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Review: AVG Internet Security 2011

30 September 2010, Mike Williams

AVG has just launched the latest version of its security suite, AVG Internet Security 2011. And the good news is that the package now does even more, thanks to 200 new features.

Of course this might worry some: is AVG becoming bloated, overweight? The company say no, pointing out that the new additions are almost all focused on the core functionality of “speed, detection and usability”. But is this really true? We downloaded a copy to try and find out.

AVG Internet Security 2011 makes a good impression immediately, as a streamlined setup process had the program installed with the minimum of hassle and user intervention. We rebooted, and watched as the program’s firewall automatically created rules for most of our known safe applications, allowing them online without problems.

There were exceptions, some of them a little surprising: the firewall asked whether it was okay if we allowed Skype to accept a connection, for instance, and you don’t get many more well-known “safe” applications than that.

Still, it only takes a couple of clicks to confirm that the connection is fine, and save the answer as a permanent firewall rule, which means you won’t be bothered by the prompt again. And so it doesn’t take long for the pop-ups to disappear, leaving you to get on with other things – like trying out the enhanced antivirus engine.

Faster malware detection

AVG products haven’t been noted for their scanning performance in the past: for the most part they’ve been only average. And at first it looked like AVG Internet Security 2011 was going to follow a similar path. We chose to run a Whole Computer Scan on our test PC, and while it detected all our malware samples, it took 67 minutes, a firmly mid-range time for that particular system.

AVG Internet Security 2011 wasn’t finished yet, though. Its new Smart Scanning technology allows the program to scan trusted files once only, and then check them again only when it’s necessary, usually because the file has changed. And so when we ran our next scan, then entire process took a fraction under 4 minutes.  Now that’s much better.

This isn’t a new idea – Norton Internet Security does something similar – but it’s well implemented here, and if you’ve been frustrated by AVG’s relatively ordinary performance in the past then you’ll really appreciate what this new version can do.

Another new performance-related option sees scans become “user sensitive” by default, which means they take the minimum of system resources when they detect user activity, grabbing more only when you’re not around.

At least, that’s the plan, but we’re not entirely sure about its effectiveness. Outlook, for example, remained noticeably slower to launch and collect emails on our test PC whenever a scan was running. Still, if a complete system scan is only going to take 5 minutes or so then it won’t interfere with very much. And if it proves to be a problem then you can always reconfigure the scan to be “low priority”, using minimal resources, which extends scan times but we found also prevented slowdowns in any of our other applications.

Elsewhere there are plenty of individual scanning options. You can check individual files or folders by right-clicking in Explorer; scan selected groups of files or folders from the interface; and tweak how scans work in a variety of ways. And there’s also a decent scheduler that allows you to run your chosen scans unattended every few hours, on the days you specify, when your PC boots, and more.

One of the most interesting additions, though, almost entirely invisible to users, is the program’s enhanced monitoring capabilities. AVG Internet Security 2011 now keeps a close eye on what your apps are doing, looking out for malware-like behaviour. If it spots something dubious then the relevant file is uploaded to a group of AVG servers, and analysed in the cloud. And if the suspicions turn out to be justified then the file will be flagged as dangerous, and the information shared with other AVG users, so they’re protected too.

In theory AVG Protective Cloud Technology should improve accuracy, reduce false positives and improve AVG’s speed of response to new threats. It’ll take a while to find out for sure, but in the meantime the performance boost from Smart Scanning alone is enough to justify giving the new program a try. Although, of course, it has plenty more to offer.

Browsing protection includes Facebook

As in previous versions, AVG Internet Security 2011 uses the company’s LinkScanner toolbar to keep you safe on the web.

Once installed, this scans the links on a web page before you click on them, as well as the URLs you enter into your browser address bar. If there’s something dangerous on that page then you won’t be allowed to open it.

And the program also adds one of four safety rating icons to your Google, Bing or Yahoo! search results – “Safe”, “Questionable”, “Risky” and “Unknown” – allowing you to see immediately which sites you should really avoid.

New to this version is Social Network Protection, which sees the same search engine icons added to links in your Facebook and MySpace streams. That’s particularly useful, as you’re far more likely to click on a link if a friend of family member has recommended it, and these simple alerts to possible danger could save you a lot of pain. They also don’t require any setup, there’s no need to enter your Facebook login details or anything else – it all just works.

Perhaps best of all, we found LinkScanner did all this without slowing down our browser in any noticeable way. Although if you do have problems, perhaps on a laptop where you occasionally have only a very slow internet connection, it’s easy to disable some of all of the toolbar’s features in just a few clicks.

Configurable spam filter

AVG Internet Security 2011 includes a capable spam filter that integrated well with our Outlook 2010 installation. There’s also specific support for The Bat!, while a more general plug-in filters your email traffic to work with Thunderbird, Outlook Express, Windows Live Mail and other clients.

