Avast Antivirus is a good antivirus solution - as long as the price you pay is 'free'. Its basic version offers a lot of decent features that are probably enough to protect the average home computer user. However, its high-end features are not worth the price. You can get all the features of Avast's premium plans with better and cheaper options like Norton 360. And while the free version is acceptable, there are better free antivirus products out there. Overall, Avast is good, but you can do better.

What's the security level? Avast seems to make a bet that you'll want all the security bells and whistles you can afford, but its paid levels seem to offer too little for the price. That said, Avast's free level offers a fantastic antivirus engine at its heart. You'll love Avast's security, as well as the speed with which it reacts to detect and mitigate dangerous programs - just try not to get too frustrated by its incessant requests for upgrades.

Security

As mentioned, Avast went the extra mile when it came time to design the free version of its antivirus product. Even basic antivirus software offers more functionality than most. Instead of just scanning for viruses and malware, it also detects outdated software, malicious browser plug-ins, network problems, unprotected sensitive documents and weak passwords.

My first scan didn't detect any malware, bad extensions or network problems, but it did find vulnerable software, unprotected documents and weak passwords. I'm not surprised that there is vulnerable software on my computer - I have a lot of software and it's painful to update everything - but these last two things gave me a bit of a break. What does Avast consider unprotected sensitive documents and how do they find them? Also, how do they check the strength of my passwords?

It turns out that scanning sensitive documents is very effective. It finds tax records, employment documents, financial statements and much more - things I stored on my computer without even remembering that I put them there. In all, it detected only two false positives. Avast has sorted these documents into categories such as tax, payroll, employment and travel (documents such as driver's licenses and passports. It also gives you an easy-to-use button to the right of each entry that instantly shows you the location of each document it finds.

Reading between the lines of marketing copy, Avast appears to be taking advantage of a technology known as Data Loss Prevention (DLP). DLP is a tool that is normally used in the context of large companies that store customer data such as credit card and social security numbers. With DLP, companies can scan Word documents and perform optical character recognition (OCR) on PDFs to detect strings of numbers that look like this sensitive data. The company can then know exactly where its sensitive data is located and take steps to ensure that no one moves or deletes it.

Just knowing the location of my sensitive data is very useful and seeing DLP technology move from an enterprise context to a consumer context is interesting to say the least. But unfortunately there is not much you can do with this information without committing to a subscription. Once you have a subscription, you have the ability to encrypt your information and store it in a secure digital locker. If an attacker tries to move or delete these files, the program blocks access to them and warns the user.

Avast's weak password scan is frankly a bit disappointing. I was expecting the service to tell me that I had set one of my passwords to "123cat" or something simple like that using some sort of futuristic hash algorithm. Instead, it just told me that I store passwords in my browser (like everyone else), that this method is potentially insecure (the jury is still out on that), and that I should upgrade to use Avast Passwords, Avast's password management service. This can certainly be useful, but it's not worth committing to an annual subscription when you could just use one of the many standalone password managers that are already available elsewhere. (More on this later).

Is the antivirus engine up to scratch?

All these extras are frankly a distraction from the heart of the scan itself - the malware detector. Independent laboratory tests show that Avast has a highly rated antivirus engine with advanced features and zero false positives. Few antivirus engines have scored higher. In addition, real-world tests show that Avast is effective at detecting and mitigating the vectors - such as download and code injection attacks - through which malware spreads. In summary, Avast detects most forms of advanced malware and prevents most of it from installing on your computer. If malware does install, an automatic scan will usually detect and destroy the infection within a day.

When malware attempts to run on a computer, Avast takes action. It immediately detects most known malware samples, then quarantines and deletes them. If Avast detects an unknown file that acts suspiciously, it terminates the process and analyzes the malware sample at its headquarters. If you suspect that Avast has missed a file, you can right-click on any file in your Windows Explorer panel and select the file or folder to analyze individually.

Most importantly, Avast is very effective at ensuring that malware does not install itself on your computer. It detects most sites that attempt to spread malware before it starts downloading to your computer. For the rest, Avast will interrupt malware sites during the download phase - only a few files will be missing, which will usually be captured by Avast's active protection once they attempt to run.

Phishing sites - sites that attempt to mimic bank login screens and social media - are much more common than malware sites, and are also a little simpler to produce. Protecting users from these sites is probably more important than protecting them from malware sites. Although this feature does pay off, Avast has the ability to protect users from phishing sites with surprising effectiveness. Its software not only blocks sites that have already been blacklisted, it can also identify phishing sites that are too new to have been identified by security researchers.

To sum up, the free version of Avast offers some of the best security I've ever seen. You would almost expect its designers to have disabled something to make paid updates more essential, but that's not the case. Its paid features, including a locker for your passwords and an encryption option for sensitive files, add nothing more.

Features

In addition to the main antivirus function, Avast offers, in both free and paid versions, a multitude of features designed to ensure the security of your data. These features range from the most expected to the most exotic, with most of the paid features being perhaps more useful to advanced users. Here is an overview :

Free features are essential to security

Firstly, Avast offers a series of advanced security scanners. This is separate from the 'Smart Scan' that you see in the main menu of the program. When you click on the 'Protection' tab, you will see a variety of options, including 'Full Virus Scan' and 'Boot Scan'.

The full virus scan is both slower and more thorough than the primary intelligent scan. Although it takes a little longer - up to a few hours on a slower machine - it is more likely to detect and resolve threats. If you think your computer has been infected by malware before installing Avast, you will probably want to run a full Virus Scan to eliminate any persistent threats.

