The new version of the Avast security suite focuses on repairing the past mistakes of Windows. Debuting today exclusively with CNET's Download.com, Avast 8 addresses some of today's most pressing security concerns but leaves at least one other growing problem unresolved.
All told, Avast Free Antivirus 8 (download), Avast Pro Antivirus 8 (download), Avast Internet Security 8 (download) and the new top-tier suite, Avast Premier 8 (download) command upwards of 170 million active users, making Avast the most popular consumer security suite by a long shot.
Although the suite leaves privacy in the cold, the rest of what's new in this 2013 version goes to great lengths to address security risks on Windows. A new software updating tool lets you know when programs on your computer are out of date, and provides links to update them directly from within Avast. This includes known security vectors such as Java, Flash, QuickTime, and PDF readers. In the free version, the updater will automatically download the software update, which then opens its installer. It still relies on user interaction to complete the install, though. In Pro and Internet Security, you get a one-click update that downloads and silently installs the update. The Premier version removes the requirement for any user interaction whatsoever -- updates happen automatically and silently.
The new Browser Cleanup tool is available as a standalone download that doesn't require you to use Avast, but it also comes baked into all versions of the suite. It checks the internal storage and Registry of Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome, searching for plug-in and toolbar references and helping you uninstall them.
While Avast does not insist on a toolbar, as many of its competitors do, it does have a browser add-on called WebRep that gives you on-the-fly site ratings and helps the suite interact with the browser. The difference between a toolbar add-on and a button add-on is little more than an interface issue, but that doesn't mean that the Browser Cleanup tool will go unappreciated -- toolbars surreptitiously installed by Ask.com, Conduit, and others are definitely annoying, at the very least.
Two entirely new features do the most to differentiate Avast Premier from its siblings. The suite includes a Data Shredder to ensure that deleted files and folders are unrecoverable using "conventional" techniques. It offers the industry standard three shredding options: a random overwrite, which overwrites files a user-specified number of times with semi-random bytes; a Department of Defense standard of overwriting; and the Gutmann method, the slowest of the three but the most secure.
You'll also be able to wipe only free disk space of remaining instances of data, or wipe an entire partition including on solid state drives.
The second Premier-only feature is a remote access tool called AccessAnywhere. To use it, though, the computer you're using must have at least Avast Free installed, which is a lot to ask given that security suites require fairly deep system hooks. Even though the new version of Avast can be installed concurrently with other security suites, requiring at least some version of the full Avast suite likely will temper interest in the AccessAnywhere feature.
The Avast interface has been altered so that it looks more Windows 8-friendly. It still runs in Windows 8's desktop mode, so it's not a true Metro-style app, but it has that look. The workflow behind the touch-friendly large icons makes it easier to go directly to key features, such as Avast's popular "shields".
Changes to existing Avast features include increasing the number of virus definition file updates per day, from 20 or so in the previous version to more than 70 per day in version 8. When running on battery on laptops, Avast will automatically disable scans until the device is plugged in, and the suite now offers.
Sadly lacking from Avast 8 are any tools to directly address privacy concerns, a security issue which will only continue to grow as advertisers, network providers, and browser makers squabble over personal data collected and collated on people using the Web.
Avast's historical commitment to giving free users the vast majority of its tools remains unchanged, so the differences between the Free and various paid suites is limited. The SafeZone and Sandbox are for Avast Pro Antivirus and above; firewall and anti-spam measures are restricted to Avast Internet Security and above; and the new DataShredder and AccessAnywhere are for Avast Premier users only.
Pricing remains unchanged from previous years. Avast Pro Antivirus retails for $39.99 for one PC for one year, or $54.99 for three computers over one year. Avast Internet Security costs $10 more for a one-computer license, or $15 more for a three-computer license. The new Avast Premier goes for $69.99 and $89.99, respectively.
Updated at 3 p.m. PT to clarify how the new software updater tool works.
Updated at 10 a.m. PT with pricing information.