Category Archives: Software

An Overview of Free Antivirus Programs – Part IV – Avast 4 Home Edition

Here is the fourth installment in our series on free antivirus programs. Be sure to also see:

Up for review today is the free Avast 4 Home Edition. Review version: 4.7 (build 4.7.1074)

Product link: Avast 4 Home Edition

Installation – Yes, Avast is indeed free, but you must register it after 60 days if you want to continue using the program. Registration is free, and the license that you receive will be valid for one year. After that, you must register again. Get the idea?

While I would prefer not to register at all, it’s difficult to complain considering that the product is free. Is the registration procedure worth it to use Avast? Let’s find out.

two_icons.pngInstallation is easy and requires a reboot when finished. After the reboot, you will notice two blue icons in your system tray – one for the on-access scanner and one for the Virus Recovery Database (VRDB).

Essentially, the VRDB stores information about the current state of your files. In case of an infection, the VRDB can help restore clean versions of them. By default, the VRDB only generates while the computer is idle, so it doesn’t hurt system performance to leave it enabled. If you want to hide the VRDB icon, just right-click it and choose to merge it with the main Avast icon.

Interface – Avast has by default the wackiest, most “modern” interface of all the programs I’ve tried so far. Here is how it looks by default:

avast_main.png

If you do not like how it looks, fear not, for there are dozens of skins available, most of which are made by third parties. Even though I’m no fan of Vista, I kind of like the aVist skin. Here’s how it looks:

avist_main.png

No matter what skin you choose, know that Avast has a “sound enabled” interface, meaning you will hear little sounds depending on the action you choose. Unless you like such a thing, I suggest disabling program sounds. I prefer my antivirus programs to be seen and not heard. 🙂

Updating – As expected, Avast offers automatic updates. Not only that, you have a ton of choices available – just want to update virus definitions automatically? Done. How about program updates, too? Done.

avast_update_basic.png

One feature that I truly enjoy is the ability to run in “silent” running mode – updates provide no notification of when they are complete, making Avast a good “install and forget” program. Very nice.

avast_silent_update.png

Footprint and Scanning – The good news: I have not noticed any slowdowns in normal usage, so Avast appears to be light on system resources.

The bad news: Running a thorough scan tends to hold my CPU usage around 70%, with occasional spikes up to 100%. System responsiveness is reduced drastically when this happens. Fortunately, Avast provides an option to “Go to background” while scanning, and my advice is to please take advantage of this, as doing so made my system responsive again.

avast_background.png

A complete scan took a little over an hour on my system (over 400 GB of files). This is comparable to AVG’s speed.

avast_shields.pngTypes of Protection – This is one area where Avast truly shines. By default, Avast offers 7 different resident protection “shields.” They include:

  • Network shield – analyzes network traffic
  • P2P shield – for added file-sharing protection
  • Standard shield – the “on-access” scanner
  • Web shield – monitors HTTP traffic (includes URL blocking)
  • Instant Messaging shield – useful if you receive files through IM
  • Internet Mail shield – for most mail programs
  • Outlook/Exchange shield -exclusively for Outlook

Each “shield” has configuration options of its own, and you may enable or disable entire shields at will. In the screenshot I provide, notice that I have disabled 3 of the shields (greyed out) since I have no use for them on this particular machine.

Like the other programs reviewed so far, Avast integrates a targeted scan into the “right-click” explorer menu. As in most programs, initializing a targeted scan spawn a new program window, but unlike most programs, that windows immediately disappears if no threat is found. Yes! Many program creators should take a lesson here – why create extra steps to dismiss windows if there is no intervention needed?

EICAR TestHere is a link where you can download a harmless test file that should be detected as malicious by antivirus programs. As I’ve mentioned before, it is NOT a real virus. In order to test the effectiveness of a program, I download the EICAR test file to my desktop and start counting to see how long it takes the antivirus program to find it. Sooner is always better than later. Let’s see how Avast handles it.

avast_eicar.png

Impressively, Avast will not even let the file download at all! Clicking “Abort connection” stops the download from taking place. Very nice.

Final Thoughts – Avast was one of the first free antivirus programs that I tried years ago. At that time, I was simply impressed that an antivirus program was available for free. Now, Avast continues to impress me despite competition from many other free offerings.

If you don’t mind the annual re-registration, it’s hard to beat Avast. Like AVG, it’s one of the most popular free antivirus programs for a reason.

