Avira Free Antivirus has top-notch malware protection, can be customized to suit your computing style and doesn't incessantly bother you to upgrade to a paid version. It works well with other free, useful Avira programs, such as a virtual private network (VPN) client and a secure Web browser. On the downside, Avira Free Antivirus noticeably slowed our test PC during active system scans, and there's no tech support.
Avira Free Antivirus protects PCs using traditional signature-based malware scanning, augmented by behavioral monitoring for subtler signs of an infection. Both constantly operate in the background as well as during active scans.
Avira's Cloud Protection examines suspect items uploaded by the 100 million users of Avira software, and quickly pushes out definition updates. Cloud Protection collects malware samples from you by default, but you can opt out.
Manual scans can be started from the main interface window, although the Scan System button in the center isn't easy to spot. You can set the scan priority to low, medium or high; can choose from a wide assortment of detailed parameters, including master-boot-record, rootkit or Registry scans; and can customize what to scan, such as My Documents, active processes or even Windows directories. It's easy to schedule a daily or weekly scan.
Avira Free Antivirus lacks protection for email clients or Web browsers — those items are grayed out in the interface, awaiting an upgrade to a paid version — and it can't examine files stored in a cloud server. But Avira's free Browser Safety plugins for Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox will block known malicious URLs. (Windows 10's Edge browser isn't yet covered, and we couldn't get the plugin to install on IE 11 on Windows 10.)
Avira's malware-scanning engine does an excellent job of keeping a PC infection-free. Avira stopped 100 percent of tricky, previously unseen "zero-day" malware in German independent lab AV-TEST's most recent Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 evaluations, conducted in the fall of 2015. In the same tests, Avira stopped either 100 or 99.9 percent of widespread, previously known malware.
Avira dropped a rung in the most recent Windows 7 evaluations, stopping only 99.1 percent of zero-day threats in January 2016, and 99.0 percent in February. However, Avira's widespread-malware detection rate stayed high, at 99.9 percent in each month.
In tests conducted on Windows 7 by Austrian lab AV-Comparatives, Avira stopped 99.7 percent of online malware in November 2015, and 99.9 percent in December, putting Avira just behind Bitdefender and Panda. It registered eight false positives (benign items mistakenly tagged as malware) over those two months — better than Microsoft Security Essentials' 52 false positives, but not as good as AVG's zero.
All told, Avira's anti-malware engine is in the upper ranks. Only on Windows 7 did it fall behind Bitdefender's excellent malware detection.
Security and Privacy Features
You can't expect a lot of bells and whistles from free antivirus software, and Avira Free Antivirus doesn't come with many extra features. But when you add other free Avira products, it starts to look like a mid-range antivirus program retailing for $80 per year. These freebies include a privacy-minded Web browser called Scout, the aforementioned Browser Safety plugins to screen out malicious URLs, and a virtual-private-network (VPN) client called Phantom VPN for Windows and Android.
VPNs are essential when traveling, as they funnel Web traffic through an encrypted server. The free version of Phantom VPN is capped at 500MB of data per month, which rises to 1GB if you register with Avira. For unlimited data, it's $78 per year.
The Scout browser is related to Google Chrome, and was nearly up-to-date with Chrome when we tested it. Scout adds the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Privacy Badger and HTTPS Everywhere plugins to minimize third-party tracking and maximize secure connections, and Avira's own SafeSearch plugin, which uses a sanitized version of Google Search.
But because Scout can run any Chrome app, it's not as secure as Bitdefender's free Safepay browser, a locked-down version of Mozilla Firefox that blocks extensions and includes a password manager and a virtual keyboard. Furthermore, you could get the same results by adding the aforementioned privacy plugins to Chrome.
Avira Free Antivirus comes with a month's free trial of Avira System Speedup, a system-optimization tool that costs $32 per year and includes a file shredder and file-encryption software.
Avira provides free software to create a rescue disk on a CD or USB drive that will independently boot and clean a system bogged down with malware. Unfortunately, the rescue disk software isn't built-in, but requires a 230MB download.
