Brand New Product Line
The Avast One product line releases initially in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia. All of Avast’s existing products remain available for download or purchase. However, if you can get Avast One Essential for free, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to choose the older Avast Free Antivirus instead.
There’s no visible connection between the release of this new product line and the pending merger of Avast with NortonLifeLock. Do note that once that merger is complete, Norton will own Avast, Avira, AVG, and BullGuard.
Completely Overhauled User Interface
For years, Avast’s products have featured a dark gray slightly textured background with highlights of green and purple, plus the orange company logo. Rectangular buttons served to launch scans, choose between protection areas, and so on. The appearance of Avast One couldn’t be more different.
There’s one other significant difference in the user interface. The Home page isn’t necessarily the spot to see all the features of the program. Rather, it focuses on what’s important right then. For example, after a scan confirmed no malware present on my test system, it switched to reporting on programs that are potentially slowing down the PC. A curly-tailed arrow labeled “Scroll to explore” brings up a page of shortcuts, three of them launching different types of scans, one to open the VPN, and one to access PC Speedup features.
The menu item titled Explore at left brings up a completely different page. This page, much like the home page in other security products, offers access to all the program’s features, divided into Device Protection, Online Privacy, and Smooth Performance.
Excellent Lab Results
Just as many companies around the world create and sell antivirus software, other companies put those antivirus products through rigorous testing. I follow four testing labs that regularly release public reports on their findings, and Avast appears in results from all four labs. Avast One has just been released, so technically the published lab results don’t apply to it. However, despite all cosmetic changes and added features, it’s the same antivirus engine under the hood, and that engine gets excellent scores, for the most part.
The mere fact that all four labs put it to the test shows that Avast is a significant product. Only six of the antivirus products I follow appear in all the reports, among them Avira Free Security and Microsoft Defender. More than half of them don’t show up in any of the reports or appear in just one. And Avast’s scores aren’t merely plentiful; most are impressively high.
Testing experts at AV-Test Institute rate each antivirus in three areas: protection against malware attack, low performance impact, and minimal false positives. A product can earn up to six points in each area, for a maximum of 18. Along with AVG AntiVirus Free, Microsoft Defender, and several others, Avast earned a perfect 18 points.
At AV-Comparatives, researchers don’t assign numeric scores. Any product that passes one of this lab’s many tests receives Standard certification. Those that exceed the minimum needed to pass can rate Advanced or even Advanced+. I follow three of the many tests from this lab’s reports. Like Kaspersky, McAfee, and a few others, Avast takes one Advanced certification and two Advanced+. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus is the only product with Advanced+ in all three tests.
To evaluate an antivirus tool’s real-world protective abilities, the testers at SE Labs use a capture and replay system to hit each tested product with the exact same web-based attacks. Products can earn certification at five levels, AAA, AA, A, B, and C. In the latest round of testing, all the products reach the AAA level except for Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus, which comes close, with AA level certification.
London-based MRG-Effitas is a tougher taskmaster than the rest. Products that don’t reach a near-perfect score in its banking Trojans test simply fail. In a separate test using all types of malware, antivirus tools get two chances. Those that completely prevent every attack earn level 1 certification. Those that let some malware attacks through initially but remediate the situation within 24 hours reach level 2. Slightly over half the tested products pass the latest banking test, Avast among them. However, it fails the all-types test, along with Avira and Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security.
The four labs use very different scoring methods, making comparison challenging. I’ve devised an algorithm that normalizes all four to a 10-point scale and derives an aggregate lab score. Kaspersky Security Cloud Free tops the list, with 9.9 points based on results from all four labs. Also tested by all four, Norton earned 9.6 points and Avast 9.5. AVG scored exactly the same as Avast in three tests but wasn’t tested by MRG-Effitas, which explains its 9.8-point aggregate score.
Scan Choices and Timing
Immediately on installation, Avast asks to run a Smart Scan. This includes a quick scan for malware, naturally, but it also checks your browser’s security and looks for junk files and other needed cleanup areas. I’ll cover those performance features below. If you accept Avast’s advice, it will run a Smart Scan once a month.
