Avast is famed for its free antivirus, which the company claims “offers the most-trusted security in the world”, protecting “more than 220 million people, businesses and mobile devices”. So what more do you get if you actually pay for it?
Basically, you get more power: the commercial Avast Internet Security 2015 extends the package with a firewall, spam filter, secure browser, antiphishing tool, sandbox and a software update checker.
This new release further improves your security by blocking “potentially unwanted programs”, like browser toolbars and similar adware. A new “Home Network Security” tool scans your network for security issues, while the “Smart Scan” provides a quick and easy way to check your system for vulnerabilities.
Installing the program proved simple and straightforward. There were no demands to remove “incompatible software” beforehand (even though our test PC was already equipped with Norton Internet Security), and no need to reboot afterwards: the suite just installed and displayed its main console, a helpful “tutorial” pointing out a few new features.
The Avast interface has seen some tweaks, but remains easy enough to use. An Overview tab provides one-click access to scanning and other common tasks (each of these buttons can be customised with your choice of function), while menus give more in-depth access to the suite’s features.
It’s a comfortable working environment, then, and even Avast newbies will soon be ready to explore what the package has to offer.
Avast Internet Security 2015 offers many scanning options. You can run a quick scan, check your full system, removable media, schedule a boot scan, or right-click anything of interest in Explorer and choose the “Avast…” option to check for threats.
There are separate scans to check for missing software patches, and (new this time) network security issues. The Overview screen now opens with a Smart Scan option, too, which runs all these checks at once.
The Smart Scan doesn’t take quite as long as you’d think – under two minutes on our test PC – but, annoyingly, by default it runs a “GrimeFighter” check for junk files. Avast’s GrimeFighter isn’t even included with the product, so this is no more than an advert, which tells you about any “problems” and then requires that you pay more cash to solve them. That’s not something we expect to see in a commercial program, but at least it can be turned off in a few seconds (Settings > General > Smart Scan).
More thorough antivirus scans achieved average speeds only, and the program won’t back off if you’re doing something else. Still, it didn’t make a significant difference to our PC performance when running other tasks.
The suite had no problem locating and removing our malware samples, but the independent testing labs aren’t so encouraging, with AV-Comparatives and AV-Test typically placing Avast around the middle/ lower middle of their results tables.
There are no big, obvious problems here, and Avast Internet Security 2015 does offer some worthwhile improvements: TSL/SSL scanning worked well for us (although others have reported problems), and support for hardware-based virtualization better isolates processes in their own virtual machine. But its overall results still don’t stand out in any major way.
Avast’s web protection starts with your search engine results, where icons are used to warn you of some dangerous sites. You probably won’t see these too often, but it’s a simple and reasonably effective system.
If you’ve clicked on a link already – in a web page, an email, maybe a document – then Avast’s Web Shield checks it for you. This blocked around two thirds of our test URLs, a reasonable score, but the highlight here is probably Avast’s configurability. You can scan particular files only, ignore certain MIME types, define packers to extract, block named URLs all the time, and choose what to do if a virus is found: it’s extremely flexible.
Avast’s SafeZone offers a secure environment where you can bank online, make web payments and more, all safely isolated from the rest of your system. We had huge problems with this in the 2014 edition – it crashed our test PC, repeatedly – but this time there were no issues at all. Banking sites correctly opened in SafeZone; it’s available on demand for everything else, and our SafeZone activities were entirely invisible to keyloggers and other system tools.
Avast’s firewall was another major plus, intelligently blocking network attacks and correctly controlling web access, without any annoying alerts. As with most other suite components, it’s exceptionally configurable, too.
One problem remained from last year: Usenet reader Grabit was unable to run searches unless Avast’s shields were disabled. Most people won’t care about that example – its obscurity is why we use Grabit for testing in the first place – but it’s still a little concerning that a legitimate program can be affected in this way, with no easy fix.
Fortunately our faith was restored with the excellent spam filter. This added a neat toolbar to our Outlook 2013 ribbon, then blocked an impressive 91% of our test junk mails, no tweaking required. Even better, it falsely flagged just two legitimate emails, and both of those were from commercial mailing lists: not ideal, but we can see why they were flagged, and whitelisting these would mean they’d never be blocked again.
New and bonus features
One major addition to Avast 2015 (the full range, including Free) is Home Network Security (HNS), an interesting module which scans your network and reports on potential problems: unencrypted wifi, default router passwords, DNS hijacking, maybe your router being accessible from the internet.
We tried it on a test system, and after a 70 second wait, HNS wisely pointed out that Admin/ Admin really wasn’t a good user name and password choice. This was all clearly explained in a detailed Help page, complete with instructions on how to change the password in several router types (Asus, D-Link, Huawei, Linksys/ Cisco, NETGEAR, Sagem, TP-LINK, ZyXEL). It can even open a browser page at your router IP address with a click.
SecureDNS, another new addition to Avast’s commercial products, encrypts DNS traffic to and from Avast’s DNS server to avoid DNS hijacking. This seems to work as described and in principle is worth having, but we didn’t test it in any significant way.
The supposedly “improved” Browser Cleanup tool isn’t quite so sophisticated, essentially just highlighting browser addons which have a “poor reputation” and removing some of all of them with a click. While this seems a reasonable idea, the ratings don’t mean very much, with entirely safe and legitimate addons like Avira SafeSearch being flagged as problematic (its actual user rating at the Chrome store is 4.5). Still, it has some value as a central point to view your browser addons.
The improved Software Updater was more impressive, quickly highlighting missing software updates in many key applications: Flash, Java, browsers, Adobe Reader, media players and more. You can have all of these updated at once, or just choose the most important, and there’s an option to ignore particular programs if you’d rather manage them yourself.
Even better, the updates run silently where possible, and so for the most part you won’t see any installation prompts: the latest versions just appear.
Elsewhere, a capable sandbox is on hand to run suspect programs in their own isolated environment.
And if you still somehow get infected, Avast Internet Security 2015′s Rescue Disk tool builds a bootable Windows PE-based recovery environment on disc, USB key or as an ISO image. It’s very simple – no other recovery software, just antivirus only – but was easy to use and worked precisely as expected in our tests.
From the firewall to the spam filter, the sandbox to the new network scanner, there's a lot to like about Avast Internet Security 2015. Experts will appreciate its extreme configurability, too. But Avast's distinctly average protection scores from labs including AV-Comparatives and AV-Test are a significant concern, and this core antivirus issue makes the suite hard to recommend.
Pros: Smart firewall, accurate spam filter, SafeZone protects your privacy, handy new network scanner, highly configurable, some detailed Help pages
Cons: Unimpressive detection results with independent testing labs, can interfere with some legitimate applications, some tools require extra spending to be useful