Performance and System Impact
Avira Free Antivirus had a moderate impact on system performance, which we assessed by running our custom OpenOffice benchmark test, which matches 20,000 names and addresses on a spreadsheet. Our test machine was an Asus X555LA laptop running Windows 10 with a 2-Ghz Intel Core i3-4005U chip, 6GB of RAM and 36GB of data stored on a 500GB hard drive.
After Avira Free Antivirus was installed, the OpenOffice benchmark completed its task in 7 minutes and 2 seconds, which was nine seconds longer than without any antivirus software installed. That's a passive system hit of 2.2 percent, a bit more than many other free antivirus products, but not something you'd ordinarily notice.
However, you would notice the slowdown caused by Avira's active scans. During a full-system scan, the Open Office completion time was 9:10, signifying a performance degradation of 33 percent — relatively better than Microsoft Windows Defender's 46 percent hit, but much worse than Avast Free Antivirus's impressive 3.3 percent slowdown.
Avira's quick-scan performance hit was also 33 percent, which is unusual; we ran it again just to make sure. It let the OpenOffice task finish in 9:08, only 2 seconds less than the full-scan time. That's the biggest quick-scan performance hit of any product in this category.
That processor-usage spike might be because the quick scan is so intense and brief. It took only 20 seconds to go through 1,226 of what Avira deemed to be the system's most vulnerable files. That's by far the fastest quick-scan time of the free antivirus products we recently reviewed.
Avira's full-scan completion time was 44:03, putting it in the middle of the pack. By contrast, AVG AntiVirus Free took 14:02 and won the speed prize, while Avast Free Antivirus lagged behind at 1 hour and 24 minutes.
But unlike most of their peers, Avira and Avast scan every file, every time. Other brands examine every file once, then designate a large percentage of the files as safe and skip them from then on.
Avira Free Antivirus' main window lacks a big scanning button, but you can click a discreet bar reading "Scan system" to start a full-system scan. Across the top are tabs for File, View, Extras, Update and Help. A green checkmark shows that everything is copacetic. It turns to a red X when things are not so good.
A black column on the left links to features including Status (the main screen), System Scanner, Android Security, Quarantine, Scheduler, Reports and Events. The various screens don't have go-back buttons, so you'll have to jump around to get back to where you've been.
Two primary actions, Scan System and Start Update, have bar buttons to start them, while Real Time Protection and Firewall have toggle switches. Three other features — Web Protection, Mail Protection and Game Mode — are not part of Avira Free Antivirus and are grayed out.
Avira Free Antivirus excels in the amount of user control it offers. The program has several layers of configuration options, some of which might be confusing. But if "maximum recursion depth" or "macrovirus heuristic" mean nothing to you, definitions will appear when you hover your mouse over each item.
The built-in Help section is more detailed than those of other free antivirus products, but still falls short. For instance, the Firewall section lacks detailed instructions on how to use the Windows firewall.
Avira has its share of suggestions to upgrade to paid versions, but the pitches aren't as onerous as in other brands' free AV products. The only constant reminder is the slim "Upgrade Now" bar in the main interface.
The best enticement to upgrade is the Avira Launcher widget that pops up on the Windows desktop. Of six feature icons in the widget, five are grayed out, and the adjacent Upgrade link implies you'll have to pay for them. But just install Browser Safety, Phantom VPN and Scout, and register with Avira to get SafeSearch Plus, and four of the five icons will activate for free.
Installation and Support
Avira Free Antivirus officially runs on Windows 7 through 10. Company representatives told us the program should work fine on Windows XP, but you won't get the protection of Microsoft's post-XP firewall.
Installing Avira was a snap. The process took us 4 minutes and 59 seconds, one of the fastest setup times among the free products we tested.
You won't need to register with Avira to use Avira Antivirus Free, but you'll have to register if you want to manage other Avira-protected systems — including PCs, Macs, Androids and iPhones and iPads — from the MyAvira website.
At the bottom of the main interface window is a bar to seek help from the Avira user-community forums. Avira does not provide personal phone or email support for Free Antivirus users.
Avira Free Antivirus offers top-shelf malware protection, and the program's array of free add-on software, including a privacy-minded browser and a VPN client, adds up to what you'd find in an $80 antivirus program. The quick scan was the fastest we've seen, and even though Avira Free Antivirus extracts a moderate performance hit, it's among the best options for free antivirus software.
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