Two More Ways to Fight Viruses, for Free

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 27, 2005

Getting a Web browser, e-mail program or photo organizer as free software on a computer is routine, but an anti-virus utility for Windows, the target of tens of thousands of viruses and worms? That seems the kind of thing for which you'd want to pay.

But you don't have to. For several years, two Czech software developers have offered free versions of their anti-virus programs to home users. These no-charge downloads don't offer every feature provided by McAfee Inc. and Symantec Corp., the two security developers whose programs come pre-installed on most Windows PCs. But when put to the same tests as software from the Big Two, they did the job almost as well and with less fuss.

Both of these freebies -- Avast 4 Home Edition, from Prague's Alwil Software, and AVG Free Edition, from Brno-based Grisoft Inc. -- can be installed only on home computers that aren't put to any business or commercial use. (Income from sales to businesses and organizations covers the cost of this exercise in Internet charity.)

These two programs share a few welcome traits. Both are relatively small downloads -- almost 10 megabytes for Avast, just under 15 for AVG -- that tout compatibility with systems as old as Windows 95. And both automatically download updates every day and allow quick manual updates.

With Avast ( ), the major selling point is a greater sense of security. After a refreshingly fast install, Avast automatically scans your computer for trouble before allowing Windows to boot up -- a helpful precaution if the computer may already be infected.

From then on, Avast's virus warnings are quick and unambiguous, if thoroughly annoying. When you try to run a virus, a large window, illustrated by a flashing radioactivity icon, will alert you as a warning siren sounds and a recorded voice intones "Caution, a virus has been detected."

That window, however, doesn't make any of its options -- ignore the virus, delete it or move it to a "chest" of quarantined files -- a default action, so hitting the Enter key just cues up the racket again.

Avast's scanning stopped viruses delivered through e-mail (in the Outlook, Outlook Express and Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail programs), Web downloads and instant messaging (old and new releases of AOL's AIM software). It also stopped me from sending out copies of viruses via e-mail in all three of those programs, but it didn't block one transferred via IM.

Unfortunately, it took Avast an extra day to start catching this week's "Sober" virus -- automatic updates did not add that to its database until Tuesday.

Avast's systemwide scans went by relatively quickly, taking 27 minutes to do a routine check of a well-used ThinkPad and an hour and 40 minutes for a full scan. It took just 9 minutes and 37 minutes to run the same tests on a barely used Toshiba.

You can also verify an individual file by right-clicking it and selecting Avast's "Scan" command. But it's hard to know that it's been judged safe until you realize that Avast's scan window closes instantly if it doesn't spot any trouble.

That ill-thought-out behavior reflects a deeper problem with Avast's interface -- that it's a mess. The program offers three distinct looks in various parts (its system-scan window appears to have been patterned after old MP3 programs like Winamp), and finding settings like the one to silence the audio alerts takes some digging.

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