Avast’s headline price of zero quid can’t be beaten – but the trade-off is some quite aggressive in-application marketing. The tone is set right from the word go, with an installation process that pops up warnings such as “you only have a basic firewall” and “your PC may be suffering from slowdown and clutter”. Click through and suddenly you’re asked to pay £20 a year for Avast’s Premium Security package; you can continue with free protection by closing the window, but this isn’t explained. Advertising is one thing, but this feels positively deceptive.

There’s more sneaky design at play once the program’s installed. Click around the Protection, Privacy and Performance panes and you’ll find icons for 18 features – but only a minority of these are included in the free edition of the software, while the rest are marked with small padlock overlays. Click on one and you’ll once again be prompted to upgrade to the paid-for suite – or to install one of Avast’s other money-spinners, such as Avast Driver Updater or its SecureLine VPN service.

Happily, what Avast doesn’t do any more is pester you with pop-up ads, so once you’ve got through setup and initial configuration, you can leave it running in the background and largely forget it’s there. 

And we have to say, its protection capabilities aren’t bad at all. Avast’s malware engine achieved a reassuring 99.6% overall protection rating in the latest independent tests, handling not just real-time virus scanning and behavioural analysis but browser-based threats too, including dodgy downloads and suspicious scripts. If you’re using a local email client such as Outlook, Avast Free Antivirus will scan incoming and outgoing email attachments. You can enable website blocking as well, although this isn’t exactly a proactive measure as you have to fill in the blacklist yourself. 

A few useful system maintenance tools are included too. The Software Updater scans installed applications and flags up any that can be updated to a newer release, which may include important security enhancements; the “automatic updates” option turns out to be a dummy, which once again invites you to upgrade to the paid-for suite, but it’s no great hardship to run the scan manually every so often. Just bear in mind that there’s no guarantee that it will recognise every last app on your system – consider its recommendations a handy starting point rather than a complete solution to the problem of outdated apps.

On a similar theme, you also get Avast’s Wi-Fi inspector, which scans your home network for devices using insecure passwords, outdated firmware and so forth. We often hear of worms and hack attacks that spread by exploiting such vulnerabilities, so this module could be the one that saves you from a devastating malware attack – yet you won’t find it in any other free suite, nor indeed in most paid-for products.

If disaster does strike, you can also take advantage of Avast’s Rescue Disk creator. It may be hidden away on the Virus Scans page, but it’s a useful tool to have in your armoury: the wizard takes just two clicks to create a bootable CD or USB flash drive containing detection and disinfection tools, and since the recovery environment only takes up around 500MB, you don’t need to sacrifice a big, expensive flash drive to make use of it.

Finally, Avast will optionally install the company’s own Secure Browser. This is built on Chromium so the look and feel are familiar, but it adds a sandboxed Bank Mode along with Avast’s own ad blocker, phishing detector and password manager. If you decline the generous offer to make it your default browser, you can instead install a free browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that warns you away from dodgy content, and a password manager for Chrome. 

For a free download, Avast is impressively well rounded. Naturally, you’ll get more from a paid-for suite: notably, Avast Free lacks a dedicated anti-ransomware component – that’s reserved for customers who cave in and upgrade to Premium Security – and the company doesn’t offer parental controls at all.

Even so, Avast’s protection rating of 99.6% isn’t bad at all, and while it was tripped up by a total of ten false positives, that’s no worse than AVG or Panda, and way better than Windows Defender. It won’t take much of a toll on your system, either: AV-Test gave Avast a 5.5/6 rating for performance, while AV-Comparatives gave it top marks in its own test. To be sure, there’s something distasteful about the way Avast Free Antivirus hectors you to upgrade, but it goes further to protect you than any of the free alternatives and that’s pretty hard to complain about.

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