Avast! 8 is the latest generation of avast!’s security range, and as usual it’s available in several different packages, from the basic avast! Free 8 to the do-everything Premier build.
If you just want solid, standard all-round protection, though, avast! Internet Security 8 could be the best option. It takes all the core security suite basics -- antivirus, browsing protection, firewall, spam filter -- and extends them further with some useful new tools, making for what seems to be an appealing mix.
How does it feel in real life, though? We took the suite for a test run, to find out.
Avast! Internet Security 8 arrived in the form of a 135MB download, which unfortunately will install the Google toolbar by default. You can easily avoid this by choosing the “Custom Installation” option, but this is still the kind of issue we’d expect from dubious freeware, not commercial products from big-name companies.
Installation is at least quick, though, with the program telling us it was done after only around 40 seconds, and not even requiring a reboot. It was time to explore.
Avast! Internet Security 8 opens with a new touch-enabled Windows 8-style home page; six chunky tiles provide access to its various function areas (“Scan”, “Firewall” and so on), while a summary box displays your current protection and highlights any problems.
This screen is really just a front end, though, so if you choose one of the options (or simply click the Security tab) then you’ll find an interface which looks very similar to previous avast! editions.
A left-hand summary tab gives a more detailed view on how your system is doing. This now includes figures for all eight shields, as well as tooltips with more information (hover your mouse cursor over “File System Shield” displays the last scanned and infected files, for instance).
And the other tabs also provide quick access to common actions (launching a full system scan, say), useful settings and system information.
One small annoyance is that you can’t maximise the program window any more (if you want to avoid scrolling then you can manually resize it, but that’s not exactly convenient). But that aside, the avast! Internet Security 8 interface works well, providing easy access to its functions and a good summary of your current protection status.
Avast! has never had the fastest scanning engine around, but this edition does see one or two interesting performance optimizations. For example, it will by default now scan files in the order they’re stored on disk, rather than spidering through folders, and this should help keep seek operations to a minimum.
The end result was still a fairly average 19:22 for the first full scan of our test system. This dropped by a third once avast! began to make use of its persistent cache, though, while Quick Scans were completed in under 5 minutes, and in general we found the program to be noticeably faster than the previous edition.
Scanning accuracy is more important, of course, and the program detected 95% of the test malware in our own small test. The independent testing labs tend to give avast! more mid-range ratings (AV-Test’s “Average Protection 2012″ chart placed avast! Free 11th out of 20), but avast! 8 improvements – an enhanced behaviour shield, more frequent updates and more – may help lift it in the rankings.
One notable plus with avast! 8 is that it can now scan emails even if you have SSL/ TLS security enabled in your email client. Although some people have reported problems with this, it worked well for us.
But whatever you’re doing, avast! has its usual minimal impact on system performance. Even when scanning, the suite typically only has three processes running, consuming perhaps 50MB RAM at most and little CPU time: it’s not going to slow you down.
Phishing, firewall and antispam
Run a web search and avast! Internet Security 8 checks the results with its WebRep tool, highlighting sites which other avast! users have rated poorly. And a toolbar icon displays the same information when you’re at the site -- green for safe, yellow for uncertain, red for risky -- allowing you to see at a glance when you might need to be careful.
Of course user ratings can only give you a very general picture of a site, so avast! Internet Security 8 also has a separate antiphishing module which tries to detect and warn you about scam sites. This delivered average results in testing, picking up only around half of sample sites, but the program did do better with web-based malware. Detection rates were excellent and all forced downloads were blocked.
Avast! Internet Security 8 includes additional protective layers, too. Suspect programs are launched in a sandbox, an isolated environment which limits any damage they might be able to do. And the suite also comes with the SafeZone, a virtual desktop with its own custom browser, separate from the rest of your system. Do your internet shopping or banking here and you’ll know your details are safe from monitoring by keyloggers and similar stealthy malware.
Elsewhere, the firewall does a competent job of hiding you online and protecting your system from network attacks, all without any hassles from alerts. But it can also be disabled easily -- just set the “avast! Firewall” service Startup type to “Disabled”, and reboot -- and while the suite recognizes the problem, it’s not smart enough to spot the cause, or resolve it. We’re not sure how important this is (if you’re infected by malware which can stop services then you’re already in big trouble), but it’s still an issue we’d like to see fixed.
Fortunately the spam filter does rather better, its 94 percent detection rate being above what we’d expect from a security suite. The program did also falsely flag 5% of our legitimate emails, but that can be addressed in several ways (tweaking filter sensitivity, adding addresses to your whitelist and more), and on balance it works well.
There’s no backup component here, no parental controls, but avast! Internet Security 8 has been extended with a couple of lesser tools.
Browser Cleanup is a simple program which tries to identify and help you remove IE or Firefox addons which “either have a poor reputation amongst [avast!] users or which engage in aggressive tactics to manipulate your settings”.
While this sounds good, we’re not sure that it’s highlighting the worst offenders (on our PC it picked up on Firefox’s popular “YouTube Ratings Preview” extension, as well as the Winamp Toolbar), and experienced users probably won’t be impressed. But security novices may find the program useful, especially as it resets browser settings after removal, and on balance it’s a small plus.
Software Updater is a more promising addition, a handy tool which scans the software installed on your PC and then checks for any missing updates. While it doesn’t cover everything, there’s a sensible focus on the components which really matter -- browsers, Flash, Java, Adobe AIR, Adobe Reader, iTunes, uTorrent and so on -- and the program correctly detected and highlighted outdated software on our test PC, installing most new updates with a click.
We say “most” because there were occasional issues, as for instance all Chrome updates just failed with an error. But even here, Software Updater still helps, by first alerting you to the update, and then providing a “click here” link which takes you to a web page with more information. It’s definitely a positive addition to the suite, and we’ll be interested to see how it improves in future.
Verdict: avast! Internet Security 8 isn't the best security suite around, but it's a solid mid-range product which improves on the previous edition in a number of ways, and is a worthwhile upgrade for avast! fans.
We Like: Lightweight; improved scanning performance; effective firewall; SSL email scanning; high spam detection rate; excellent sandbox and SafeZone; highlights missing software updates.
We Don't Like: Scanning speeds could still be faster; firewall can be disabled; some legitimate emails flagged as spam; Software Updater can't always install updates.