The Smart Scan should catch any blatant, active malware, but after installation you really need to run a deep scan, to root out any deep-seated malware. On my standard clean test system, this took 34 minutes, a bit over half the current average of 65 minutes. Clearly the first scan performed some initial optimization steps, as a repeat scan finished in 17 minutes.
You can optionally run a targeted scan on just a subset of files and folders, but with the deep scan so quick, it hardly seems necessary. You may, however, find the Boot-Time Scan useful if the deep scan seems to leave some problems behind. This scan runs at the next system reboot, springing into action before Windows loads. That also means it runs before any malware can launch, thereby defeating any malware self-defense mechanisms.
Do accept the option to install “specialized antivirus definitions” before rebooting. These allow for a more aggressive scan than you might want every day.
Very Good Malware Protection
Once you’ve completed that initial full scan, real-time protection should handle any new attacks. Avast includes numerous layers of protection against malware weaseling in from the internet. However, the malware samples I use for hands-on testing are already present in each test virtual machine, as if they already got past those initial protective layers. Like AVG, Emsisoft, McAfee, and a few others, Avast checks such files just before they execute.
To test Avast’s malware-detection skills, I opened a folder of malware samples and tried to launch each one. Avast blocked 82% of them immediately, wiping them out so fast it left Windows displaying a “file not found” message. It bumped off some of the rest during installation but missed some low-risk items.
In some cases, Avast flags a program as suspicious and puts its activity on hold, pending a verdict. This happened with my hand-coded test programs as well. But when the verdicts came back, Avast correctly blocked the malware and let my test programs pass.
Whether at launch or later, Avast detected 94% of the samples and scored 9.4 of 10 possible points. That’s good, but not quite as stellar as the scores reported by the labs. Note, though, that when my hands-on testing doesn’t entirely jibe with what the labs report, I give the labs more weight.
Tested with the same set of samples, Microsoft Defender scored a little better, 9.6 points. None of the products that scored higher than that are free. Climbing to the top we have Emsisoft, Webroot, McAfee, and Malwarebytes, with 9.7, 9.8, 9.9, and a perfect 10 points respectively.
It takes me weeks to collect, analyze, and curate a new set of samples for my hands-on testing, so I necessarily use the same set for many months. I’m well aware that in the meanwhile, new and different samples are appearing online. To check how each antivirus handles those, I use a feed of the very latest malware-hosting URLs discovered by researchers at MRG-Effitas. I attempt to launch each of the dangerous URLs, noting whether the antivirus diverts the browser from the page, eliminates the malware download, or sits idly doing nothing.
Avast handles such dangers below the browser level. There’s no browser extension needed, and it doesn’t matter which browser you use. In testing, it blocks access to 81% of the dangerous URLs. For some, it reported the problem as URL:Blacklist, while for others it reported a specific type of threat such as URL:Botnet. In addition, it protected against another 17% by wiping out the download.
Avast’s total score of 98%, shared with Malwarebytes, is excellent, though not at the very top. G Data, Microsoft, and Sophos all edge a notch higher with 99%. Bitdefender’s free antivirus, along with McAfee, scores a perfect 100%.
Top-Notch Phishing Protection
Learning to code is a big investment of time, and learning to write malware that can escape the notice of security products requires a high level of skill. Phishing fraudsters don’t bother with any of that. Instead of looking for vulnerabilities in the operating system, they focus on the most vulnerable component—the unsuspecting user. They design websites that look exactly like sensitive sites such as PayPal, or your bank. If you log into the fake, the fraudsters steal your credentials and thereby own your account. Yes, highly observant folks can learn to recognize phishing frauds, but it’s nice to have some help for those days when you’re a little muzzy.
It’s true that the fake sites get caught and blacklisted constantly, but they just grab their winnings and pop up a new fake site. For testing purposes, I make sure to include reported frauds that are too new for the blacklists. I scrape hundreds of reported phishing URLs and launch each simultaneously in four browsers. The product under test protects one, of course, while the other three rely on phishing protection built into Chrome, Edge, and Firefox.
