Free Malware Prevention Software Roundup

When it first hit the scene, the free avast! virus scanner was a pretty new and novel idea. It was the first really good virus protection suite I had found that was not only free, but was free to update with the latest virus definitions. Not a free trial, like McAfee or Symantec, but a totally free virus protection solution that would last forever.

I’ve been a faithful avast! advocate ever since, but recently decided to test out some of the other free malware protection software available (Avira and AVG). Has my faith been shaken? Read on to find out!

There’s lots of free virus protection software out there now, but most of it just can’t compete. So, for this roundup, I decided to test out what I think are currently the three most popular options: avast!, AVG, and Avira AntiVir. We’ll start with good ol’ avast!…

Avast! homepage
As I said before, I’ve been using avast! for quite awhile now and have been generally happy with it. It can detect pretty much all types of malware, including rootkits and spyware–and it does a great job at it without being a resource hog. It also includes a bunch of “plugins” that let avast! integrate more tightly with your web browser, email client, P2P applications, and even instant messenging software. Nice.

What I like most about avast!, though, is its user-interface. I’m not sure how the other virus protection software can miss the mark here, but avast! is just so much easier and simpler to use. If a virus is found, an easy-to-understand window pops up letting you know not to panic and what to do. When the software needs to be updated, a notification window pops up and walks you through it. When the virus database needs to be updated, avast! does it automatically (and lets you know when it’s done). This stuff may seem trivial, but if it gets any more difficult than that, the less technical-savvy computer users out there will get confused and scared. This stuff should be trivial, and avast! makes sure it is.

There’s one downside to avast!, though, and it’s quickly becoming its Achilles heel. Currently, avast! depends on signature-based virus definitions for doing its detection, and contains no behavioral analysis features. The signature-based approach is really beginning to show its age as new viruses (and many times, virus variations) won’t be caught until they’ve been added to the virus database. This means avast! may miss certain new or rare viruses. To protect against these threats, you’ll need something with behavioral analysis like Avira AntiVir…

Avira AntiVir homepage
Avira has become a lot more popular lately, and for good reason. It’s now a great, free, full-featured anti-malware software suite. From my tests, it seems to do a fantastic job at stopping malware–even better than avast. This is due to its heuristics scanner which attempts to detect unknown malware based on how a program “behaves” (in addition to traditional signature-based detection). Avira doesn’t include all the nice plugins that avast! does, but files are still checked for viruses every time they’re read or written, which is fine.

The user-interface is quite good, but not as friendly as avast’s. Also, Avira nags you to upgrade to their premium version everytime you update the virus definitions. This is not only annoying, but can be misleading as the popup can look very much like a suspicious rogue virus application. However, a lack of bells and whistles and the addition of a nag screen doesn’t change the fact that Avira AntiVir did the best job at detecting malware in my tests–I highly recommend it.

AVG homepage
Probably the most popular free anti-virus application available today is AVG. Unfortunately, I just don’t see why. It has some neat features such as a real-time website scanner which puts a red X next to bad sites in your Google search results. However, In my tests, AVG only caught about 70% of the malware sites I threw at it. This is dismal.

One of the reasons for this is AVG’s lack of rootkit detection. Rootkits account for a large number of malware in the wild, and they can be very hard to remove if you don’t have an alternative environment you can boot into (like UBCD4Win or another computer you can slave the hard drive onto). Even with its heuristics scanning enabled, without rootkit detection AVG will leave you terribly vulnerable. The interface isn’t exactly easy for a novice user to understand, either. I’m still confused as to why they give you the option to not remove a detected virus as a power user.

So is avast! still my top-choice? I have to admit, It’s a tough call between avast! and Avira. Avast has nice plugins and a dead-simple interface. Avira nags you with a popup everytime you update it, but it includes heuristic detection–and that’s the kicker. Can I deal with a popup once a day or so to get a fairly noticeable detection rate improvement? You bet I can.

The interface in Avira isn’t quite as friendly as avast, but it’s certainly not confusing either–not even for a novice user. As long as you’re familiar with the popup and aren’t going to mistake it for rogue spyware, it’s well worth the extra protection Avira’s heuristic scanning gives you. A quick Google search might even reveal a way you can remove the nag screen…

Sorry avast. I’ll always remember the good times we had. You’ve served me well, but the times they are a changing. Until you add in heuristics, I’ll be moving on to Avira. Don’t feel too bad, though… I’d still pick you over AVG.

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