Avast Premier 2014 [Review]

Avast is probably best known for its free antivirus, but if you need more power then the company has plenty of commercial alternatives. Pro Antivirus extends the package with online banking and shopping protection, for instance, while Internet Security further adds a firewall and spam filter.

Top of the consumer range, though, is Premier. Along with the usual antivirus, firewall and browsing protection, this includes a tool which will automatically detect and install updates for key applications. The Data Shredder securely wipes confidential documents, while AccessAnywhere allows you to access and control your PC over the Internet.

You don’t have to install everything, but we accepted the default settings and waited. Installation took a little while -- no surprise when the suite requires some 550MB -- but was otherwise hassle-free. There were no demands to remove "conflicting" applications, no other issues, and setup was complete within a few moments.

The suite handled its first steps just fine, too, automatically downloading the latest definitions and launching a Quick Scan. Okay, this did raise a false alarm over a little-known utility we’d installed, but that’s not unusual, and at least Premier 2014 detected our malware samples correctly. Not a bad start, but now it was a time for a closer examination.

Getting started

The first big change you’ll notice in Premier 2014 is the new interface. A dark console displays your current security status (though no smiley face any more, sadly); the left-hand toolbar organizes the suite’s functions into 8 categories (Status, Scan, Tools, Settings and so on); and four configurable shortcuts provide one-click access to whichever feature you like.

Everything is drastically simplified, too. There’s no lengthy list of shields, no bulky text explanations of individual features, everything is stripped back to the bare minimum. Even when scanning, say, you don’t get all the stats displayed previously: figures like "run time", "speed", "test files/ folders" and "amount of data tested" are no longer displayed (they’re available in the logs, just not at scan time).

The overall effect is Windows 8-like, without being a blatant copy. And generally it works well, although perhaps like Windows 8, it sometimes feels as though the interface is more designed for a tablet than PC desktop (the Settings panes require plenty of unnecessary scrolling, for example).

Running your first system checkup is easy enough, thanks to the "Quick scan" shortcut on the Premier 2014 console. You may have to wait a while for the results, though. Premier 2014 has much-improved in-memory scan times for EXE and text files (up to 10x faster), but in our experience overall performance remains only average. Quick Scans started at around 17 minutes on our test PC (42GB data checked), and even with the persistent cache enabled, we were still typically waiting around 8 to 9 minutes.

Accuracy is what really matters, of course. The independent test labs have been giving Avast mixed scores recently, but we had no problems at all, with the suite detecting and properly removing everything we threw at it. Avast says Premier 2014 has improved cloud scanning, crowdsourced analysis and cleaning, as well as more frequent updates (350-400 a day), so perhaps that helps. But whatever the reason, Avast Premier 2014 does offer excellent malware detection.

Move away from the core antivirus engine, though, and it was a very different story.

Problems, problems, problems

The problems started with Internet Explorer 10, which regularly crashed when running Google searches. Chrome and Firefox worked fine, but IE remained crippled until we removed the Avast browser addon.

Usenet reader Grabit, a standard component in our test procedures, also had issues running newsgroup searches. We’re not sure why, but disabling Premier 2014′s shields got the program working again.

We wanted to try Avast’s SafeZone, a secure and isolated browser which aims to keep your online banking transactions safe. But on launch it displayed an error telling us "a breakpoint has been reached". We persevered, only to be rewarded by a blue-screen crash and a forced reboot. We uninstalled Premier 2014, used Avast’s cleanup tool and did a clean reinstall: no change.

And there were other issues, too, from occasional dialog box issues (clicking buttons with zero response) to system freezes which left our test PC completely unresponsive for up to two minutes.

This build clearly had some major bugs, then, at least on our setup (64-bit Windows 8). But if we picked around them, maybe we could get a feel for what else Premier 2014 had to offer.

Browsing protection

Avast’s browsing protection starts with your search engine results, where two icons are added to every link. The left is green for safe, red for danger; the right warns you of sites with a poor reputation, and hovering your mouse cursor over either displays more information. It’s a simple system and works well.

If you just click on a link elsewhere -- in an email, say -- then the Web Shield steps in, hopefully detecting and blocking any malicious sites. Avast has never impressed us with its antiphishing abilities, but this time it did reasonably well, blocking 65 percent of our test URLs.

