It may be best known for its free antivirus, but Prague-based Avast is a cyber-security giant which reports 400 million users and claims to have 40% of the security software market outside of China. In 2016, it acquired AVG, and Avast products now combine the best of both technologies.
Avast Pro Antivirus is a very powerful product which comes stuffed with essential features. There’s real-time virus protection, URL filtering, a password manager, browser clean-up module, wireless network checker, and a secure browser for your online banking and shopping.
One problem here is that Avast Free also has these features. The main benefit of Avast Pro is RealSite, a secure DNS system which protects from DNS hijacks and stops you being scammed by copycat sites. There’s also a sandbox to securely test dubious programs, which could be handy if you’re forever downloading the latest freeware.
The other issue might be the price, which officially is an eye-watering £40 ($51) for a one-computer, one-year licence. McAfee charges the same amount to cover as many computers as you need, and other big-name competitors are typically around £25 to £30.
Still, you may not have to pay this, at least for year one. After the 30-day trial period was completed we were offered much lower ‘upgrade’ prices: £20 ($25) for one year, £35 ($45) for two and £50 ($64) for three. If you’re interested in the product, take the trial rather than pay the full price on the Avast website, and look out for discounts and deals elsewhere.
Avast Pro Antivirus offers plenty of fine-tuning options for experienced users, and that starts almost as soon as you fire up the installer. Hitting the Customise module allows the user to choose exactly which of 17 modules they’d like to install. If you don’t need the browser extensions, or you’re happy with another password manager, or there’s anything else you don’t want, just clear the relevant checkboxes and they’ll be ignored.
There’s an unusual privacy-related touch at the end of the process. As with many other products, Avast Pro Antivirus collects (non-personal) information about its use, but the company doesn’t just opt you in to this scheme and hope you won’t notice. A detailed message explains what happens and why, and explains where you can turn this feature off.
Dismiss the privacy details and there’s nothing else to do. Avast doesn’t even prompt you to reboot: you can just carry on as normal.
Checking out the Avast program folders revealed several unsigned files, an issue as it makes it more difficult to identify the developer. Most of these are third-party, but at least two appear to be Avast’s own code.
There’s a lot of code there, too. In fact there’s around a gigabyte of files – no great surprise with Avast’s many features to support. This doesn’t seem to be reflected in the resource requirements, though. Avast Pro Antivirus added three background processes to our test PC, and most of the time they used less than 100MB RAM.
Launch Avast Pro Antivirus for the first time and it appears deceptively simple: you’ll see just a toolbar to the left and a single Smart Scan button. But click the button and you’ll realise what the program can do, as it checks for viruses, incompatible software, missing patches, bad browser add-ons, network security issues, performance problems and weak passwords, all in around three minutes.
Malware detection was above average in our tests, though we did have a couple of false alarms. If you don’t want to run the Smart Scan, there are separate buttons to run a quick scan, full scan, check removable drives, scan specific folders, or schedule a scan when you next boot.
Web protection is partly delivered by browser extensions, but annoyingly the Chrome add-on (Avast Online Security) wasn’t immediately installed by Avast. There seems to be a built-in 12-hour delay, and it wasn’t until the next day that we were prompted to accept the installation. (We could have installed it manually, but that shouldn’t be necessary, and many users might not realise it’s missing anyway.)
Fortunately, the browsing protection you get is generally very good. URL filtering is better than most, especially for malware sites (antiphishing results were average). Dangerous links are also highlighted in search engine results, and most trackers are blocked.
The browsing extensions also try to detect when you’re logging in to a banking site, and prompt you to launch Avast’s SafeZone instead, a secure and isolated browser which makes it more difficult for malware to capture your details. This worked for us with all the banking sites we tried, although it did nothing when we visited PayPal. Fortunately, you can customise SafeZone’s behaviour or just launch it manually to more securely browse wherever you like.
Avast’s RealSite (also described as Secure DNS in the Pro Antivirus interface) is an unusual bonus feature which aims to protect against DNS hijacking. Essentially, when you go to a website your DNS request is passed via an encrypted connection to Avast’s own DNS server, ensuring you can’t be redirected to a malicious copycat site. This is a welcome extra, but we’re unsure how often it will protect you from anything, and the extra DNS work might fractionally slow down your browsing. (You can easily turn it off, mind, if that’s the case.)
Home Network Security is a handy scanner which checks your network for security issues, such as weak encryption or devices which might be accessible from the internet. It provided valuable information in our tests, but interpreting and using this requires some networking knowledge.
Avast’s Sandbox runs programs in a safe isolated environment where they can’t affect your main system. It’s useful as a way for experts to test programs they are unsure about the safety of, but less technical types will probably never use it.
The Software Updater checks for updates to browsers, iTunes, Adobe Reader, Flash, Java, and a few other popular applications. There are similar free tools that support more software, but this one still does a valuable job, correctly detecting eight significant missing patches and installing them all with a click. In theory it can also detect and install updates automatically, but this just generated a ‘content unavailable’ error and advice to check our internet connection (which was working perfectly).
There’s a basic password manager which stores all your passwords and syncs them across devices. It works, but the form auto-filling feature didn’t always deliver for us, and there are better freeware password managers around.
It’s a similar story with Avast’s Cleanup, a tool for detecting and removing junk files. It finds plenty of leftovers but doesn’t show you exactly what it’s going to delete, which makes us nervous. You’re better off with something like CCleaner.
There’s no doubt that Avast Pro Antivirus has a lengthy feature list, and just about everything is hugely configurable. Some modules have issues, though, others aren’t strictly malware-related, and you could replace many of them with similar or better applications for free. It’s still a powerful package, but don’t just focus on the number of features: look at them all in turn, and figure out what you really need and will use.
Avast did a good job detecting our malware samples, but to understand the big picture we also take account of the verdicts of the independent testing labs.
AV-Comparatives’ regular real-world protection tests usually give a very consistent indicator of reliability – but not this time. Avast has topped the charts, but also returned average and below average results, sometimes in consecutive months. The overall picture isn’t bad at all – Avast got more Advanced+ awards in 2016 than BullGuard, F-Secure, Sophos, Trend Micro and more – but with so much variation it’s hard to have confidence in the figures.
AV-Test’s Windows home user reports are more reassuring. There are only two of these a year, but the 2016 reports and the first 2017 test all give Avast top marks for protection. But then we checked SE-Labs Jan-Mar 2017 Home Anti-Malware Protection test, and found it placed Avast Free Antivirus in last place out of eight products, behind even Microsoft Security Essentials.
How can we interpret this? Our experience of Avast suggests above-average accuracy, and the most frequent and large-scale lab tests also return good results sometimes. But there’s also far more variability in scores than with most of the competition, and that’s the real takeaway here: Avast simply isn’t as consistent as leading engines like Bitdefender and Kaspersky.
We completed our checks by looking at Avast’s speed and performance impact on the host system. PassMark’s March 2017 Security Products Performance report assesses 15 top antivirus tools with 23 metrics, and Avast scored a mid-table eighth. And finally, some testing agreement: AV-Comparatives’ May 2017 Performance Test also placed Avast roughly in the middle of a field of 21. Not great, but not bad either, and overall Avast isn’t likely to significantly slow you down.
Avast Pro Antivirus is crammed with features and can be very accurate, but all of its best bits are already available in Avast Free. Unless you need the sandbox or secure DNS, we’d opt for the free edition instead.