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Avira Free Antivirus

The bottom line: An aggressive redesign aimed at making its best-known suite more accessible than before, Avira Free Antivirus 12 combines fast scans with above-average protection for a solid security combo.

Free antivirus maker Avira debuts a laundry list of changes in its latest major update, basically repositioning the suite to remain competitive in the face of tougher competition from other free security suites and a renewed emphasis on performance from paid competitors. From the new breezy installation to the modernized interface and reputable security, the suite has a lot going for it.

However, it notably lacks some features that many people consider basics even at the free level, so this version may only wind up appealing to existing Avira users and fans.

Longtime Avira fans will note that the suites also have undergone a bit of a name change. The product title “AntiVir” has been dropped, as Avira AntiVir Personal becomes Avira Free Antivirus, Avira AntiVir Premium becomes Avira Antivirus Premium, and Avira Premium Security Suite becomes Avira Internet Security. While product-specific names may work for some companies because of legacy associations, such as the Norton product from Symantec, new user confusion has likely forced security suite makers to streamline their operations.

The suites have also skippped version 11, perhaps driven by a Spinal Tap-esque fear of exploding amps, and gone straight to version 12. It’s also possible that the company was thinking of aligning the version number with the release year, as most security suites released in the fall have version numbers that reflect the coming year.

Getting into Avira has never been easier, as version 12 debuts a two-click install. The company says that it developed the two-click installation as part of its “less is more” strategy, where it offers the same level of protection as before without the hassle. Of course, that’s a tacit acknowledgement of prior problems.

Avira 12 renews commitment to security

Anyway, the new install is the simplest of the major free security suites. The two-click process will auto-detect competing security components and remove them, so be warned if you think you’re going to be more secure by running two overlapping AVs. Avira won’t let you.

Another click will take you past the Ask.com toolbar and search engine re-direct, but at least Avira is polite: it’s an opt-in, not opt-out, experience. The toolbar screen itself is a bit unclear: it’s actually Avira’s WebGuard feature, powered by an Ask.com search engine that’s part of the toolbar. There’s also an option to have Ask.com become your browser’s default engine, although that’s not checked by default.

At the end of the installation process, Avira will begin a quick scan. On our test machine, it took about 1 minute, 25 seconds to complete, a completely reasonable wait to endure before the suite is ready to go.

The new interface is simple and mimics that of many competitors. A left nav shows you your tools, while the center pane focuses on a deeper dive into your security. New on-off buttons make it easy to toggle features, although it’s noteworthy that the free version is quite restricted when compared with the free competition.

The new main interface for Avira Free Antivirus 12.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

A red banner with the program name serves as a wrapper to anchor the suite, with a Windows XP-style menu bar above it. It doesn’t look bad in Windows 7, although it is definitely archaic. The only feature that you can’t reach from any other part of the interface except the menu bar is the Help menu.

The main interface is the Status window, with a green check box letting you know when you’re safe. It turns to yellow when there are security tasks to perform or when you’ve turned off a feature, like real-time protection. It turns red when there’s something mission-critical that requires your attention.

Below that, you’ve got two categories: PC protection, and Internet protection. What this really means is that the former protects you from threats locally, while the latter guards you against new threats from attacking you. Under PC protection, you can toggle your real-time protection, manually run a scan, start an update, or upgrade to a paid version of Avira. Use the gear icon next to each option to open the configuration window, which has its own slider in its upper-left corner to quickly change between the standard view and expert mode.

One hint about the system scanner option from the left nav: this is where you would go to initiate specific types of scans, or scans on specific parts of your computer, such as a rootkit scan in C:/Windows. For a generic scan, use the Scan System option from the Status window.

Under Internet protection, you only get one option in Avira Free: Web protection. If you chose to not install the toolbar, then this entire section will appear grayed out.

It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s the point. This is the easiest-to-use version of Avira yet.