I discard any URLs that don’t load properly in all four browsers, or that don’t precisely fit the profile of a phishing fraud. For the rest, I record whether each tested product blocked the fraud or missed it. A handy program launches the URLs and records my notes automatically. Avast found the phishing test program itself to be suspicious but gave it a clean bill of health after examination.
As with its protection against dangerous websites, Avast blocks phishing frauds below the browser level. Instead of diverting the browser to a warning page, it displays the now-familiar popup warning to say that it cut the connection to a site “infected with URL:Phishing.” I saw that popup quite a lot, as Avast blocks 99% of the verified fraudulent URLs in this test, beating all three browsers by 15 percentage points or more.
Bitdefender, Norton, and Webroot also manages a 99% detection rate in their own tests. F-Secure and McAfee top the list, with 100% detection. Any of these products will be a big help when you’re confronted with a convincing fraud.
Permission-Based Ransomware Protection
If Avast missed a bot weaseling onto your PC on Tuesday but wiped it out after an update on Wednesday, you’d suffer little harm. But if it was a ransomware attack on Tuesday, no antivirus update is going to bring back your encrypted files. Since ransomware has so much more potential for immediate, irreversible harm, many antivirus utilities add a layer of protection specific to ransomware.
Some use a specialized behavioral analysis module that’s fine-tuned to detect and prevent attacks by encrypting malware. Others tighten up access, denying any unauthorized programs that attempt to modify sensitive files. Avast falls in the latter camp.
By default, Avast protects the Documents, Pictures, and Desktop folders for all active Windows accounts. It’s easy enough to add protection for more folders belonging to your own Windows account. If you want to protect additional folders belonging to another account, you need to log into that account.
Avast protects specific types of files: Archives, Audio, Database, Disc, Documents, Pictures, and Video. Hovering over any of the types gets a daunting list of file extensions covered. If your work (or play) involves some unusual type that’s not included, there’s a spot to add the appropriate extensions.
Out of the box, Ransomware Protection runs in what’s called Smart Mode. In this mode, known and trusted apps (for example, Microsoft Office apps) can manipulate protected files, as can programs you’ve explicitly approved. The tougher Strict Mode bans access by every program until you approve it.
I already saw this feature in action during my hands-on malware testing, when it caught a real-world malware sample trying to do its dirty work. For a more sedate test, I turned to a tiny text editor that I coded myself. This one-off program clearly won’t be on any predefined list of trusted programs. In fact, at first launch it triggered Avast’s suspicious file examination (which it passed). When I tried to save a modified file, Avast asked me whether to block or allow the app. Only after I clicked Allow could I save the file.
Windows has firewall protection built in, designed to protect against unauthorized connections from the internet or the network you’re on. It’s good enough that you probably don’t need a dedicated third-party personal firewall. Firewall protection in the free Avast One Essential doesn’t go much beyond the built-in. It checks when you connect with a new network, asking whether to treat it as public or trusted. If you choose public, the firewall blocks all unsolicited incoming network traffic and any attempts to connect with your device across the local network. Defining the network as trusted lifts the local restrictions. There’s a bit more to it, but those are the points users will notice.
Most third-party firewalls distinguish themselves from the built-in by controlling the way programs make use of your network connection. Smart ones, like the firewall in Norton, automatically configure permissions for known good programs, terminate known bad programs, and monitor unknowns to make sure they don’t misuse the connection. At the other end of the spectrum, some personal firewalls ask you, the user, to make the decision about every new access attempt. Badguy.com wants to access 2001:668:108:5095::2add on port 8080. Allow or deny? Once or always?
Avast doesn’t pepper you with firewall queries. It doesn’t do anything at all about controlling program access to the network unless you dig in to do it manually. On the firewall settings page you can view a list of all apps that are using the network. Along with each app you can see the bandwidth it has used, and you can click a button to block its network access. You could totally wreak havoc here by blocking such items as Host Process for Windows Services or System. Unless you’re network savvy, just leave this feature alone.
The best protection in the world won’t help you if a malicious program can just turn it off. I determined that Avast doesn’t expose any Registry settings that would allow this. When I attempted to terminate its running processes, I just got an access denied message, for all 11 of them. Turning to essential Windows services, I found eight. Four of those were protected against being stopped, and I couldn’t configure them to start disabled. The other four weren’t protected, but they were also associated with non-security components of this suite such as system cleanup and tools. I’m not sure why Avast didn’t just protect all the services, but I didn’t find a way for a malware coder to reach in and disable the core security functions.
Premium Protection Features
If you tried to tweak advanced features in the firewall, you’ve already seen that those settings require an upgrade. Avast makes this clear with a lock icon on the tab and an orange button that you can click to Go Premium.
Back on the Explore page, the big page that gives you access to all the features, you won’t see locks. But that doesn’t mean you’ve got access to all the features for free. Clicking Sensitive Data Shield, Web Hijack Guard, or Webcam Protection in the Device Protection group and you’ll see that cheerful Go Premium button. You can click through to see details of each locked feature, but they’re grayed out, disabled.
Your antivirus tool’s full scan roots out any malware infestations on your devices, and real-time antivirus detects and prevents new attacks. Your data should be safe with this protection in place. However, the moment you communicate across the internet, antivirus protection loses its power. To protect your data on its travels, you need a Virtual Private Network, or VPN.
The VPN creates a secure encrypted connection between your device and a hardened server managed by the VPN company. No snoop, not even the owner of the network you’re using, can access your data in transit. The VPN server interacts with whatever site you selected and sends the responses back to you through the same encrypted connection. A side benefit of this process is that your network traffic seems to come from the VPN server. That means that a site can’t determine your location based on your IP address. It also can allow you to access content that would normally be restricted based on your location.
With Avast One, the VPN is integrated, not a separate product, but the underlying technology is the same. As is typical, users who aren’t paying are subject to significant restrictions. For one, you don’t get to choose your server or server location; the VPN makes that choice for you. For another, it limits the bandwidth you can use.
To be fair, Avast’s bandwidth limit is more generous than most, allowing 5GB of traffic per week. The free edition of Hotspot Shield VPN allows 500MB per day, a bit less than Avast. With TunnelBear VPN, non-paying users choke out at 500MB per month. On the other hand, you can use ProtonVPN for free with no limits on bandwidth. Avast One Essential users get enough bandwidth to protect quite a lot of interactive internet usage. Just don’t leave the VPN running when you sit back and binge-watch videos all night.
There are a few settings to help you get the most from the VPN. By default, it reminds you to turn on VPN protection when you connect to an untrusted network. You can set it to automatically turn on the VPN in that situation, or turn off the warning and take care of making the VPN connection manually. Given that you’ve got a cap on bandwidth, you almost certainly don’t want to set it to turn on automatically.
Regardless of whether the network is trusted or not, you can also request a reminder in four specific circumstances: when you log in to a secure site, when you shop online, when you bank online, or when you do something shady like watching porn.
That’s it for VPN configuration options. You won’t find split-tunneling (the ability to send less-sensitive traffic outside the VPN’s protection) like you get with CyberGhost VPN or SurfShark VPN. There’s no option for the added security of a multi-hop VPN connection. You can’t get a static IP address (useful for evading services that try to block VPN usage). Some VPNs include a kill switch, meaning they cut all connectivity if the VPN connection goes down. Not Avast!
Other Privacy Features
Your browser keeps track of where you’ve been, in case you want to go there again, and it caches chunks of data that it downloaded, to speed things up if it needs those chunks again. These helpful traits also begin to define a trail that a snoop could use to analyze your online activities. By choosing Clear Browsing Data you can muddy that trail and enhance your privacy.
On my test system, I found I didn’t need to scan for items needing cleanup. Avast already did so, and reported it found 63 items. For Chrome and Edge, it listed history, cache, cookies, and downloads. It didn’t check downloads for Opera, and its Firefox page listed just history and cache. In every case, only the cached data was pre-selected for deletion.
I should point out that all four of these browsers have their own built-in cleanup system, in every case invoked by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Del. The built-in cleanup gives you finer control over what gets deleted and also lets you specify the time-range for deletion, from the last hour to all time.
Click Password Protection to check whether your email account has appeared in a data breach. You’ll notice that the button to set up an ongoing monitor for new breaches is colored premium orange, meaning it’s not available in this free edition. Tabs to manage monitored emails and to protect passwords in your browsers are also locked.
One feature’s absence surprised me. For years, Avast’s free antivirus has included a Wi-Fi Inspector. Despite the name, it inspects any network, wired or wireless, and reports all devices connected to that network. For each device, it lists the MAC and IP addresses and, where possible, the device type and name. In addition, it reports any devices whose configuration contains security problems. I confirmed with my Avast contact that this feature is not present in Avast One.
Earlier in this review I mentioned that Avast’s home page reports on whatever might need attention, and that at that time it wanted me to examine eight apps that could slow down my system. Clicking PC Speedup on the Explore page is another way to reach that feature.
Avast lists apps that run in the background and can slow down your PC even when they’re not actively doing anything for you. Where available, it includes a detailed description of the app. You can click a button to optimize an app, which should keep it from using resources when idle. You can also click the description and whitelist any app, so it doesn’t appear in the performance evaluation.
On my test system, Avast listed the essential VMware Tools app as having medium impact, with seven other apps having low impact. I verified that VMware Tools still worked, with no “waking up” lag. The built-in FAQ suggested I would notice a variety of improvements, including speedier reboots. Indeed, restarting the system seemed to go much quicker after optimization.
How often do you launch a program, see a notification that an update is available, and ignore it? Sorry, but that’s a bad habit. Quite often the reason for the update is to fix a security hole. Avast checks popular programs to see if any of them need an update. If so, all you need do is click a button to install it. Paying customers stay updated with even less effort by enabling automatic updates. The Driver Updater does the same for hardware device drivers, with the same premium-only automation system.
Running a Disk Cleaner scan shows you things that could be cleaned up to make your system work more smoothly. On my test system it found over 600MB of junk files, as well as a collection of broken shortcuts and damaged Registry keys. Finding the mess is free. If you want it to clean up what it found, though, you’ll have to upgrade to the premium edition.
Protection for macOS
Avast One on macOS looks very similar to the Windows edition. The biggest difference is that the list of features on the Explore page isn’t quite as extensive. It still goes well beyond mere Mac antivirus. See my review of Avast One Essential for Mac for all the gritty details. I’ll briefly summarize here.
Avast gets excellent test scores from both independent antivirus labs that evaluate macOS products. It also manages 99% detection in my hands-on phishing protection test. Ransomware protection, browser data cleanup, checking for data breaches, and VPN protection work almost exactly as they do under Windows.
The Smooth Performance feature group in Windows includes PC Speedup, Software Updater, Disk Cleaner, and Driver Updater. All are accessible in the free edition, with some limitations. On the Mac, that group consists of Disk Cleaner, App Uninstaller, and Photo Cleaner, and all three are locked up, requiring an upgrade.
Avast One Essential on the Mac goes well beyond mere antivirus, though naturally it doesn’t include ever feature of the full for-pay suite.
Android Protection Without Anti-Theft
When you install Avast One Essential on an Android device, you get almost all the features that a paying customer would receive. Installation is quick, though naturally the app requires quite a few permissions. To avoid overwhelming you with requests, it asks for each permission the first time you access an associated feature.
Android Security and Smart Scan
As soon as you’ve got the app installed, it asks to run a Smart Scan. Naturally this includes checking the device for malware, but that’s not all. It goes on to look for junk files that you can wipe out to free up storage. The last step is a cheesy scan for “advanced issues” that just displays a big list of premium-only features.
A separate notification advised me to secure my device from threats, launching a scan that found some actual advanced issues. On the Pixel 4 I use for testing, it found that I had left USB Debugging turned on and advised turning it off. It also advised me to enable the app’s Web Shield capability.
You can run a Quick Scan independent from the Smart Scan, or choose instead to run a Deep Scan. In testing, I didn’t notice any difference in the two scans. Both finished in seconds. There’s also a Wi-Fi scan that checks for security problems on the network you’re using.
VPN and Privacy for Android
VPN on Android is integrated into the app, just as it is on Windows and macOS. It also labors under the same limit of 5GB bandwidth per week (which, admittedly, is more than you get from many free VPNs). If you try to select a server location, the app explains that only premium users have that privilege.
As another take on privacy protection, Avast lets you check to see if your email address has appeared in the data dumps resulting from security breaches. Naturally, it advises changing any affected passwords. Once you’ve dealt with any found problems you can dismiss the breach report. Paying customers can set up active monitoring, to catch any new breaches.
Android Performance Features
Avast’s Smart Scan searches out junk files that you can delete to improve device performance. You can also run the separate Performance Scan. In addition to the same junk file search, this scan finds apps that are running in the background and offers to close them. That’s it.
What’s Not Here
Avast Premium Security also offers Android support, and it includes some features not found in Avast One. Like almost every other Android security product, it includes an array of anti-theft features, as well as a system to identify apps that request an undue number of permissions. You can set it to lock a smartphone on removal of the SIM card. Bitdefender, ESET, and Kaspersky are among the other suites that include this feature in their Android editions. Along with Kaspersky and Norton, it checks for apps sucking down the most battery power. None of these features appear in Avast One for Android, not even the premium edition.
ESET Smart Security Premium, Kaspersky, and McAfee are among the products that offer to block unwanted calls or texts on Android devices. AVG, McAfee, and Trend Micro will back up your contacts. Trend Micro checks the security of your social media accounts. Norton integrates a password manager. None of these features come with Avast One.
The biggest hole in Avast One for Android is the lack of an anti-theft system. For many users, that’s as important as antivirus, or more important. If you have a serious need for Android security, Avast One isn’t the best choice.
Limited Protection on iOS
As is typical, iOS devices get the weakest protection. To be fair, that’s in large part because Apple’s built-in security gets in the way of both malware and malware-fighters. I was surprised to find that the app isn’t optimized at all for the iPad. Immediately after installation, you see an iPhone-sized window floating on a black background, with an icon you can tap to stretch the display.
You do get Web Shield protection against malicious and fraudulent websites, implemented using local VPN technology. Web Shield doesn’t interfere with the actual integrated VPN, which operates under the same limits as on other platforms. As on Android, you can scan for data breaches involving your email, but can’t set up monitoring for new breaches unless you upgrade.
The one feature unique to iOS is the Photo Vault. With this feature, you can lock sensitive photos behind a second-level PIN. When you import photos, it offers to delete the originals. You can also snap photos directly into the vault, bypassing the gallery. Users of the free edition can put 40 photos in the vault; premium users have no such limit. The app does warn that you absolutely must export your file from the Photo Vault before uninstalling Avast, else lose them forever.
Feature-Packed and Free
With Avast One Essential, you get totally free protection for your Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS devices. Avast’s Windows protection gets numerous excellent lab scores, and it did well in our hands-on tests too. The free edition includes all the core security features, but omits some less essential features such as webcam protection. The suite includes a VPN whose bandwidth limit is more generous than many, along with a collection of privacy and performance components. If you’re considering the non-free Avast One suite, you might want to try the excellent free one first.
Avast One Essential takes the place of Avast Free Antivirus as an Editors’ Choice winner in the free antivirus realm. Our other Editors’ Choice pick in this field, Kaspersky Security Cloud Free, is also a stripped down version of a larger security suite. When you can get a suite (or most of it) for free, why settle for just an antivirus?