Are Premium Malware Suites Worth Their Price?

Category: Security

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.

Is Avast paid version a good deal?

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. 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 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...

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Most recent comments on "Are Premium Malware Suites Worth Their Price?"

(See all 27 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

18 May 2018

Why would anyone choose Windows Defender over something else? With a lot of people hating Microsoft and creating viruses, malware and whatever else, wouldn’t it be better to choose something not related to Microsoft?

Posted by:

18 May 2018

I have Win 7 and have been using Avast Free Antivirus and Comodo Free Firewall for at least a year with no problems. They seem to play well together. I also follow your advice to regularly run Malwarebytes and PrivaZer and thus far have found only an occasional PUP.

Posted by:

18 May 2018

I have been using Norton 360 with free Maleware antimalware for years and it works just fine. Norton is free from most cable providers by the way.

Posted by:

Mark H.
18 May 2018

Been using Windows Defender and Malwarebytes Premium (24.95/year, 3 computers) for last 2 years. Works for me. Malwarebytes catches quite a few suspicious sites, especially on wife's PC and does reasonably well with PUPS. Defender/Smartscreen has surprised me by blocking some websites before Malwarebytes. My ISP offers Norton Security as part of package, but I consider it to be a resource hog and too much of a nag.

Posted by:

18 May 2018

I used the free version of Malwarebytes for years, it was always the most highly recommended app for deep cleaning. They offered a lifetime license for like $20 a few years back, always on, auto updates, scheduled scans. I took it. They regret it. I tried to get one for a MacBookPro but they told me they no longer offer the lifetime license, but the one I have is good forever, every upgrade, all the time and I can move it from one machine to another, so I use it on my Win10 desktop. Free version on my MacBook.

I don't think there's anything better out there. Sophos may come close and they're now hawking a paid version for home users too. But it is also an always on version which is compatible with Malwarebytes. They completely rebuilt their program a year ago, it wouldn't work with Sophos running, even with my old free license they did NOT give up until they had a version that let me run both. It took maybe three months. THAT is customer service, for something they don't even offer anymore. They do have a customer for life. Not a single piece of malware has ever made its way to any of my home machines since I've had home machines going back to DOS days. I've used various things over the years, but nothing tops Malwarebytes. For me.

Posted by:

18 May 2018

I am currently using Trend Micro and have been very happy. It does an automatic scan every day, etc.
I had a bad experience with Avast on my laptop; it may have been a virus that slipped by the "paid" version; when I went to do a disc clean, it started writing data on my hard drive and filled up my drive completely. Had to have hard drive erased and new ops system replaced!

Posted by:

18 May 2018

Avast buys Piraform and the first thing released is a compromised version of CCleaner.
It’s not very reassuring when a security vendor, who supposedly has it's users trust, could allow something like like that to happen to their own servers, AND be unaware of it for almost a month (27 days).
I have no confidence that something similar wouldn't happen again.

Posted by:

19 May 2018

There are some of us sophisticated users who use a variety of programs to match the full featured internet security modules while there are other basic users who do not have the knowledge of patience to put together a free comprehensive software bundle to combat malware. They want to push a key and be done with it. No worries.

Posted by:

19 May 2018

Some of the respondents seem to have ignored that you have written an article about Avast in the 1st of a series, and want to tell us about their own preferences instead of commenting on Avast as requested.

However, the most probable effect of your article showing there is little justification for the cost of the premium over the free version will be that the manufacturer will simply stop trying to justify the price and just place a price on the "free" version!

Posted by:

19 May 2018

I've been using Avast free version since about 2005 when I needed something that would still work with Win98. Everything was fine until a couple of year ago when the up-to-date version started failing to update the definitions (I think).
I couldn't find a solution, or even any acknowledgement by Avast that there was a problem, so I downgraded to Version 6.0.1000 and everything is fine again.
Has anyone else experienced the problem of Avast failing to update, and has it been resolved?

Posted by:

Ben Kemp
19 May 2018

Thanks for this. It prompted me to look, and I found something concerning.
W10 Pro + Avast free. Once I found the Controlled Folder Access option, it's greyed out OFF, and can't be turned back on. Quick googling suggests that this is because it relies on Defender to be active, which it isn't (?shouldn't be?) while Avast is running. Therefore, it suggests that Avast's anti-ransomware feature is MUCH more useful than you might think, because when running free Avast, you DON'T (?can't?) have that feature through Windows.

Or do I have something wrong?

Posted by:

19 May 2018

Great article, Bob! I'm running two laptops with Windows 7 and Chrome browsers. About a month ago I downloaded the freebie trial for Malwarebytes on one of the laptops and it did a great job of getting rid of malware and preventing more from getting into that laptop. It picked up tons of stuff that slipped by Spybot. When the 14 day trial was over I went to pay for the "Home" version and found the Malwarebytes' payment sites were (to me) untrustworthy. I contacted them about it and was told, sorry; that's who we use. I could buy a disc from a third-party site but they could not guarantee it. I then bought Webroots - 20 days ago - and have had two browser hijackings so far. When I write to their support department, they want ME to do the majority of the detective work I pay THEM to do. With my using Webroot, there should not be browser hijackings in the first place, right?!?! I think I just might go with what your article recommends, Bob - Live and Learn. . .at least, for me, that is.