We couldn’t get SafeZone working, unfortunately, but if you have more luck then it’s a useful feature. Especially as you can now add the URLs of your favorite banking and shopping sites, and Premier 2014 will switch you automatically to the secure SafeZone whenever you visit, helping to keep your details safe from keyloggers or other malware.

Premier 2014′s firewall was more of a plus point; it correctly stealthed our ports, blocked network attacks and did a good job of monitoring incoming and outgoing internet connections (apart, perhaps, from blocking Grabit), and we were never hassled by a single question or alert.

The spam filter performed well, too, blocking 85.5 percent of the spam in our real world test. Impressively, it incorrectly flagged just one legitimate email, and even that was a mailing list message which looked very spam-like.

New and Premier-only features

Premier 2014 now includes Avast’s DeepScreen technology, an improvement on the previous AutoSandbox feature which, reportedly, makes more intelligent decisions about how to handle unknown files. Sounds great, but we were unable to come up with a test for this, so can’t deliver any verdict.

The new Hardened Mode is a little more interesting. Turn it on (Settings > Antivirus, check "Enable Hardened Mode") and Premier 2014 immediately blocks any suspect executable which would normally be sandboxed by DeepScreen. Or set it to "Aggressive" and the system will only allow known safe executables to run.

As usual with this kind of whitelisting scheme, Hardened Mode blocks plenty of legitimate applications (Cloudmark DesktopOne, our perfectly safe spam filter was disabled). It also blocks all malware, though -- even the very latest threats -- and so could be a simple way to protect a basic PC with just a few known applications.

The real value in Premier 2014, though, supposedly comes in its three bonus features. And these start with the Software Updater. Just as in the lesser Avast packages, this monitors key applications -- browsers, Flash, Adobe Reader, iTunes and so on -- and alerts you to any updates. But the Premier edition can also download and install updates automatically. This isn’t as useful as it sounds because Software Updater only supports a few applications, and some of these must still be updated manually (Java, VLC Media Player), but it could save you a little time.

Next up is the Data Shredder, which can securely delete files, folders, free drive space or entire partitions. It’s a handy feature, but more awkward to use than it should be, and the tool isn’t significantly better than the freeware competition.

The most powerful Premier 2014 extra is probably AccessAnywhere, its remote control tool. The idea is that you set up your Premier 2014 to be accessible from the web, linking it to your Avast account. You can then use the "Remotely control a computer" feature on any other computer using Avast to log in to the Premier system, view its desktop, launch programs, transfer files, even reboot the system if necessary. It works well, and it’s genuinely useful, but again there’s plenty of even more capable free competition around.

Conclusion

Avast Premier 2014 has plenty of solid and likeable features. The firewall is intelligent and reliable, the spam filter works well, there’s effective and configurable sandboxing, it’s easy to use, with a host of handy extras, and of course all this is wrapped around an accurate antivirus engine.

It’s a pity, then, that so much of the suite either didn’t work, or didn’t work reliably, during our tests. The conflicts with Internet Explorer would have been bad enough, but interfering with other applications, blue-screening our PC, the broken SafeZone and assorted other problems took the program to a whole new level.

To be fair, these are issues with the current Premier 2014 build and our system, rather than the fundamental design of the program. You may not see these problems yourself, and even if you do, they could all be fixed tomorrow. So it’s important to keep these bugs in perspective: they were bad for us, but probably won’t mean much in the long (or even short-) term.

Unfortunately, even if Avast Premier 2014 runs perfectly for you, it just doesn’t have enough extra firepower to justify the higher price. If you’re an Avast fan, take a look at Internet Security 2014 instead: you’ll get all the functionality that matters, and save yourself $20 as well.

Verdict

The core product design is good, but a host of bugs meant Avast Premier 2014 ran poorly on our test PC, and it doesn't have enough extras to justify its price anyway. If you're an Avast fan, wait a couple of weeks for the next build, then focus on Internet Security 2014 instead.

We Like

Accurate antivirus engine, intelligent firewall, effective spam filter, powerful sandbox, whitelisting-like "Hardened Mode", easy to use.

We Don't Like

SafeZone didn't work, IE addon crashed the browser, can interfere with legitimate applications, some interface design issues, not enough power to justify the price.

Details

Manufacturer:

Avast
Price (RRP): $69.99
Best Price: £49.99
Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 (all 32 and 64-bit editions)

Requirements:

650MB free hard drive space

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