You will also want to perform a boot-time scan. Many types of advanced malware now have the ability to persist even when their files are deleted from your computer's operating system. This is because these viruses exist outside the main operating system. When they are deleted, they simply reinstall themselves from files outside the operating system. A boot-time scan restarts your computer and monitors for suspicious programs that try to run while the computer is running, then stops them in their tracks.

Finally, Avast offers a complete WiFi scanner designed to protect you at home and on the move. When I launched it, it discovered all the devices connected to my WiFi in less than a minute - my desktop, laptop, console, mobile phone and kitchen speaker. If my devices were not secure, it would have revealed vulnerabilities such as ports exposed to the internet, default passwords and other weaknesses.

Paid-for features do not add enough

Apart from these advanced virus detection features, Avast doesn't offer much - but it's not certain that you need much more anyway. For example, there is a utility that is supposed to clean your computer's hard drive, but there is a charge for it. In the meantime, CCleaner is free. Want to get rid of particularly sensitive material? Avast offers a secure wipe function that allows you to delete a file by overwriting it several times, thus removing all traces of it from your computer. The system works as advertised, but it's hard to see who needs it apart from security researchers. There is a VPN add-on that you can pay for, but other standalone VPNs offer similar functionality at a lower cost.

To sum up, Avast seduced me with its free version, but it has lost its balance in terms of the prices of paid and premium services. The features of this version won't make you much safer than those of the free software, and you can reproduce most of their functionality with free or low-cost third-party software.

Ease of use

This is an area where Avast has frustrated me. I realize that if you're an antivirus company, you have to make money by converting your free users into paid subscribers. I shouldn't mind if Avast takes every opportunity to get me to upsell - and most of the time they don't. What irritates me, on the other hand, is the liberal use of the dark-patterned user interface to get me to pay.

If you're not familiar with Dark Pattern Unemployment Insurance, here's a quick example.

When you start Avast, you get a home screen, a big "scan now" button in the middle and a white box that gives you a welcome gift.

This "gift" turns out to be a significant discount on a subscription. What if you don't want a subscription? As you can see on the screenshot below, there is no "back" button, only a "buy now" option. To exit the upsell screen, you actually have to click on the red X in the upper right corner, which is counter-intuitive for most users who think that this button just closes the program.

By the way, when you click on this X, another window appears after it, offering you a free trial.

Again, it's not a big disappointment - because, again, the service needs to make money - and if this were the only example of that in the program, I probably wouldn't mind. That said, Avast does a lot to bury its goodwill by offering other confusing and intrusive up-sells buried in its software.

Here's another example. In Avast's privacy menu, you can see some options that are closed with a big orange padlock, and some that are not. You expect to pay to unlock features that are locked, and expect that features that are unlocked are free. Unfortunately, this is not the case. When you click on SecureLine VPN, for example, a separate program is installed on your computer and then asks you for money. If you click on "Performance" and choose "Driver Updater", the same thing happens. Avast takes you to the installation of a new program on your computer and then asks you for money.

The most obvious example occurred with the password manager, which is free but not great. The password manager works like a Chrome or Firefox extension that stores your password and is secured by a master password, but it doesn't suggest strong passwords and doesn't warn you about weak or duplicate passwords - which is a must in other products. You can't even implement two-factor authentication.

Anyway, when I clicked in the menus that led to the password management function, I decided to refuse to import my passwords into the Avast password manager. Imagine my surprise when Avast started importing my passwords anyway! Although I was able to cancel the transfer, Avast also installed its own secure browser on my machine - again without my permission.

It's a bit worrying. It has nothing wrong with the functionality of the antivirus engine itself, but for longtime users, constant up-sell reminders - and deceptive menu options - can end up frustrating.

Support

Avast offers first-class support services for its antivirus product at all price levels. There is an extensive knowledge base that explains how its functions work and what they are supposed to do. These services explain to inexperienced users how the product works and allow them to perform some basic troubleshooting themselves.

The organization also has a 24/7 call centre for more serious problems. The technical support specialists are able to provide detailed and useful information in a very short period of time. This information should be useful to both inexperienced and experienced users.

Rates

Compared to other antivirus programs, Avast is about average in terms of spending. There are four main price levels: Free, Internet Security, Premier and Ultimate. If you are determined to pay for Avast, Internet Security is probably the best option for you. It includes several useful quality-of-life features that are lacking at the free level: a "real site" option that protects against phishing sites, a ransom shield to protect your files from encryption, a firewall that blocks intrusion attempts and an anti-spam function.

Internet security also includes one of the most interesting features that are not included in the free version: the "Sandbox" mode. This mode allows you to open files and programs in a virtual machine that has no access rights to your desktop. If the file contains malware, the malware will run in an area where it cannot harm your computer. This is a really nice little bonus, and it's great for anyone who constantly receives phishing attempts.

Meanwhile, the higher price levels contain more software that is nice to have, but not essential. Upgrading to Premier gives you access to the unnecessary data destruction and disk cleaning features, while upgrading to Ultimate gives you access to the VPN and password manager. Neither of these is necessarily essential to the security of your data, and if you need to use them, they are available from third parties at a lower price for the same efficiency.

Once again, the free Avast level gives you all the information security you'll probably need, but if you need to upgrade to a higher version, the Internet security level offers you most of the other services.

In summary

Avast Antivirus is a high quality product that will ensure the absolute security of your computer. Its free version offers a very high level of security, although usability issues make it difficult to access some of its more granular features without being assailed by upgrade requests.

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