Features and support
This is one area where the changes Avira has made are not so apparent. Longtime users of Avira Free are not likely to recognize much new. The scanner checks for virus, Trojans, rootkits, and adware. There’s a generic threat removal engine, but Avira–like many security suites–is much better at preventing threats from infecting you, rather than removing ones you’ve already got.

The advanced options menu doesn’t contain much that’s new, either, but the layout is new, and it’s quite easy for a savvy person to drill deep into security settings and either extract the information they want or set a very customized level of security. This includes scanning as Administrator from the main interface, a window showing realtime scan performance, configuring how to scan of archives, and a restart reminder in case you enjoy that kind of automated nagging.

The engine powering the scans has been improved, too. Your Hosts file is protected by default, and resource usage has been slashed. And after the daily virus definition file update, Avira still takes over your screen with a pop-up asking you to upgrade.

The company told me that it kept it because its users like it. According to its market research feedback, the pop-up apparently reminds people that they’ve been protected. Be that as it may, I find it an unnecessary distraction that blocks me once a day from doing something more important than clicking away an ad.

If a problem is discovered, a one-click Fix problems button appears at the top of the Status window. Click it, and even if the fix is something as simple as reactivating a deactivated module, the program will do it for you.

The WebGuard feature, available only if you install the Avira toolbar, takes a more aggressive approach to detecting sites that could be hosting malware before they load on your computer. This is not unlike Avira’s competitors. However, for the performance cost to the browser for a toolbar, search result ratings would be a nice compensation. Too bad they’re not offered.

Avira 12’s WebGuard toolbar.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Features-wise, the free version provides the kind of security that most people will be comfortable with. For people who want more, Avira Antivirus Premium 12 ($29.99 for a one-year license) comes with a suspicious behavior guard for when programs or files that might be trusted act in an unsecure manner; the silent/gaming mode for fullscreen use; and live telephone support. Avira Internet Security 12 ($49.99 for a one-year license) rolls in parental controls; an e-mail spam guard; antiphishing measures; and a firewall that I found to be obnoxiously chatty and intrusive.

While the firewall and parental controls are always relegated to premium status, it seems quite niggardly of Avira to reserve the silent/gaming mode for premium users, when competitors don’t and all the while insisting upon a pop-up that can interrupt any activity you’re using your computer for.

Avira’s performance in the past has been hit or miss, with strong detection rates but high false positives. Avira’s been doing a lot of work in that area, though, and this is one of the best-performing versions of Avira that we’ve seen.

Avira Free Antivirus 12 shares the same detection engine as its premium upgrade siblings, Avira Antivirus Premium 12 and Avira Internet Security 12, so all three are discussed here.

In a real-world test, Avira completed its initial scan during installation in 1 minute, 25 seconds. However, the new Avira still does not whitelist known safe files on your system, so repeated scans will check out the same file, even if it’s got a hash that indicates that it’s been unchanged since the last scan. The Full scan averaged 1 hour, 36 minutes over three installs, which is an appropriate benchmark for such a resource-intensive scan.

CNET Labs’ benchmarks found that Avira benchmarked well in most system tests, but with room for improvement in the critical test of boot-time impact. Note that while last year’s benchmarks were tested on the basic installation of Windows 7 x64, CNET Labs is now using a Windows 7 x64 test bed running Service Pack 1. So while results are more comparable than they would be with, say, a Windows XP computer, there’s still a notable difference between the test computers.

Avira Internet Security 12 performed had one of the smallest impacts on computer start up, slowing it down only by 13.1 seconds when the average was 25.3 seconds. However, Avira Free Antivirus and Avira Antivirus Premium slothed along and added nearly 60 seconds each, the two worst suites tested so far this year.

Once we get past that poor first showing, Avira tested better than average on nearly every system test we looked at. As the chart below shows, shutdown time, scan speed, and the in-use system tests of MS Office performance, iTunes decoding, and were almost always better than average, often by a lot. Avira was weak on the Cinebench test.

Categories: Antivirus
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