Even if you don’t have a penny to
spare on security, you need to protect your computers. Fortunately, there are
plenty of effective free
antivirus tools available. Avira Free Security takes free protection to the
next level, offering VPN, password management, ad blocking, and more. It’s not
a typical security suite; you won’t find firewall protection, backup, spam
filtering, or other common suite components. But it’s decidedly more than just
an antivirus, and its wealth of components will delight the right user.
Previously, Avira offered both a
free standalone antivirus and Avira Free Security Suite. The current product,
Avira Free Security, replaces both, and it’s gotten a thorough makeover. The
previous suite at times resembled a loose confederation of separate Avira
products, along with plenty of nag screens suggesting an upgrade to paid
editions. The current product is significantly more integrated, which is a big
improvement. It’s a lot more friendly to the non-techie user now.
The closest comparable product to
this suite is Kaspersky Security Cloud Free.
Kaspersky’s free suite is a feature-limited version of the company’s commercial
Kaspersky Security Cloud. Even with its limitations, it’s more of a full
security suite than Avira.
The main Status screen just
displays oversized icons for Security, Privacy, and Performance. A simple menu
down the left lets you dig into these three feature areas or return to the
Status home page. Finally, you can click a button to run the all-in-one Smart Scan.
Smart Scan checks for malware, of
course, but it does a lot more. It analyzes your settings to find privacy
problems, looks for ways to improve performance, identifies apps that need
updating, and checks the network for possible security problems. More about
Smart Scan later.
Stellar Antivirus Lab Results
To supplement my hands-on testing
of antivirus products, I turn to reports issued regularly by four independent
labs around the world. The mere fact that a given product appears in a report
means that the lab’s experts thought it significant enough to merit testing.
The more lab results the better, and, of course, high scores are also important.
Tested by all four labs, Avira turned in four perfect scores.
Researchers at AV-Test Institute evaluate
each antivirus product on three distinct criteria. Naturally, they measure its
ability to protect against malware. They also score products on how well they
avoid erroneously flagging legitimate processes as malicious. And they ensure
the product does all this without dragging down performance. A product can earn
up to six points for each of the three criteria. Like F-Secure
Anti-Virus, Kaspersky, Norton, and Vipre, Avira took all sixes.
Of the many reports coming out of AV-Comparatives, I
follow four. This lab doesn’t use numbers. Rather, a product that passes earns
Standard certification. Those that go well beyond the basics can earn Advanced
or Advanced+ certification. Avira and Bitdefender are the only products I
follow that managed four Advanced+ ratings in the latest test.
With SE Labs, certification comes in five
levels: AAA, AA, A, B, and C. Like most of the tested products, Avira earned
the top level, AAA.
As you can see, most of the labs
offer a range of scores. In tests by MRG-Effitas, a
product either exhibits near-perfect capabilities or fails utterly. Roughly a
third of tested products, Avira among them, passed both tests.
For an overall comparison, I use an
algorithm that normalizes each lab’s results to a 10-point scale and combines
them. With perfect scores in every test, Avira naturally earned 10 aggregate
points. Norton AntiVirus Plus and
Kaspersky, also tested by all four labs, managed 9.8 and 9.7, respectively.
Sophos also managed 10 points, but its score is less impressive for being based
on tests from just two labs.
Middling Malware Removal Scores
Lab results notwithstanding, I
always perform my own hands-on tests. I start by opening a folder of malware
samples that I’ve curated and analyzed myself. Avira immediately started
quarantining those that it recognized. It eliminated 72 percent of the samples
on sight, including every single ransomware sample. I then proceeded to launch
the samples that made it past this initial culling.
When Avira’s real-time protection
detected malware attempting to install, it popped up a notification and opened
a tiny progress meter labeled “Luke Filewalker,” representing the product’s
progress in cleaning up any malware traces that may have landed on the system.
On completion of that mini-scan, Avira advised running the bootable Avira
Rescue System for a more thorough cleanup. Then things got weird. I clicked the
link for the Rescue System and got an alarming certificate security error in
the browser. I searched for the Rescue System on Avira’s website and found
bubkes. Eventually I found a forum post pointing out that the Rescue System is
no longer available.
In the end, Avira detected 89
percent of the samples and scored 8.8 of 10 possible points. That’s on the low
side, but when my results differ so greatly from the lab reports, I defer to
the labs. It’s worth noting that Bitdefender
Antivirus Plus also earned excellent scores from the labs but
didn’t do well in my tests.
Among products tested with this set
of samples, Webroot did best, with 100 percent detection and a perfect 10
points. Tested using my previous sample set, Sophos
Home Free also detected every sample and scored a respectable
A full scan of my standard clean
test system took an hour and 45 minutes, a good bit slower than the current
average of just over an hour. In addition, it detected three old but valid
PCMag utilities as malware. False positive results like that don’t build
confidence in an antivirus.
Avira’s browser-level protection
works only in Chrome and Firefox, and you must actively choose to install the
extension. While Browser Safety still exists as a standalone extension, its
functionality has been rolled into the Avira Safe Shopping extension. My Avira
contacts say, “We recommend having Safe Shopping as it is the updated version
of the product and includes additional functionalities.”
