Panda adds heft to its Cloud AV

Panda Cloud Antivirus returns with a more robust feature set, including behavioral detections, autorun disabling, and a deeper level of feature tweaks--without sacrificing previous performance levels. Check out this free security alternative, available exclusively today from CNET.

Though juggernaut Microsoft and smaller security suite maker Panda both introduced new cloud-based antivirus solutions for Windows last year, today's upgrade from Panda swiftly moves Cloud Antivirus back into the public eye by adding features without sacrificing snappy performance levels. Exclusively available today from CNET, Cloud Antivirus 1.1 now more closely resembles a traditional antivirus program, at least in features offered, and includes a behavioral blocking engine that can protect users against generic nonbrowser exploits, new configuration options, and default deactivation of autorun in Windows.

In a conversation at CNET's San Francisco offices yesterday, Panda Security's chief executive officer, Juan Santana, and senior research advisor, Pedro Bustamante, promised that Cloud Antivirus users would start seeing an aggressive series of upgrades, perhaps taking a cue from the Google Chrome-influence of relatively rapid program updates. This is a dramatic departure in the security field, where program updates traditionally are released only once or twice a year.

Panda's first effort in the free antivirus market appears to have been reasonably successful--at least according to numbers that Panda has made public. The company wouldn't release a current user count, but Santana said in an interview on Wednesday that Panda Cloud Antivirus has been downloaded about 10 million times since last April's beta. He also touted a recent Morgan Stanley and Alphawise report that found that 46 percent of Cloud Antivirus' users have switched from other free antivirus programs, and that 13 percent of paid-antivirus users plan on switching to Cloud Antivirus when their current license expires.

The new version includes several notable new features and also debuts a paid upgrade. The biggest security-related improvement in the free version is the aforementioned behavioral blocking, which is a proactive and signature-less protection against actions usually taken by malware. It also blocks generic "dropper" threats hidden as common file types. Cloud Antivirus now has a full scan-on-demand option, and it also automatically prevents the Windows auto-run feature. This can be toggled in the Cloud Antivirus options window, and by design it doesn't stop Windows' related auto-play feature, but it's a smart feature to have to prevent USB key infections.

The new update of Panda's Cloud Antivirus doesn't look different, but it includes some important feature improvements. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Other enhancements include the safeguarding of the program's own antivirus processes; improved offline protection; and multiple new toggles for the behavioral blocking, advanced logging, recycle bin behavior, and exclusion lists. Two other changes are minor, but worth noting. The program now will run alongside other antivirus apps, which is convenient for home testing but not advisable as a long-term solution. Running more than one antivirus program at a time will unnecessarily slow down your computer, without adding any extra protection. Lastly, the free version has been translated into nine more languages, for a total of 20, including English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Greek, Polish, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Russian, Brazilian Portuguese, Turkish, Hungarian, Japanese, Slovak, Norwegian, and Finnish.

The paid upgrade is called Cloud Antivirus Pro and will cost $29.99 for a one-year license. It offers several features not in the free version, most importantly a behavioral analysis engine that provides runtime analysis which can block running malicious processes. Two other features restricted to the paid version are automatic USB key and external hard drive vaccination, for checking them as they're connected to your computer, and automatically upgrading new detection engines and features as they become available. That's an unusual feature to restrict to paid users since many free antivirus programs already offer it. Finally, the paid upgrade also provides 24-7 multilingual support.

Among the new features are a vastly deeper bench of options for the security tinkerer. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Bustamante stressed that the company had no plans to prevent free users from accessing full protection, and insisted that many of the paid-only features would be added to the free version as ease-of-use features get added to the paid edition.

Panda Cloud Antivirus maintained its impressive performance from when it left beta in November 2009. The program took 8 minutes to complete a full scan off a cold boot on average, and the program now informs you of when it's looking at archive files so you don't think it's hung up. Included in the 8-minute average is that there appeared to be occasional but slight sluggishness just after the scan was initiated.

Internal Panda tests recorded a 3 percent to 5 percent performance hit, as opposed to the industry average of 10 percent, and also saw the program running on 15MB of RAM against the industry average of 60MB.

The program's log, for example, offers a cleaner and easier-to-use experience than before. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Further benchmark information will be added when released from third-party sources later this week.

Overall, Panda Cloud Antivirus shows a maturing program that can adapt to users' needs while gaining the trust of newcomers. The program feels light and simple, but the new addition of configuration and secondary security options should go a long way in convincing naysayers to give it a second look.