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 modernised 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.
Long-time Avira fans will note that the suites have also 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 skipped 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 spring 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.
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 an 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 one 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' interfaces. A left nav shows you your tools, while the centre 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 to the free competition.
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 against new threats 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 greyed 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 that Avira has made are not so apparent. Long-time users of Avira Free are not likely to recognise 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 that 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 customised level of security. This includes scanning as Administrator from the main interface, a window showing real-time 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 this 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, we 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.
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 comes with a suspicious behaviour guard for when programs or files that might be trusted act in an unsecure manner; the silent/gaming mode for full-screen use; and live telephone support. Avira Internet Security 12 rolls in parental controls; an email spam guard; anti-phishing measures; and a firewall that we found to be obnoxiously chatty and intrusive.
While the firewall and parental controls are always relegated to premium status, it seems quite miserly 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 that 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 one minute, 25 seconds. However, the new Avira still does not white list known safe files on your system, so repeated scans will check out the same file, even if it's got a hash indicating that it's been unchanged since the last scan. The full scan averaged one hour, 36 minutes over three installs, which is an appropriate benchmark for such a resource-intensive scan.
CNET's 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 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 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 that we looked at. As the chart below shows, shut-down time, scan speed and the in-use system tests of MS Office performance and iTunes decoding were almost always better than average, often by a lot. Avira was weak on the Cinebench test.
systems (to date)
Note: all tests are measured in seconds, except for Cinebench. On the Cinebench test, higher numbers are better.
Independent testing agency AV-Test.org has marked acceptable scores for Avira Premium Security Suite 10 (Avira Internet Security as of version 12) during the first two quarters of 2011. On a Windows 7 computer during Q1, Bitdefender scored four out of six on Protection, 3.5 out of six on Repair and four out of six on Usability, for an overall score of 11.5 out of 18, just clearing the minimum of 11 for an AV-Test.org certificate.
In the second quarter, on a Windows XP computer, the same suite did slightly better. The suite hit 3.5 out of six on Protection, 4.5 out of six on Repair, and four out of six on Usability, for a total of 12 out of 18. However, at that point Avira hadn't updated the detection engines in a while.
When AV-Test.org tested Avira Premium Suite Security 10.2 in July and August 2011, Avira climbed a bit higher, with a four out of six on Protection and Repair, and 4.5 out of six on Usability, for a total of 12.5 out of 18.
Note that AV-Test.org defines its categories as follows: "The 'Protection' covers static and dynamic malware detection, including real-world zero-day attack testing. In case of 'Repair', we check the system disinfection and rootkit removal in detail. The 'Usability' testing includes the system slowdown caused by the tools and the number of false positives."
Third-quarter results aren't in yet, but results shared by AV-Test.org with CNET indicate that along with the new name, the suite has made some significant improvements in the level of protection offered. It notched a 99.73 per cent malware detection rate, higher than the overall average rate of 99.29 per cent in September 2011 certification testing. The suite was able to remove 87.5 per cent of active malware infections, slightly higher than the industry average of 84.6 per cent. AV-Test.org did not test, or did not release numbers for rootkits. In AV-Test.org's zero-day attacks test, Avira Free blocked 92.7 per cent of threats, while the two premium suites blocked 96.4 per cent of the attacks, compared to the average September 2011 certification results of 92.7 per cent. The suite also did not find any false positives against more than 330,000 samples.
In short, AV-Test.org found Avira 12 to be more effective than Avira 10, although there were suites both paid and free that did better.
The most recent AV-Comparatives.org Whole Product test, which looks at on-demand scanning, retroactive tests and "real-world" guards, including cloud-based protections, puts Avira Premium Security Suite 10 in the top four suites tested. The August 2011 test found that it blocked 98.4 per cent of attacks and threats thrown at it, only behind Trend Micro's Titanium and Symantec's Norton. Meanwhile, looking at Whole Product test results cumulatively from January 2011 to August 2011 found that Avira 10 did far worse, coming in ninth with a 97.0 per cent success rate. So, while Avira started the year off rough, it has clearly made strides to improve, and that bodes well if you're considering using version 12.
A third testing lab, Dennis Technology Labs, had much worse news for Avira from its January 2011 test. In its test of high-end suites, including Avira Premium Security Suite 10, Dennis Labs placed Avira second to last out of 11 suites. Avira had an Accuracy score of 28 out of 100, but this did not include false positives. The Total Accuracy score, which does include files that are marked as threats but in fact are not, also put Avira at second to last with a score of 64.5 out of 150. Avira struggled with the lab's Protection test, earning only 66 per cent, second to last and well below the average of 84 per cent. The bottom line here is that Dennis Labs and Avira 10 did not mix well, at all.
It's fair to conclude that according to third-party tests, Avira 10 tested weakly at the beginning of 2011, but has made strides to improve and should not be discounted. Still, movement in the right direction is not the same as consistent performance, but things are looking up for Avira — at least when it comes to protecting its customers.
Avira Free Antivirus 12 is a solid effort by one of the most popular and trusted security suite makers, in order to address an ever-changing and increasingly more dangerous threatscape. It offers solid and effective free protection, with a newly accessible interface, but it lacks some of the competitive features that other free suites give their users. Also, depending on your system, you might have to prepare for much longer computer start-up time, and there's that daily pop-up nag to contend with. We're glad to see that Avira has no intention of straying behind the pack anymore; however, we expected more from this long-overdue update.