Our guest this week in the Security for Everyone series is AVG Internet Security 9. AVG is one of the companies with a long tradition in providing quality home security software. The last time we looked at AVG Internet Security I was somewhat disappointed at the lack of integration and many usability errors. However, being an intermediary version that aimed to integrate new technologies, my hopes for the 9th version were quite high. Let's see if they have been met.
AVG offers two versions of the installer. The online version is a small (roughly 1 MB) program that will download the installation file upon launching. An offline version which contains all the required files is also available in case you want to run the installation on a computer that is not connected to the Internet. The installation procedure is quick and straightforward. AVG Internet Security 9 does ask the user whether or not to install the AVG toolbar, and whether or not to make Yahoo the user's default homepage. Both of these options can be deactivated. If you do not mind the extra space it takes, the AVG toolbar can provide a better integration with AVG's protection tools.
Immediately following is a first configuration phase, where the user has to select the type of computer on which AVG Internet Security 9 is being installed. Depending on whether the computer is a desktop or a notebook , the firewall will adapt itself to deal with the different handling of network connections. Laptop computers will connect to many unsafe networks on-the-go, whereas desktop computers are expected to be connected to a single network for large periods of time.
The next step of the wizard asks the user to choose how the computer connects to the Internet. While the exact consequence of the choice here (modem, wired or wireless router in a home network, or corporate network) are unclear, there is little chance for confusion on the user's part.
When running AVG Internet Security 9 for the first time, a dialog will pop up, asking for an initial optimization scan. This allows some files to be marked as safe, subsequent scans only having to deal with those files that can no longer be trusted. The operation can be delayed until the first scheduled scan.
Ease of use and configuration
The entire configuration process has been significantly streamlined, which is a good news. The last version we reviewed (AVG Internet Security 8.5) had a lengthy first-run wizard, where it wasn't clear what each option does and made the entire installation procedure seem to last forever. This version has significantly shortened the install procedure, a solution which we can only salute.
The main screen is intuitive and requires very little adjustment time. Quick access is offered to all the modules integrated in the suite, and a short notice about their status is given immediately near each one's icon. The three tabs on the left offer access to the main screen, the computer scanner and the update tool. Overall, it looks reasonably uncluttered and familiar enough not to require a map to make your way through it.
A good usability improvement lays in the fact that all the icons on the main screen now lead to a special configuration screen for every tool. Previously, some icons led to simple overview screens and some to basic configuration screens. This made it very unintuitive to configure AVG, since some features could only be configured from the cluttered Advanced Settings dialog. These special screens show more detailed information about the selected tool and allow the user to perform basic configuration tasks. This is an ideal formula, because novice users need not even make contact with the advanced settings dialog. All the basic options are immediately accessible. The only significant exception is the firewall rules screen, which is still available only by selecting Tools->Firewall Settings.
There is still room for improvement (some settings can be accessed from more than one place), but AVG Internet Security 9's user interface can offer a good compromise. This is important to note, because AVG Internet Security is very flexible and can be customized in great detail. The separation of advanced and basic settings makes it a viable option for all users, regardless of their level of computer knowledge.
The firewall has received some improvement compared to the previous version. It has been proofed against average attempts at bypassing it (e.g. by killing its process). It also leaks far less information to scanners than it used to, managing to correctly hide potential vulnerabilities from attackers. The firewall also does a fair job at protecting against sneak attacks, where programs marked as safe try to download malicious programs automatically. This is also due to the good integration between the suite's various modules, an integration about which we will talk immediately.
In terms of usability, the only serious problem the firewall has is its poor integration of firewall exceptions, which cannot be easily accessed. In fact, as we mentioned above, they are hidden under a menu option that does not immediately indicate that they are there. For a rules-based firewall, this is not very wise. Fortunately, the firewall's alerts are large and very visible (though perhaps somewhat intrusive, as a direct consequence), so it is fairly difficult to mislabel a program.
The firewall also offers a "Gaming mode", in which it will try to interrupt the user as little as possible. The "Gaming mode" option is a useful feature in firewalls that do not normally detect settings automatically. It is useful not only for games, but also when watching videos or in general for any kind of activity that requires as little interruption as possible.
When running on mobile computers, the firewall will automatically try to adapt to whatever new network your computer is connected to. This is a useful tool for people who frequently connect to public hotspots and is an area that most Internet security suites neglect. AVG Internet Security 9 has a per-adapter, per-network profile support. This means that you can define a different set of rules for the wireless network you use at work and for the one you use in your favorite bar. You would usually want to allow some remote connections at work, required for sharing files or printers, but would definitely want to block them in a public hotspot. This option has been available in the previous version as well, but was hopelessly complicated and cluttered by a confusing first-run wizard. In this latest incarnation, it is far easier to use.
Antivirus and antispyware features
A few years ago, AVG was renowned for having one of the largest and most complete signature databases. While the detection engine is still top-notch, the malware database is not as complete as that of some top players. On the other hand, it is far more balanced. AVG missed only five infected files in our test, which definitely rates it as a good choice for home use. Furthermore, it correctly detected and removed most keyloggers, including commercial ones, and did a fair job at removing well-known rootkits, which are common stumbling blocks for home security suites. In fact, the anti-virus and anti-rootkit modules are separate and have separate settings pages.
In terms of scanning speed, AVG Internet Security 9 can mark files as safe and only re-scan them if necessary (when the file has been modified or if the active protection module detects something suspicious). This means that scanning takes very little time after the first pass. This is part of AVG's significant efforts at reducing the suite's overall footprint, which have been very successful. AVG Internet Security 9 has a remarkably low memory footprint of only 30-35 MB, making it a fair choice on entry-level computers. There is a slight increase in the time that the computer needs to boot and in login time, but it is tolerable.
Another aspect we have been commenting on in our last encounter with AVG Internet Security was the poor integration of the suite's modules. AVG Internet Security 9 has added a degree of integration between the Resident Shield, its active protection module, and two other modules: the firewall and the identity theft protection module. This allows them to share information, in the hope that it will allow the firewall and identity theft protection modules make better guesses. Unfortunately, this is not as efficient as one would hope, due to the rather poor active protection module. AVG's Resident Shield detected most of the unclean samples I tried to download or introduce via an infected USB stick, but in many cases it failed to prevent malware from installing.
This level of integration is present at many levels. For instance, once a user has suspicions about a possible identity theft, AVG's support team can provide assistance in monitoring the user's account and filling the necessary paperwork. While not effectively a feature of AVG Internet Security 9 itself, I think this kind of initiative deserves being noted. We were not able to test it, but even if it is not 100% effective, the mere initiative is remarkable.
While AVG Internet Security 9 is still lacking some usability polish, I think it meets the requirements of a "Buy for Grandma" award. Due to the streamlined main screen, very simple access to basic configuration options, even easier than in other suites, and its low resource footprint, it is ideal for people who do not like delays. Furthermore, the degree of protection it offers is above average. The huge range of customization options make it a very flexible tool which a knowledgeable user can adapt for any computer. You can download a trial version here.