Most free antivirus programs don’t offer much besides basic malware protection, but Avast Free Antivirus is a half-step toward being a full-fledged security suite, with many features you’d normally be charged for. It has not only a password manager and a local-network security scanner, but gives you lots of configuration options. [UPDATE: Since this review was posted, Avast Free Antivirus has added a secure browser.]
Yet while it didn’t sap much of our computer’s performance, Avast Free Antivirus took a long time to scan, and its malware protection could be better.
Avast Free Antivirus matches new files with a continually updated database of malware signatures. Anything that slips through is subject to behavioral monitoring that looks for telltale signs of malicious activity. If new malware is found on your machine, you can opt to upload it to Avast’s servers for further analysis.
Avast Free Antivirus screens out malicious email attachments and rogue Web pages — which some other free antivirus products don’t do — and offers a dizzying range of customization options for each feature. However, it doesn’t scan online repositories of files for threats. It offers full and quick system scans, the former of which can be scheduled.
The software uses its Smart Scan feature to look for dodgy browser add-ons, weak passwords, compatibility problems, outdated software, network threats and performance issues. You can’t fix performance problems, however, without subscribing to the company’s Cleanup product for $23.88 a year.
You can use Avast Free Antivirus to scan any single drive, folder or file by locating the item with Windows Explorer or File Explorer, then selecting and right-clicking the item. But Avast won’t automatically scan a USB thumb drive when it’s plugged in.
Other Shared Features
This suite shares a number of features with Avast’s antivirus and with Avast Free Antivirus 2016 Free at AVAST Software. These include a boot-time scan, a bootable Rescue Disk, and a browser cleanup scan that reports any disreputable add-ons. The network scan checks all devices on your network and reports router configuration errors, with instructions to fix them. A cleanup scan finds possibilities for system optimization, but actually performing the fixes requires a separate purchase. And clicking Smart Scan runs all available scans.
A password manager is integrated into all of Avast’s 2016 product line. It does the basic job of capturing and replaying credentials for secure websites but doesn’t have the high-end features of dedicated password managers.
Avast’s firewall passed all my port scan tests and other Web-based tests. Given that the built-in Windows Firewall does the same, these tests only become relevant when a firewalldoesn’t pass.
By default, the firewall automatically decides how to handle programs that request access to the network or Internet, creating a rule that determines each program’s permissions, but you can change this behavior. If you choose Block, any program that doesn’t already have a defined rule will be denied access. Choosing Allow is a bad idea, as it effectively turns off program control. For an old-school experience, choosing Ask causes Avast to ask you how to handle each new program. And you can configure these options separately for public and private networks.
For testing purposes, I set it to ask me about unknown programs and then launched a tiny browser that I wrote myself. Interestingly, the popup query let me do more than just allow or block access. I had the option to limit access to predefined local networks (called friends), allow inbound access from friends, permit outbound Internet access, add inbound friends access to outbound Internet, or just allow any connection whatsoever. Outbound Internet access is the default, and most users will stick with that.
Network and Router Scan
Introduced with last year’s edition, Avast’s network security scan checks your router, your network, and the visible devices on the network for network-specific security holes. In the current edition, this feature is streamlined and simplified.
When you launch the scan, it reports on the devices it sees on the network, including the router, and flags any security problems. This also gives you a chance to check that all the devices are authorized. Hey, I don’t have a computer named BobNextDoor!
Avast Free Antivirus was better at catching malware than Microsoft’s Windows Defender or Security Essentials, but paled next to the more effective malware shields of the other free Windows antivirus products we reviewed.
In Windows 10 evaluations conducted by the independent German lab AV-TEST, Avast Free Antivirus caught 98.8 percent of previously unseen, or “zero-day,” malware in September 2015, and 96.7 percent in October. Yet AVG, Avira and Bitdefender each stopped 100 percent in each month.