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An Overview of Free Antivirus Programs – Part III – Comodo Antivirus 2.0 Beta

This is the third installment in our series on free antivirus programs. Be sure to also see:

Up for examination today is Comodo Antivirus. Review version: 2.0 Beta (build 2.0.17.58)

Product link: Comodo Antivirus

Installation – No registration is required, though you may optionally submit your e-mail address as an ID. Even if you do not provide an e-mail address, the program is still “activated” for life. A reboot is required after installation.

Interface – I don’t think the interface will win many design awards, but it doesn’t take long to figure it out. Here is the main screen:

comodo_main.png

As you can see, the buttons across the top control most of the navigation, while you can easily enable or disable elements of the program from the main window. Here is what scanning looks like:

comodo_scan.png

Updating – Manual updates are easily handled by clicking the “Update Now” button on the main window. Comodo also comes with a seamless “automatic” update feature that will automatically download and install updates as needed, making it a good “install and forget” program.

Footprint and Scanning – Thankfully, Comodo is light on system resources, and on my system it feels no heavier than AVG. I did not notice any “hangs” or slowdowns in opening files or applications.

Comodo offers a number of scanning options, ranging from a complete scan to isolating specific folders/files. I applaud the inclusion of a memory scan as well.

Upon running a complete scan, imagine my surprise when Comodo reported that the scan only took about 6 minutes on my system (over 400 GB of files)! Six minutes? Surely there must be a mistake here.

There is. An isolated scan of just one of my hard disks takes nearly 7 minutes. How can the “full” scan take less time than that? Somehow, Comodo’s “full system” scan does not even come close to scanning the full system. I’m still scratching my head about it.

That said, Comodo’s scanning speed is still very impressive. Even if I combine the time it takes to scan each of my hard disks, Comodo far outpaces AVG and PC Tools by a long shot. Admittedly, Comodo did run an initial scan just after installation to help set up its Host Intrusion Prevention System (HIPS), so perhaps there’s some aggressive caching going on. Or maybe it’s just a bug. 🙂

Types of Protection – Like the other two programs reviewed thus far, Comodo features an on-access scanner, an on-demand scanner, and an e-mail scanner for users of POP3 programs such as Thunderbird and Outlook. Quick scanning of individual files is integrated though the”right-click” explorer menu.

If you use the HIPS Application Control feature, Comodo will require some training in which applications are safe to use. In the picture below, I have just launched my Finale music software.

comodo_finale.png

Just like setting up a software firewall, Comodo will “learn” which programs are authorized and never bother you again about them. Though initial setup can be tedious, HIPS Application Control can come in handy to stop a rogue virus or trojan from even executing.

EICAR TestHere is a link where you can download a harmless test file that should be detected as malicious by antivirus programs. As I’ve mentioned before, it is NOT a real virus. In order to test the effectiveness of a program, I download the EICAR test file to my desktop and start counting to see how long it takes the antivirus program to find it. Sooner is always better than later. Let’s see how Comodo fares.

I downloaded the file and waited… and waited… and waited. Nothing happened. Uh-oh.

Bad news. Comodo does NOT automatically detect the test virus, even though the on-access scanner is active. Clicking the file does not trigger the scanner either. In fact, only by right-clicking the test virus and choosing to manually scan it did Comodo finally provide an alert.

comodo_eicar.png

Fortunately, the Comodo “Repair Wizard” was able to successfully delete the file, but it is still disturbing that the on-access scanner did not detect the test virus at all.

Update: Comodo’s on-access scanner finally found another copy of the EICAR virus that I manually deleted… 12 hours after I first deleted it! Maybe the on-access scanner was just on an extended coffee break.

comodo_eicar_recycle.png

Final Thoughts – I really want to like Comodo, and there are a number of things that the program does well. Not only is scanning blazing fast, Comodo is the first program that I have reviewed so far that does not have any nag screens or banners urging me to upgrade to a paid version.

Still, this is Beta software, and there are a few quirks, such as the “not-so-full” scan issue. A more minor issue is that the Windows Security Center does not recognize Comodo as a valid antivirus program, and by default will leave an annoying icon in the tray asking you to install a valid program. This is easily remedied by going to the Security Center and checking the box next to “I have an antivirus program that I’ll monitor myself.” Still, I hope this will be addressed later.

Of course, there is also the glaring issue of detection rates. Given how Comodo fails to quickly find the EICAR test virus, I worry about its overall effectiveness in detecting real viruses. As it stands now, I am not comfortable using this version of Comodo as my primary line of defense against viruses.

If these issues are addressed, Comodo has the potential to become a leading figure in the free antivirus software arena. A glance through their forums shows mention that a beta of a completely-rewritten version 3 should be on the way soon. I look forward to testing it.

Stay tuned for more entries in this series.