This extension aims to keep you
from visiting malware-hosting URLs, so you don’t get infected. To test this
feature, I start with a feed of URLs recently discovered by researchers at
British lab MRG-Effitas. I launch
each URL, discarding any that results in an error, and note whether the
antivirus blocked all access to the URL, eliminated the malware download, or
I give equal credit for blocking
the URL or eliminating the download. Avira achieved 81 percent protection, with
two-thirds of the protection in the form of blocking URL access. That puts
Avira in the bottom half, score-wise. McAfee
AntiVirus Plus, Sophos, and Virus all achieved 100 percent
protection in this test.
Good Phishing Protection
Crafting a Trojan horse or other
malicious program and getting it distributed to unsuspecting users is
difficult. Fooling people into giving away their login credentials is a lot
easier. Fraudsters simply create a website that’s a perfect copy of, say,
PayPal. Sometimes they manage a URL that’s close to the real thing, like pyapal.login.com.
When an unwitting web surfer logs in, the fraudsters capture the username and
password, and that unfortunate netizen is hosed.
Avira’s web protection extends to
detecting and averting these phishing attacks as well. To test it, I first
scraped hundreds of reported phishing URLs from websites that track such
things. I made sure to include plenty that hadn’t yet been evaluated and
blacklisted. I launched each URL in a browser protected by Avira, and
simultaneously in Chrome, Edge, and Firefox, relying on each browser’s built-in
protection. I discarded any that threw an error in any of the four browsers. I
also discarded any that didn’t clearly fit the profile of a phishing fraud.
When I got to 100 data points, I ran the numbers.
Avira detected 93 percent of the
verified frauds, which is a little better than Chrome and Firefox scored, and a
lot better than Edge. That’s a good score, but Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security
and Kaspersky both achieved 100 percent detection in their latest tests.
While it’s good to use software that protects you from phishing, you should also know what to do to protect yourself. For tips on how to do so, you can read How to Avoid Phishing Scams.
The Security page is where you
launch antivirus scans and view files in quarantine. You can also configure
protection options here, but there’s little point. In the free edition, only
System protection is enabled. If you try to enable Web protection, Email
protection, or Ransomware protection, you trigger a page advising you to
upgrade to Avira
If you decline, Avira offers a 30-day Prime trial to tempt you.
It’s worth noting that Kaspersky’s
free suite does include ransomware protection. In testing, it handled not only
the typical file-encrypting ransomware but also the less-common screen-locker and
When ne’er-do-wells discover
security holes in popular programs, they exploit them to the max, knowing that
the program’s maker will soon release a security patch to close those holes. If
you don’t install available patches, you put yourself at risk. The Software
Updater component scans your installed apps and flags any that have outstanding
security patches. You’ll find buttons to update each app, or update all of
them, but these trigger an upsell page.
To be fair, it’s not hard to just
open each app and check for updates manually. Avast’s product line has a
similar app update feature, even in Avast
Free Antivirus. But you don’t get automated installation unless you
spring for the top-of-the-line Avast Premier suite.
I mentioned at the start that this
free suite doesn’t include a firewall, so you may be surprised to see a
Firewall button on the Security page. Avira’s firewall controls simply let you
turn Windows Firewall on or off, and change whether it treats your network as
public or private. If you click for Advanced settings, it diverts you to the
complex and confusing Windows Defender Firewall with Advanced Security page.
On the Privacy page you can click
to install Browser Safety in Chrome and Firefox. Here it gets a bit confusing,
as the extension it installs is actually called Safe Shopping. Don’t worry; all
the features of Browser Safety are included.
We’ve already discussed that
feature’s ability to steer users away from malicious and fraudulent sites, but
that’s not all it does. By default, it turns on the Do Not Track request in
your browser. Since that’s merely a request, it actively blocks ads and
trackers. You can also set it to block social media tracking. And when you’re
shopping online, it seeks better deals for items you select. In testing, I
couldn’t find a way to fine-tune or even see just which trackers it blocked. In
addition, I didn’t manage to trigger the price-matching feature.
The VPN component
connects with servers in 28 countries, most of them in North America and
Europe. One click connects you to the nearest server, or to the server of your
choice. This is a free installation, which means it lacks some advanced
features, doesn’t offer tech support, and caps your bandwidth at 500MB per
month. If you want to use it seriously, you’ll need to upgrade to the Pro
edition, which costs $10 per month. For full details, see our review of Avira Phantom VPN.
Kaspersky also offers a feature-limited VPN in its free suite.
installs as a browser extension in Chrome, Edge, Firefox, and Opera for Windows
or macOS, and offers apps for Android and iOS. It handles basic tasks like
capturing login credentials you enter, replaying them as needed and syncing
across all your devices. You can enable two-factor authentication, which
functions by texting a code to your smartphone. But it doesn’t offer
form-filling, secure sharing, digital inheritance, or other top-tier features. See
my review of Avira
Password Manager to learn more.