The filter’s initial accuracy wasn’t too bad, blocking 77% of our spam messages. 6% of our legitimate emails were also misidentified, but in every case these were from mailing lists – no personal messages were blocked. This isn’t quite up to the standards of the best specialist tools, but if you’re currently without a spam filter at all then AVG Internet Security 2011 would look very good indeed.

And, of course, these first results are just the start. The filter also learns and becomes more accurate as you highlight its mistakes, marking misidentified emails as “spam” or “wanted”. And you can configure it further in a host of different ways.

You might start by setting up your Whitelist, for instance, the list of trusted email addresses from which you’ll always accept any message. There’s the option to import addresses from Outlook, Windows Address Book, WAB or text files so this shouldn’t take long.

You can also ask the filter to use your choice of RBL (Realtime Blackhole Lists) servers, or enable the use of a domain reputation cache. There are options to customise how spam training works. And you can have messages blocked by language, character set, country, IP address, and more.

Or, if that sounds a little too complicated, you can simply use a slider to make the filter just a little more aggressive. Whichever option you choose, the spam filter does a reasonable job from the very beginning, and with just a few tweaks you can make it considerably better.

Effective firewall

As we’ve mentioned, the AVG Internet Security 2011 firewall is visibly active almost from the moment you install the suite. Mostly these are just pop-ups displaying information, letting you know that a particular program is being allowed to go online, but occasionally you’re asked to decide yourself whether access should be permitted.

There are a few more of these prompts than we’d like; some competitors, like Norton Internet Security, have firewalls that do a better job of deciding themselves what the appropriate action should be. Still, the prompts are reasonably clear, with more technical information if you need it: if you’ve any previous experience with firewalls then you won’t have any problems with this one.

And a game mode allows you minimise the prompts when you’re busy elsewhere, although you have to configure this yourself, it won’t work automatically.

The underlying technology appears solid, however, with the firewall correctly stealthing all our ports, and evading all our attempts to bypass it or shut it down.

And when it comes to configurations and settings, there are two pieces of good news.

The first is that, unlike some competing suites, you’re not forced to go hunting through a mass of dialog boxes to find, say, the firewall’s application rules. Just click Tools > Firewall Settings, and they, and everything else firewall-related are there.

And the second is that, while the program works well out of the box, there are a host of tweaks and controls on offer if you need them.

The firewall has three main profiles on offer, for instance: “Small home or office network”, “Computer within domain” and “Directly connected to the Internet”. Each profile can have its own concept of safe or unsafe networks, its own rules for applications and system services, and many other settings.

You’re then able to create as many new profiles as you like, based on these starting points, and configure them to suit your needs. And you can attach particular profiles to specific network adapters, and switch between them automatically, so for instance you might enforce very strict rules for wireless connections, while taking a gentler approach on the Ethernet connection you use at home.

You don’t have to get into any of this: as we’ve said, the firewall works well with its default settings. But if you’re installing AVG Internet Security 2011 on a laptop, on any system with complicated network requirements, then you may appreciate the firewall’s configurability later on.

Other features

AVG Internet Security 2011 includes plenty of other features.

Not all of these are particularly useful. For instance, Windows Vista and 7 users get a desktop gadget to launch a scan or check for updates without opening the full interface. This is lacking any fine controls or configuration options, though (you can’t choose what sort of scan to carry out, for instance). We found it distracting, too, flashing white whenever the program updated itself.

And the PC Analyzer scans your system for performance-related problems: file fragmentation, junk files, broken shortcuts, Registry errors and so on. Oddly, this doesn’t actually fix them, you’ll need the new AVG PC TuneUp for that, and that will fix your problems only once before demanding further payment.

The Identity Protection component is more interesting. This doesn’t simply look for credit card or phone numbers in network traffic, like the equivalent modules in other tools: AVG say instead that it monitors the way programs behave on your computer, “automatically blocking any activity that could lead to ID theft”. Sounds good, but there are no more details on what this is doing and so we were unable to test it.

And elsewhere, experts will appreciate a handy System Tools module which displays low-level data about your PC’s setup. You’re able to see open network connections, for instance, closing anything that looks suspicious (and, optionally, the initiating process) in a click. You can view Windows startup programs and IE browser extensions, removing anything you don’t need. An LSP Viewer reveals files that are filtering your TCP/IP traffic, while the Processes viewer shows running processes and displays information about them (whether they’re trusted, signed, spawn other processes, and more).

There’s no parental controls, then, and no backup module, but otherwise AVG Internet Security 2011 is very complete. It scans and alerts you to more threats, much more quickly, and the new behaviour monitoring cloud features should also ensure greater accuracy and faster response to new threats in the future. If you’re a fan of AVG already, you’ll like the 2011 generation; if not, it’s now a very good security suite choice, and if you’re thinking of changing your suite for the next year then this must be high on your candidate list.

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