Posted by:

20 May 2018

Great article, Bob!

It totally amazes me how others handle their own computer protection. I say, if it works for you and your computer is safe, than go for it. It doesn't matter if it is the Free version or the Paid version, what works is the most important.

Now, Bob you are able to tweak and twist things for the best outcome. Not everyone is capable of doing that. Sorry, but that is the reality of good computer safety.

I used the Free versions of Zone Alarm, AVG and Avast for years, before I purchased the Paid version of Avast. It has only been these past few months that I stopped using Avast. I was upset that I had been a good customer for over 3 years of being a paid customer and not one offer for a good discount from Avast! I was also upset that I was noticing more and more resources being used by Avast.

I am much older now and simply want to quit messing with my computers. I can't trust my Hubby to do things right, so having a Paid version settles lots of issues, since you can "schedule" aspects of malware protection, for example, routine scans and the level of those scans. With a Paid version, I don't have to be concerned about when definitions or updates are done, they are simply done automatically.

I have worried a lot less about my Hubby's computer, when I started using a Paid version. Just that fact alone is worth every penny I spend on computer safety. I am using Bitdefender right now and I must say, I am impressed. I got a great deal for 5 devices, for 5 years. I purchased the Bitdefender Total Security 2018 and it does cover up to 5 different devices for the whole 5 years. This coverage includes computers, laptops, tablets and cell phones.

For me, this is my solution and it works. 5 years ago, I had a different solution and that worked, for that time. So, I say do what "floats your boat" and be happy.

Posted by:

20 May 2018

These AV Suites are not going to keep you safe, any of them.
So I think free is a much better deal.

The only thing that will keep you safe is you!

Don't do stupid stuff.

Problem is: What is stupid stuff?

A little common sense goes a long way, don't open email links (ever), don't go to questionable sites, don't open mail from someone you don't know, and don't click on every add that promises you something that is too good to be true.

And please don't call that number that pops up and sez your computer is infected.

Above all Microsoft is not going to call you!

Computer Clinik LLC

Posted by:

22 May 2018

Plus there's the advantage of not having their ads come up every time you start up. Personally, the best thing about Avast is their VPN service which I use here in Korea to access stuff in the States and to feel safer when using public hotspots.

Posted by:

22 May 2018

Plus there's the advantage of not having their ads come up every time you start up. Personally, the best thing about Avast is their VPN service which I use here in Korea to access stuff in the States and to feel safer when using public hotspots.

Posted by:

22 May 2018

Having used and been satisfied with Avast free for many years Avast is now really putting on the hard sell pressure by showing annoying popups (in my case) the "System Junk 6Gb" and "Broken Registry items 220" and showing all the programs slowing down our PC's etc, etc, can you tell us Bob if these problems highlighted by Avast are real? If so
cannot the broken reg items be fixed by using a good reg cleaner as I do every month, these are the questions we need answering, or is Avast putting on the Frighteners to make us buy the pro version in order to resolve possibly simple curable problems?

Posted by:

22 May 2018

Mr. Rankin may not see any type of security/privacy issues with recommending GooglePublicDNS servers, but one irritating question still lingers in some users' minds about "Doesn't Google already know enough data on billions of users?". Wasn't the recent Facebook data-harvesting fiasco enough of a wake-up call, yet? I am not certain that putting 100% of our privacy/security in Google’s trust is truly advisable, no matter how much better all their 'free' offerings may be compared other available free firewall tools (e.g., OpenDNS, ComodoDNS, et al).

Windows Defender Firewall may be truly "advanced" but the user must know there is an outbound connection being made by a process or a program (rogue or otherwise) in order to block/filter it. The lack of such a feature makes it a tool that is pretty much useless. Granted w/an alternative firewall (e.g., OpenDNS, ComodoDNS, et al), there would be a big learning curve both for the user and the firewall itself. Thus, such initial nag screens may drive some users bonkers.

Posted by:

25 May 2018

I've used Avast free for around 10 years and never had a problem. But it has become lately a bit of a nag and tried its various paid for bits like tune up and that is not bad but wont renew. I agree not worth paying for the lot.
I also have SAS Pro since 2003 and Malabytes free which is good for pups. I've never had a virus myself but when it came back from one never to be used again so called Tech Service - it had virus's and they had taken off my programs put on there pick. I hate that. I hate W10 for not allowing me to have what I want as paid for my OS and computer.So still running best ever W7. Firefox has gone same way - not allowing your choice of programs - like Reminder Fix so if you Bob have a decent browser I can run it on - would be glad as tried all and now running Chrome as its allowing me to do most of what I want like Has Mask Me or BLur free now but still can use Mask and IDM both of which feel very happy with.

It is a left wing idea - that we cannot make our own decisions but have to be forced into it.

Avast own AVG now too but no learn from comments they own CCleaner which I also use .

Posted by:

Norman Rosen
30 May 2018

Many interesting comments. One program that you have not discussed is PC Matic. I have used it for years and never had a problem.

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