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An Overview of Free Antivirus Programs – Part II – PC Tools AntiVirus Free Edition

This is the second installment in our series on free antivirus programs. Be sure to also see Part I (AVG Free Edition).

Next on the list is the free edition of PC Tools AntiVirus. Review version: 3.6.1.8

Product Link: PC Tools Free Edition

Installation – No registration required, which is nice. Reboot required after installation.

Interface – PC Tools sports a slick and shiny interface. More importantly, it’s easy to navigate and understand. Here is the main program:

pc_tools_main.png

And here is what it looks like while scanning:

pc_tools_scanning.png

Updating – Manually updating the program is easy – just use the “Smart Update” button on the main program window.

Concerning automatic updates, there are two options available.

  1. Set a frequency in which to search for updates (ranging from 30 minutes to 24 hours).
  2. Set a scheduled time in which to update (can be daily, weekly, or monthly).

pc_tools_smart_update.png

Of course, you may use both options. However, the main downfall is that the first option will NOT automatically install any updates. Instead, it will display a prompt from the taskbar notifying you that an update is available. In my opinion, this feature is almost useless because it requires manual intervention. I would much rather see it go ahead and install the updates, preferably without notifying me at all!

Fortunately, the second option seems to automatically install updates, though your computer must be turned on at the time you specify. All-in-all, the manual updating procedure is stronger than the automatic with this program.

Footprint and Scanning – On my system, PC Tools AntiVirus took over 3 hours to run a “complete” scan (over 400 GB of files). By comparison, AVG only took just over an hour to run. Make no mistake, PC Tools AntiVirus is slow at scanning, though overall effectiveness is admittedly more important than sheer speed. Still, this is an area that I would like to see improved.

Concerning system resources, PC Tools AntiVirus definitely “feels” heavier than AVG, though not as heavy as in my experiences with some versions of McAfee and Norton. It’s subjective, but programs and files on my system take a little longer to open with PC Tools installed.

Types of Protection – PC Tools AntiVirus offers both real-time protection and on-demand scanning. I’m pleased to see that a plug-in for e-mail protection is also available (separate install – look near the bottom of the product page), which is handy for you POP3 mail users.

EICAR TestHere is a link where you can download a harmless test file that should be detected as malicious by antivirus programs. It is NOT a real virus. In order to test the effectiveness of a program, I download the EICAR test file to my desktop and start counting to see how long it takes the antivirus program to find it.

pc_tools_eicar.png

I was pleased that PC Tools did not even allow the file to download to my desktop. As soon at the EICAR file went into my browser’s cache, PC Tools snagged it and sounded the alarm. Nice! This is even faster than AVG’s detection and is one of PC Tool’s stronger points.

Final Thoughts – PC Tools AntiVirus impresses immediately with its shiny, intuitive interface. However, beauty is only skin-deep, and this free antivirus program fails to impress in other areas, such as the needlessly-complicated automatic updates and the tremendously-slow scanning speed.

Other little tasks show a lack of foresight as well. For instance, I appreciate that targeted scanning is integrated into the “right-click” explorer menu, but once scanning is finished, clicking “Close” leaves me staring at the main program window instead of sending it back to the taskbar. In a targeted scan, why would I want to keep the main program open when the scan of my file(s) is finished? It just adds an extra step.

So then, would I recommend the free version of PC Tools AntiVirus? Yes, but not as highly as other free antivirus programs, such as AVG. In a way, it’s a shame that I don’t have a system chock fully of viruses that I could use to evaluate detection rates, because I suspect that PC Tools is quite good at it. If you are willing to sacrifice a few system resources and don’t mind a little manual intervention for updates, PC Tools AntiVirus should reward you with good looks and virus detection.

Stay tuned for further entries in this series.

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An Overview of Free Antivirus Programs – Part I – AVG Free Edition

Henceforth begins a multi-part series in which I plan to install and test every different free antivirus program that I can find. Since 2002, I have switched between a handful of various free antivirus programs, but there are several available now that I have not tested.

Therefore, I have decided to document this process here in order to provide an overview of the currently-available free antivirus programs. I have currently compiled a list of seven different programs to try, but there may be more if I find others along the way. Here are my criteria:

  • The program must be “install-able” – I will not cover any online scans.
  • The program must be FREE. Upgrade paths are acceptable, but no “trialware” allowed.
  • The program must not contain any spyware. If any spyware is detected, that program’s creator will receive a virtual kick in the junk from me personally.

