Are Premium Malware Suites Worth Their Price?
I have always been a fan of free software; all but a handful of the hundreds of programs I have recommended over the years have had a free version as well as a paid one. Every top-tier anti-malware suite offers full-spectrum protection in its free version. So why pay for any of it? Here's my take on the paid version of one popular Internet security product...
Is Your Free Anti-Malware Product Good Enough?
That’s a serious question, and I have been remiss in not addressing it recently. So today, I am going to start a set of reviews that compare the free version of anti-malware suites to their lowest-cost paid versions. I will go hands-on with the paid versions whenever possible, to provide the important subjective experience as well as technical descriptions.
You, dear readers, are encouraged to add your observations in the comments, or suggest other anti-malware suites for this free-versus-paid comparison. I appreciate your help!
Let’s start with Avast, one of the perennial leaders in anti-malware challenges conducted by the independent test lab, AV Comparatives. It also happens to be the suite that runs on my work machine every day; the free version, called Avast Antivirus Free.
One step up the features ladder lies Avast Internet Security, which includes all the benefits of Antivirus Free plus five more that the developers feel are worth $59.99 per year, for a single-seat license. Those five feature sets and my opinions of their worth are:
“1: Avoid fake sites for safer shopping: Stop criminals from stealing your passwords and banking info.”
This feature is named “Real Site” because that’s what it delivers. It protects against a very real and fairly common attack in which hackers alter the DNS setting in your router - not your PC, phone or other endpoint hardware - so that traffic meant for legitimate sites is diverted to fake replica sites run by the hackers.
You think you are logging in to your bank, but in reality you are giving your username and password to thieves. Once they have your credentials, you’ll see a page with something to the effect of “down for routine maintenance, try later, sorry for the inconvenience...” You probably will, and the fake DNS setting will be gone by then. You will log in to your bank account thinking that nothing is amiss, but you may see a smoking crater where your healthy account balance used to be.
Real Site prevents all of that suffering by providing an encrypted connection to Avast’s own DNS servers. The router’s DNS settings that hackers hijack are suddenly irrelevant; every request for a domain lookup will go through an Avast’s DNS server, regardless of your router’s settings.
OK, Avast, you have my interest. This is a pretty good solution to a fairly common hacker attack. I trust Avast not to log all of my DNS requests, which would be possible at the DNS server; my requests must be decrypted there so the server can tell where to route my outbound and inbound traffic. My one concern is how robust and fast Avast’s network of DNS servers is compared to Google Public DNS.
Speaking of Google Public DNS, a November 2014 article on Avast's blog tells you how to use a feature in the free version of Avast to see if your router is compromised, and how to fix it using Google Public DNS. That article advises you to run an "Avast Home Network Security scan." Here's how: Open the Avast interface, click the Protection button, and then click the "Wi-Fi Inspector" button. If it indicates a problem, you can login to the router and reset your DNS settings. If that's too daunting, then the "Real Site" feature may be worthwhile to you.
“2: Safely run suspicious apps: Sandbox any app to avoid affecting the rest of your PC.”
A “sandbox” is a safe place to play with unknown and potentially dangerous software you have downloaded from the Web. Also called a “virtual machine,” it is an area of RAM that includes a running copy of your operating system and software mock-ups of input/output devices. Software that is installed in a sandbox cannot act upon anything outside of the sandbox. When you are finished playing, you can erase the sandbox and all of its contents.
I don’t need Avast’s sandbox, I already have one. Windows 10 includes Hyper-V, a program that creates, manages, and erases multiple sandboxes at the click of a button. Hyper-V is available on all Windows 10 editions except Home; you’ll have to upgrade to a higher edition if you want virtual machines. If you have the Win 10 Home edition, or Windows 7, see Sandboxie. (The home page of the Sandboxie site asks you to subscribe for $20.95/year, but the Download link will get you a free version that's nearly identical to the paid product.)
“3: Block hackers with advanced firewall: Stop hackers from sneaking onto your PC to steal your data.”
I cannot find any explanation of what is more “advanced” than Windows Defender Firewall, which comes with any recent version of the Windows operating system. “No sale” on this feature.
“4: Block annoying spam and phishing emails* Stop annoying junk mail for a safer, cleaner inbox.”
This feature is available to licensees of Avast Internet Security or Avast Premium. I don’t know why it is a separate download from those programs’ installation files. I do know that Google's Gmail and most other web-based email services do an excellent job of blocking spam and phishing emails for free. So this is not something you need, unless you use a desktop email client that's not keeping spam at bay.
“5: Get an extra layer of ransomware security: Keep personal photos and files safe from unwanted changes.”
The popup word balloon that appears when your cursor hovers over the tiny “i” icon reveals what this feature does. It lets you select folders on your machine to be protected, then blocks attempts to change (encrypt, in the case of ransomware) any files in the selected folders made by untrusted/unknown software. I don’t know why it doesn’t protect the entire system by default; I would select C:\ and be done, if that’s possible.
And it is possible to protect your hard drive from ransomware, for free, using Windows 10's built in Controlled Folder Access feature, which rolled out in last year's Fall Creators Update. (I mentioned that in my article Windows 10 Features You Didn't Know About)
This “ransomware” feature is flagged with a bright green, attention-grabbing “NEW” icon in Avast’s product comparison table. https://goo.gl/7G8XoD What’s new is the public’s sensitivity to the scary buzzword “ransomware.” The protection offered by this Avast Internet Security has been standard equipment in Windows 10 since October 2017.
Is It Worth It?
Overall, I don’t see $60 worth of reasons to subscribe to Avast Internet Security. Many of its advantages over Avast Free are available free of charge via third-parties, or in Windows 10 for those who take the time to learn about them and configure them properly. Avast Internet Security may make that learning curve less steep, but it still needs a savvy user to configure it properly.
Less technically savvy users, or those still running Windows 7, may find the $60 is worthwhile, at least for one year; at the end of that time, every user should know how Avast Internet Security works and how to enable its Windows equivalents. You can probably save a big chunk of that $60, too.
A 30-day trial is available for Avast Internet Security; click this link https://goo.gl/QV7pRG to download its installer. (Avast Premium also offers a 30-day trial.) You will have to provide credit/debit card details during installation, and you will be given the date of the trial period’s ending; at that time, $59.99 will be charged to your card if you have not canceled the trial.
If you cancel during the trial period, Avast will offer Internet Security at a reduced price. If you're interested in a paid version of Avast, I suggest that you refuse that sweetened deal and wait for an even lower price.
What do you think? Is Avast Internet Security worth $60/year? Do you pay for some other Internet security product? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 18 May 2018
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Are Premium Malware Suites Worth Their Price? (Posted: 18 May 2018)
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