CORRECTED October 15, 2009, 11:45 a.m.: The default search choice is not changed, as was mistakenly reported earlier. Also, it's not the user's home page that gets changed, but the new tab page. I've clarified the nonmandatory nature of the LinkScanner toolbar, and added information on the identity theft feature in the toolbar.
After giving its paying customers a few weeks to upgrade to version 9, AVG has announced its update for AVG Free 9.
For those unfamiliar with the popular freeware security tool, it provides only the bare necessities for protecting your PC, but that should be enough for savvy Windows users. AVG Free 9 introduces few new features, with improvements focused on performance, including claims of faster scan and boot times. AVG is claiming that scans are 50 percent faster compared with AVG 8.
AVG comes with a combined antivirus and antimalware engine, the proprietary LinkScanner for Web browsing safety, and e-mail scanning. Developed independently and bought by AVG in 2007, the LinkScanner tech performs two functions. It protects you from third-party code exploits before they load in your browser and it ranks search results.
Annoyingly, the optional AVG LinkScanner toolbar commandeers your new tab page, decidedly inappropriate behavior that a security vendor should really know better than to do. LinkScanner can be downloaded separately from AVG, too. The scheduler is robust, automating both scans and updates with multiple options.
One new feature in the new version is the the Identity Theft Recovery Unit. Only for users in the United States, ITRU is a business partnership with Identity Guard which provides "consumer identity theft solutions." Accessible only from the browser toolbar, which only works in Firefox or Internet Explorer, the service provides "a dedicated identity theft recovery unit with fraud experts," to assist handling, getting and analysing a credit report, enrolling in credit file monitoring, and offering report-filing support.
The interface in AVG Free 9 remains nearly untouched from the last version, and generally it's easy to use. From the main window, though, you must double-click to get further information on any feature, whether virus scanning, LinkScanner settings, or updating. Streamlining this to one click would be helpful.
When starting a scan, a slider makes it easy to jump between Slow, Automatic, and Fast scans: the faster the scan, the less comprehensive it is, so it's a good idea to take the program's advice and optimize your scans when you install. This will make that first scan faster. A slow scan took nearly 2 hours, while the fast scan completed in under an hour. A progress meter for these regular scans would've been useful, though. Should a virus create serious problems, AVG creates a rescue disk to scan your computer in MS-DOS mode.
Besides the LinkScanner problem, there are some other concerns with AVG. It doesn't tax your system in an obvious way when scanning or when running in the background, although CNET Labs determined that it will significantly slow down your system's boot time and will slightly delay shutting down. AVG detected some image files as threats, when two other security programs decided they weren't--these were fairly obvious false positives. There is an advertisement to upgrade at the bottom of the program window, but it can be easily hidden using the Hide Notification button.
AVG might not be the fastest or the most effective free security option, but it still gets the job done and you're better off with it.