s URL Cloud. If the icon turns red, you can click it to find out why. In testing, I found that it detected a few phishing websites, but not enough to be considered an antiphishing component. My Avira contacts confirmed that full-scale phishing protection is reserved for the company’s paid products.

The toolbar scans each page you visit for ad networks and other links that may track your Internet usage with third-party cookies. A button on the toolbar displays the number of blocked items on the current page; click the button to see a list. This feature can block dozens and dozens of ad networks, social media triggers, and other trackers—you can go through the list and tweak just which ones it blocks, if you wish. AVG’s toolbar offers a similar feature.

From the toolbar, you can delete browser history or launch private browsing (tasks easily accomplished outside the toolbar), link to popular webmail sites, and even launch a Facebook widget.

On completion, the free antivirus’s installer displays an invitation to try Avira’s free online backup system with 5GB of storage, or add free protection to your Android device. Clicking the “Social Networks” link in the product’s main window brings up an invitation to install Avira’s SocialShield parental monitoring program. Once rather expensive, SocialShield is now free.

Not For Cleanup
Don’t install Avira Free AntiVirus (2014) on a malware-riddled computer and expect it to clear up the troubles. It may do the job, but if it does any collateral damage like breaking your Internet connection or rendering the computer unbootable, you’re on your own, with no tech support. If you’re not sure the system is clean, scan first with Malwarebytes Anti-Malware 1.70, our Editors’ Choice for free, cleanup-only antivirus.

In truth, even on a clean system I still wouldn’t recommend Avira. The fact that you get no tech support might become important if, say, a zero-day threat managed to slip past the real-time scanner. AVG AntiVirus FREE 2014 and Ad-Aware Free Antivirus+ 10.5 are our Editors’ Choices for free antivirus products; I’d go with one of those.

Avira Free AntiVirus (2014) did a great job keeping malware out of a clean test system, and Avira's technology gets high marks from the labs. However, no tech support is available, so if malware cleanup does collateral damage (as it did in my tests) you're on your own.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc