The bottom line: Although AVG has flagged a little in the past few years, AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011 breathes some new life into one of the most popular security programs around with a shorter install, better usability, and faster scans.
The never-ending mantra chanted by security suite vendors sounds a lot like "faster scans, easier to use, better performance," and AVG has released a new version that it says accomplishes all three. Certainly, the scans are faster, it does install more quickly, and some tweaks to the interface have made it easier to use. However, changes to the engine that powers the detection and removal of threats has made it hard to come to a conclusion until independent labs return their efficacy results later this year.
The new AVG Free has sped up its installation process, although it's not as zippy as the minute-long installations that some of AVG's paid competitors offer. We found that the program can go from completed download to ready to use in about 5 minutes. Gains might have been made elsewhere, but a big contributing factor to that is that AVG has cut down the number of install screens users see, from 13 in the previous version to 5 in the 2011 version.
AVG's toolbar is still an opt-out feature. It also will commandeer your default search engine for Yahoo, so if you don't want it to do that, you'll want to uncheck the box that changes your search engine, too. Also unchanged is registration, which is a free process and can be completed from within the AVG interface.
Users who opt out of installing the toolbar but want it later will need to rerun the installer to get that component.
The changes to AVG's interface in the 2011 version are minor but actually improve usability quite a bit. The top and left navigation sections have been redecorated with light text on a dark background, although the main controls in the center of the window retain their standard black text on a white background. The safety status icon at the top of the interface has been simplified and made larger.
A new one-click Fix button for automatically repairing security breaches appears at the top along with the old red X when your system safety has been compromised. It disappears when your system gets a clean bill of health.
Joining the one-click Update button on the side nav this year is a one-click Scan Now button. There's a cleaner look to the nav, as well, with bigger fonts and timestamps for the most recent scan and most recent update.
For those not familiar with the interface, AVG has placed icons for its security components in a central pane. Double-click on one to access more information and basic configuration settings for each specific tool. Advanced settings are available under Tools on the menu bar at the top of the window.
The new interface changes are small, no doubt, but they do make AVG easier to use.
Features and support
AVG Free has some new protective features this year, too. The software offers what it calls "smart scanning," which leverages AVG's behavioral detection network to scan known safe files once, and only rescan them if it detects changes. As with its competitors, AVG's network is made up of its user base anonymously contributing data up to the cloud. You can choose to opt out of contributing your data when you install, or from the options menu. AVG says opting out won't negatively affect your security.
The smart scanning tech also gives you a built-in system resource manager that prioritizes scans. If a scan is scheduled to begin while the computer is in use, it will automatically restrict the scan so that it runs slower but doesn't interfere with the computer's other tasks. When it detects the computer idling, it will then allocate more power to the scan. The feature comes with a slider so you can customize how sensitive it is.
Another big improvement has been to AVG LinkScanner. LinkScanner, which comes with AVG Free but is also available as a separate download, now scans links posted on Facebook and MySpace. It adds a green check next to safe links, a red X next to unsafe ones, and adds a notice below the link stating that it's been evaluated by AVG.
Concurrent with this new release, AVG has opened a new Web site called Threat Labs. The site is designed as a click-through landing page for people who want to learn more about the LinkScanner's ratings, but it's also available directly so that non-LinkScanner users can evaluate links on the fly.
There's a new desktop gadget for Windows Vista and Windows 7 users that lets them initiate scans and updates with one click, without having to open the full interface. It also contains links to AVG's Twitter and Facebook pages, which the company uses to bolster its support for the free version.
It's potentially big news that AVG Free has made the threat detection engines in the free version identical to its premium-upgrade siblings. This means that AVG Free users won't have to worry about getting a lesser standard of basic security, if it winds up improving the level of security. Independent benchmarks of last year's AVG versions were strong but mixed, scoring highly but not always consistently.
The PC Analyzer option is new this year, and scans your system for Registry and disk errors. It includes a disk defragmenter and a broken-shortcut cleaner, as well. Although the feature is restricted in full to paid users, if you have the free version, the PC Analyzer comes with a one-time offer to clean all errors it finds. It provides a link to download the separate PC Analyzer tool, once the scan is completed. This is an interesting twist on the idea of letting users detect but not repair errors, and it provides more functionality while not affecting the basic security of your computer. However, it's likely that some users will shy away from the extra download.
Although toolbars have long since fallen out of favor with the browser cognoscenti because they decrease stability and slow down browser performance, AVG has said that the toolbar remains a popular feature. Along with the standard option of adding buttons to the toolbar that access your most visited sites, such as Facebook or your banking site, this year's AVG toolbar introduces a button that ties directly into the LinkScanner tech. It lets you know if the page you're on is safe, unsafe, potentially unsafe, or unknown using LinkScanner's color-coded scheme of green, red, yellow, and gray, respectively. Fortunately, the toolbar is not required to get access to the benefits of LinkScanner.
Other features are restricted to users of AVG's paid upgrades. The paid upgrade version of AVG Anti-Virus 2011 distinguishes itself by offering chat link shield, a download scan for files sent via instant message that looks at all ports, not just port 80, and telephone support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The PC Analyzer option mentioned earlier is also included, and comes without restrictions. AVG Internet Security 2011 includes all that AVG Anti-Virus 2011 offers, and adds in a firewall and antispam protections.
AVG claims the scans in the new version of AVG Free are three times faster than last year's, and its system performance impact turned out to be about average, once the computer had finished booting. CNET Labs' benchmarks found that AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011 had the greatest impact on computer boot time of any security suite we've looked at so far this year, slowing our test computer's start-up by more than 13 seconds. However, it also had the smallest impact on computer shutdown time, adding barely one-third of a second. AVG Free has one of the fastest scan times we've seen yet for 2011 suites, completing its first scan in 548 seconds.
|Security Program||Boot time||Shutdown time||Scan time||MS Office performance||iTunes decoding||Media multitasking||Cinebench|
|AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011||55.24||11.59||548||1039||200||870||4709|
|AVG Internet Security 2011||56.21||16.3||480||1043||198||820||4759|
*All tests measures in seconds, except for Cinebench. On the Cinebench test, the higher number is better.
In our other tests, it was a bit slower than the median. MS Office performance, Cinebench, and media multitasking were slightly below average, whereas iTunes decoding was right at the average speed. Overall, you're looking at a much slower start-up, fast scans, a minimal impact on shutdown, and a midrange hit to general system performance with AVG Free.
It's harder to judge the efficacy of AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011 because independent tests are only available for the previous years' editions, and the security engine has substantially changed to pull it in line with the engine in the paid upgrades, according to the company. Looking at benchmarks only for the 2010 versions of AVG's paid suites, we can see that they scored higher depending on the test.
In the AV-Test.org test on Windows 7 from the second quarter of 2010, AVG Internet Security 9 (version 2010) scored 14.5 out of 18 overall. Other competitors scored higher, although AVG did earn a 5.5 rating out of 6 in Protection. (It scored a 4 in Repair and a 5 in Usability.) Norton, G-Data Internet Security 2010, and Panda Internet Security 2010 were the only suites to score that high in the Protection category.
With AVG Anti-Virus 9 (version 2010), AV-Comparatives.org found that it could have performed better. In the August 2010 On-demand Detection of Malicious Software test, AVG only earned the rank of Advanced, not Advanced+, with many false positives found, an average scanning speed, and a detection rate of 98.3 percent. The same test from February 2010 saw AVG earn the same rank, with few false positives, an average scanning speed, and a detection rate of 94.2 percent.
For what it's worth, Dennis Technology Labs, a member of the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organisation (AMTSO), found in August 2010 that AVG Anti-Virus Free 9 (version 2010) earned an overall protection score of 45 (PDF), below average.
It is AVG's hope that changes to the detection engine in AVG Free will improve its scores, but for right now it's hard to give it the highest rating possible. Still, the efficacy scores are similar to AVG Free's benchmarks: strong in some tests, weaker in others, but with indications that there have been big gains made this year.
Besides the feature limitations of AVG Anti-Virus Free when compared with AVG's paid upgrades, the suite continues to offer an excellent if not perfect level of security as it faces more intense competition from other free and paid security suite makers. Fans of AVG will definitely want to upgrade, and new users should consider it if they're looking for an effective freeware solution with solid link-evaluating features.