In the coming weeks I will post reviews on each of these programs, as I plan to “live” with each of them for a few days in order to write more “informed” reviews.
Let us begin with the venerable AVG Free Edition. Review version: 7.5.503

Product Link – AVG Free

I have used AVG Free Edition off-and-on for several years now. And while it has not always scored the highest in detection rates, it is simple to install, simple to use, and is very light on system resources.

Installation – No registration currently required. Just download and install. Piece of cake.

Interface – AVG may not be the best looking girl at the ball, but she’ll turn a head or two. Though the looks are spartan, the interface is easy to navigate. Here is the Control Center.

avg_control_center.png

And here is the Test Center.

avg_test_center.png

Updating – AVG offers automatic updates, making it an effective set-and-forget piece of software. You can also easily make updates silent.

Footprint and Scanning – AVG is remarkably light on system resources. In 2003 I replaced Norton with AVG and was amazed at how much faster my computer booted and ran. It was like a breath of fresh air.

By default, AVG will try to schedule a complete system scan every 24 hours, though you may easily opt out. When doing a complete scan, I appreciate the option to automatically shut down the computer when the scan is complete.

It took AVG approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes to finish a complete scan of my system, which includes about 400 gigabytes worth of files. Of course, your mileage will vary.

Types of Protection – AVG offers real-time protection, on-demand scanning, and an e-mail scanner. It does not scan for spyware or offer firewall protection. To some this may be a downfall, but it is a feature in my opinion. I prefer programs that “do one thing, and do it well.” The included e-mail scanner is handy for people who rely on POP3 programs such as Outlook and Thunderbird.

EICAR TestHere is a link where you can download a harmless test file that should be detected as malicious by antivirus programs. It is NOT a real virus. In order to test the effectiveness of a program, I download the EICAR test file to my desktop and start counting to see how long it takes the antivirus program to find it.

avg_eicar.png

It only took AVG a couple seconds to find it and provide options on what to do with it. “Healing” deleted the file.

Final Thoughts – AVG is one of the most popular antivirus software programs for a reason. Yes, there are probably more effective commercial programs available, but most of them will rob you of both your money and your system resources. I have no problem recommending AVG to anyone who wants a free antivirus program, though I suggest that you install a separate anti-spyware utility.

Stay tuned for further entries in this series.

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GrandCentral (from Google) – Invites Available

grandcentral_logo.pngI recently started using GrandCentral (now owned by Google).

What is it, you ask?

To put it mildly, it’s an amazingly cool service that starts by giving you one phone number for life. You can link that one phone number to your cell phone, landline, office phone, or whatever else you have. This way, you can choose which phone rings depending on who calls, or you can optionally have it ring ALL your phones. Never worry about changing phone numbers when you move again.

GrandCentral also provides you with an online voicemail system, creating an “inbox” for your call log and voice messages. Miss a call? GrandCentral can e-mail you with a convenient link to the voice message. Neat!

What are just a few other features available? How about call recording and blocking? Done. Just like a good e-mail system, GrandCentral allows you to label certain callers as SPAM. Telemarketer or ex-girlfriend harassing you? Label their calls as “spam” and never hear from them again!

Invitations

Best of all, GrandCentral is FREE. Since the service is currently in BETA, it requires an invitation. I currently have 5 invitations remaining. All out, sorry!

Please note: this service currently only works in the USA.

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Make AVG Antivirus Updates Silent

I’m ashamed that I did not notice this sooner. In my earlier post on how to make Avira AntiVir more usable, I described a way to make updates invisible.

Of course, this is also possible with AVG Free Edition, and the process is much easier. I’m documenting it here to help myself remember it in the future.

By default, AVG Antivirus will spawn a new window whenever it updates, thereby interrupting your current task (including breaking any full-screen applications). To quickly and easily prevent this from happening, launch the AVG Control Center and select the Update Manager.

avg_update_manager.png

Next, click Properties, and be sure to un-check the box next to “Display information about update process.”

avg_silent.png

Your AVG updates should now be completely silent. Again, I am embarrassed that I did not notice this sooner.

Convert CD Image Types to ISO Without Installing Anything (Windows)

If you ever need to convert between different types of CD images, here is an easy and install-free method of doing so (for Windows).

The free utility is IZArc2Go, which is a portable version of the archive manager IZArc. One of its slick features is the ability to convert image types, namely:

  • BIN to ISO
  • MDF to ISO
  • NRG to ISO
  • PDI to ISO

To quickly and easily do so, launch the program and go to ToolsConvert CD Image.

Now simply choose your original image file and make sure the Convert Type is correct.

I find this utility especially handy for converting the occasional BIN or NRG (Nero image) to ISO. Best of all, it’s free, and it requires no installation.

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