Widely known for its free anti-virus and security suite for PCs, Avast has now brought its security solution to Android. Avast Mobile Security is a completely free application with a polished user interface and innovative features. Call and SMS forwarding, a feature called Privacy Advisor, and the ability to set your device to call another number when it's lost or stolen make Avast a top Android security app.
Setup and user interface
To install Avast Mobile Security, you'll need to first register the software by entering your email address and phone number, and create a password for your Avast account. Once you complete the registration, you'll be taken to the Google Play store, where you can download an add-on app for Avast's anti-theft software if you want to utilize these features, which will be hidden after the brief setup.
After you've gotten the anti-theft add-on installed, these features will migrate over to Avast's main application, so you can manage all your settings from one central hub. Avast's home screen will guide you through the initial setup of the feature, and will show you how to set up a PIN to further secure your device.
Of all the security apps we've tested, Avast has one the cleanest and most approachable user interfaces, rivaled only by the UIs on the Lookout and Norton apps. The application is sleek and intuitively designed, so the features and settings within the application are easy to locate and adjust to suit your security preferences.
The main menu contains categories such as Virus Scanner, Privacy Advisor and Shield Control, each of which can be clicked to take you deeper into that category's security settings. In these submenus, you'll find most of the settings, with simple checkboxes to enable or disable each option.
Swiping to the left from the main menu will take you to Avast's activity log, which gives you a running log of the actions Avast has taken to ensure the security of your Android device. You can filter the log to include or exclude certain types of activities, such as the Network Meter and Message Shield, so it will always be customized to your needs.
Finally, Avast also includes a widget to provide basic management tools from your Android home screen. The widget gives at-a-glance access to your device's security status and CPU, Memory and SD Card usage, and lets you run a malware scan with the click of a button.
For a free application, Avast is jam-packed with features. Core to any security app is a virus scanner, which scans your applications and files to ensure your device is virus free. You can scan your device manually or schedule scans to run automatically at a predetermined day and time, which is par for the course for this category.
Most of us download applications without paying much attention to the permission these apps are requesting. Avast Mobile Security features Privacy Advisor, which presents you with permission categories and tells you how many applications have access to different functional areas of your device. Tapping "Access Messages," for example, tells you which apps can access your text messages, giving you key information needed to manage which apps you want installed on your smartphone or tablet.
For example, we found that "Angry Birds Star Wars" can access your phone's location and active accounts on your device, which makes some individuals uncomfortable. These users can do their homework on why such an app can access certain settings, and uninstall it if they deem the access to be inappropriate. We found Privacy Advisor to be one of the more useful features, and only Avast and Lookout offer this functionality.
Shield Control settings will automatically scan apps, websites, messages and files as you access them to ensure your phone or tablet is always protected. Application Management gives you data on all installed applications, including data usage, application size and privacy settings. It will also let you force-close running applications, similar to the way AVG's Task Killer function works, and takes you to the App Settings menu to uninstall unwanted apps. You'll need to enter your PIN to actually uninstall an app, though that feature prevents would-be thieves from uninstalling your Avast anti-theft software.
One of the more useful features in Avast Mobile Security is the SMS and Call Filter. From this menu, you can block calls and SMS messages from unwanted contacts, such as hidden numbers, private numbers and annoying acquaintances. Messages and calls can be blocked either all the time, or within certain time frames you set up for each contact or contact group. So, you can stop your friends from calling you while you're at work or school, as well as permanently block certain contacts. We tested this feature with a few numbers, and they were, indeed, blocked from contacting us during the time frame we set.
Other settings include Anti-Theft, which enables various security settings, such as notifying yourself and a friend if someone swaps the SIM card on your device. There's also low-battery notification, which, like Lookout's Signal Flare, will alert you of your device's status and location when the battery level reaches a critically low stage. These settings will also aid you if your device is lost or stolen.
An option called Enable Secure Browsing monitors your Web-browsing functions, and a feature called Firewall lets you control which applications and services can run over cellular, Wi-Fi or while roaming, though this latter feature requires root access to your device. If you don't know what that means, you don't have root access, and we don't recommend it for nonadvanced users.
Of course, none of these features matters if a savvy thief is able to go in and perform a factory reset on your device. Avast doesn't make you enter your PIN to perform a factory reset on the device, which would render the service useless. This can be avoided by requiring a pattern or passcode to unlock your device, though we would have liked to see Avast protect the reset function with a dedicated PIN.
AV-Test is a trusted IT security institute that rates Android security solutions by performing random malware-detection tests. In AV-Test's most recent test (March 2013) of Avast Mobile Security, the software successfully detected 94 percent of potential malware issues -- better than the average of 93 percent but below some of the industry leaders, such as Lookout, which detected everything.
This score is down from a 98 percent protection rating recorded on the January 2013 tests. In general, a 94 to 98 percent success rate is considered very good protection for an Android device.
When it comes to performance, Avast Mobile Security runs in the background, and aside from a permanent entry in your Notifications menu, you'll hardly notice Avast is there. You can even disable the app from appearing in your Notifications menu, so you'll only be alerted when something requires your immediate attention.
To test the app's impact on our HTC One, we ran the AnTuTu benchmark test with and without Avast running. Before installing Avast, the One posted a score of 22,362. With Avast installed, that modestly decreased to 21,041 with the malware scan running, indicating little to no adverse effect on performance.
In addition to protecting your smartphone or tablet against viruses and malware, tracking lost and/or stolen devices is one of the main reasons to install an Android security application. Having a solid Web portal is essential for this purpose, and Avast's Web portal performs the necessary features with a design equally as functional as the Android application.
Assuming your device is active, the Web portal provides access to various commands to control your phone. Avast gives you two different ways to access these features; you can select a command from the drop-down menu on the right side of the page, or via the visual buttons that are featured right below your device's identifying information.
The most frequently used option is the GPS location button, which turns on continuous GPS tracking so that you can easily track a lost or stolen device in real time. This feature worked as advertised in our tests, which included trips from home to the workplace, as well as a few other locations around town. The lock feature is also handy, and will remotely lock your device if it is lost or stolen, as well as unlock it if you just misplaced your device.
Pressing the Sound icon will cause your device to play a loud siren, letting people near your device know your phone has been reported lost or stolen. A forward arrow will temporarily forward calls and SMS messages to a phone of a friend or family member in order to prevent unwanted access -- a feature unique to Avast. The Web portal provides information about your device, such as battery life and last communication time, as well as which Avast services are currently active on your phone.
Not only can you remotely wipe your personal information from your device, but you can also set your phone to remotely call a designated number so you can hear what's going on around your handset, in order to help locate it. Of the five Android security suites we tested, Avast was the only one to include this feature, which could be an invaluable tool for locating and retrieving your Android phone.
Finally, when the SIM card is removed from your device, or when you use the Checkmark icon to mark your device as lost, Avast will automatically track and lock your device, play the loud siren, and disable USB debugging so savvy thieves won't be able to use a PC connection to crack your device and disable the anti-theft features.
As a free security suite that offers a high level of protection, Avast Mobile Security is hard to beat. The Android app and Web interface are both well designed. You also get an impressive array of features, including Privacy Advisor and a unique remote calling feature, to help track down your device. We highly recommend Avast for those who want a free application on a par with the premium competition. Lookout does offer a few additional features in its paid app, such as photo backup, but overall, Avast is a stellar value.