Avast wants you playing in its sandbox

Avast takes the worry out of blocking suspicious programs from harming your system with a new AutoSandboxing feature in its latest major-point upgrade, exclusive to Download.com today.

New security features designed to keep its more than 110 million users safe debut in Avast 6, released today exclusively from CNET Download.com. They also have the added benefit of raising the competitive bar in computer security by pushing more and better free options to users. Avast Free Antivirus 6, Avast Pro Antivirus 6, and Avast Internet Security 6 all feature the new AutoSandbox and the WebRep browser add-on. (Click the links to get to the download page.)

Avast wants you to play in its sandbox

The debut of the AutoSandbox makes Avast the second antivirus to offer a sandboxing tool for free. Comodo introduced a sandboxing tool in January 2010. Avast's sandbox probably works differently, as Comodo has a pending patent on its version. And certainly, one of the most frustrating things about sandboxing technology is that there are some indications that it doesn't work perfectly.

All that being said, Avast's version automatically places programs into a virtualized state when it suspects them of being threats. It walls off suspicious programs, preventing them from potentially damaging your system while allowing them to run. Avast's sandbox allows the program to run, while keeping track of which files are opened, created, or renamed, and what it reads and writes from the Registry. Since permanent changes are virtualized, so when the process terminates itself, the system changes it made will evaporate.

The company hasn't said whether the virtualized state begins after the program already has access to your system, so it's theoretically possible that it could be compromised. There's not a single security feature in any program that hasn't been been compromised at some point, though, so "theoretically hackable" is true of all security features.

You can access the AutoSandbox settings from the new Additional Protection option on the left nav. It defaults to asking the user whether a program should be sandboxed, although you can set it to automatically decide. There's a whitelist option for programs that you always want to exclude from the sandbox, and you can deactivate the feature entirely.

Avast 6 also marks the debut of the program joining (or succumbing to) the browser-security add-on. Security add-ons have a long-standing word-of-mouth reputation for decreasing browser performance, although Internet Explorer 9 Release Candidate's impact meter pegs Avast's plug-in at 0.07 seconds. Avast calls its add-on WebRep.

WebRep works with IE and Firefox out of the box, and plans for a Chrome version soon, according to company representatives. It supports a search result ranking and Web site reputation service that uses a combination of data from Avast's virus labs and user voting to determine a safety score for a site. User voting is a crapshoot of a gamble for many security vendors, although Avast is known for its vast user base and their passionate support of the program, so the company's plans to incentivize user voting could easily work in their favor.

It's important to note that the add-on installs to both Firefox and IE as you install Avast 6. If you don't want it, it's surprisingly easier to remove from within Avast instead of within the browser. Currently, removing the add-on using the browser's interface will cue Avast to re-install the add-on the next time the computer is rebooted.

Many of Avast's small changes are worth noting as well. The Troubleshooting section now comes with a "restore factory settings" option, which makes it easier to wipe settings back to a familiar starting point, and comes with the option to restore only the Shields settings. There's a new sidebar gadget for Windows 7 and Vista, and you now can set automatic actions for the boot-time scan. Two features that have trickled down to the free version are the Script Shield and site blocking. The Script Shield now works with Internet Explorer 8 and 9's protected mode. Meanwhile, the paid versions have gained some new features, such as SafeZone, a virtualization feature for secure online banking. Avast has said that the installer has shrunk for all three versions by about 20 percent.

Avast 6 has done much to quash bugs since its release about a month ago. For a look at where it was, you can check out my hands-on take on Avast 6 here.

The heightened competition between Internet security vendors is that both free and paid-only suites are continually struggling to provide the next big thing. Avast 6 looks at both improving its feature set and leveraging its massive anonymously contributed user data base to enhance security, both of which are sensible steps towards stronger home computer security.

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