When you delete a file, it just
goes to the Recycle Bin. That’s handy in case you deleted the wrong file, but
not so good if you’re trying to wipe out sensitive data such as the plaintext
original of a file you encrypted. Even if you empty the Recycle Bin, forensic
software can often recover deleted files. To delete files beyond the
possibility of forensic recovery, just drop them on Avira’s File Shredder.
When you use it on an SSD, the
shredder invokes the TRIM function
to clear out old data. On a traditional hard drive, Avira overwrites the data once
before deletion. Bitdefender, McAfee, Vipre
Antivirus Plus, and Webroot offer a similar feature. Webroot in particular
can overwrite files seven times and wipe all traces, foiling even forensic
If not configured correctly,
Windows and popular apps can potentially leak information about your computer
and browser usage. You can align all settings with the recommendations of
Avira’s experts with a single click (and a system restart). Alternatively, you
can dig in and customize the settings, or just view exactly what those settings
are. This feature is reminiscent of Avira
but simpler to use.
Avira System Speedup
People sometimes blame their
security software for performance problems. Avira works to head off that kind
of thinking by including a collection of features designed to improve
performance. Clicking the Cleaner icon launches the separate Avira System
Speedup app. As you run the Power cleaner scan, Avira displays a series of
interesting facts. Did you know that the International Space Station has faster
internet than Australia?
On completion the scan displays a
dozen categories of potentially unwanted items, things like damaged or useless
Registry entries, temp files, and usage history files. It flags categories that
you should check in detail, among them browser traces and unused Windows files.
And that’s all it does; only the paid Pro edition cleans up the messes it
The Quick optimizer scan also displays
fun facts while it scans. This quicker scan finds only items that you can delete
without harm, such as broken Registry items and junk files. Unlike its big
brother Power cleaner, this scan does clean up what it found, though it does
tout the benefits of upgrading to Pro.
Startup optimizer measures how long
it takes your system to boot up, identifying programs that may be slowing
things down. Apparently, my test system is too clean, as this optimizer didn’t
find anything to do. The high-powered Hyper boost feature, which reboots five
times and makes a detailed analysis, is Pro-only.
From the Tools menu you can choose several
categories of performance. Selecting each brings up a page of Avira utilities,
more than you might imagine. There are over 30 of them, though about half of
them are only for paying customers. I’m not sure how many consumers will want
to dig into all these little utilities.
Other Performance Features
There are five feature panels on
the Performance page, but four of them simply link to specific components of
System Speedup. These are: Cleaner, Startup optimizer, Battery saver, and
The remaining item, Driver updater,
is similar in purpose to the Software updater. However, rather than finding
missing security patches it looks for device drivers on your system that could
be updated for better performance. In testing, the scan went quickly, reporting
no drivers requiring update. I suspect that if there had been any out-of-date
ones, I would have found that fixing the problem required an upgrade to the Pro
Now that I’ve run through this
suite’s many features, I can spell out just how the new Smart Scan works. You
click the button to start the fun. Smart Scan checks for privacy issues and performance
issues. It runs a quick scan for malware and checks for outdated apps. Finally,
it runs a scan for network threats. That last item refers to any times you’ve
connected to an insecure Wi-Fi network. The whole thing just takes a few
When the scan finishes, it summarizes
its findings, broken down into Security, Privacy, and Performance issues. You
can click a button to fix everything or choose to view detailed results. Well, fix
everything may be the wrong phrase. Avira fixes some of the issues it found,
true, but it then invites you to upgrade if you want it to fix the rest.
What’s Not Here
Not all of the loosely joined
components from Avira Free Security Suite appear in the current product. The Avira Home Guard
network security scanner is still available as a separate, free product, but it’s
not in the suite anymore. In testing, we found its reports to be too complex for
the average user, so removing it from the current more streamlined suite makes
Avira Privacy Pal
exists as a product for those who want some serious insight and options for
privacy settings. The Privacy settings module in the current suite offers
similar protection, but in a much simpler form. Finally, Identity Scanner,
which checks whether your personal data has been found in dumps from data
breaches, has moved to the Pro edition of the password manager. Even without
these components, this suite is bursting with features.
Avira Free Security’s components
are much better integrated than in its predecessor, and it only makes sense
that Avira would stop promoting the separate free antivirus. Avira took top
marks in tests by all four of the labs we follow. On the flip side, it didn’t do
nearly as well in our hands-on testing, and many of its components require
payment for full functionality. And while it’s overflowing with features and
utilities, it doesn’t include a full range of suite components.
Kaspersky Security Cloud Free also comes
with broad set of suite components, among them ransomware protection, a
bootable rescue disk, a VPN, and a file shredder. It’s our current Editors’
Choice for free antivirus. Also boasting a wealth of features, Avast Free
Antivirus has been an Editors’ Choice. However, the recent privacy
fiasco caused us to remove its Editors’ Choice designation. Of course,
when you’re looking at free antivirus tools you have the luxury of evaluating
as many as you want to pick the one that suits you best.
Avira Free Security Specs
|On-Demand Malware Scan||Yes|
|On-Access Malware Scan||Yes|
|Malicious URL Blocking||Yes|