The never-ending mantra chanted by security suite vendors sounds a lot like "faster scans, easier to use, better performance," and AVG has released a new version that it says accomplishes all three. AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011, available today exclusively from CNET, looks and feels like an overall better program.

The main interface of AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011.
The main interface of AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011 opens with an ad to upgrade, but that can be hidden via the button on the bottom left. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The new AVG Free has a faster installation process. It's not as zippy as the minute-long installations that some of AVG's competitors offer. I found that the program can go from completed download to ready to use in about 5 minutes. A big contributing factor to that is that AVG has cut down the number of install screens users see, from 13 in the previous version to 5 in the 2011 version.

AVG Free has some new protective features this year, too. The program offers what it calls "smart scanning," which leverages AVG's behavioral detection network to scan known safe files once, and only rescan them if it detects changes. As with its competitors, AVG's network is made up of its user base anonymously contributing data up to the cloud. You can choose to opt out of contributing your data when you install, or from the options menu. AVG says opting out won't negatively affect your security.

The smart scanning tech also gives you a built-in system resource manager that prioritizes scans. If a scan is scheduled to begin while the computer is in use, it will automatically restrict the scan so that it runs slower but doesn't interfere with the computer's other tasks. When it detects the computer idling, it will then allocate more power to the scan. The feature comes with a slider so you can customize how sensitive it is.

Benchmarks from CNET Labs are not yet available, but AVG claims the scans in the new version of AVG Free are three times faster than last year's.

Another big improvement has been to AVG LinkScanner. LinkScanner, which comes with AVG Free but is also available as a separate download, now scans links posted on Facebook and MySpace. It adds a green check next to safe links, a red X next to unsafe ones, and adds a notice below the link stating that it's been evaluated by AVG.

Concurrent with this new release, AVG has opened a new Web site called Threat Labs. The site is designed as a click-through landing page for people who want to learn more about the LinkScanner's ratings, but it's also available directly so that non-LinkScanner users can evaluate links on the fly.

AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011 contains plenty of options for advanced users to customize their security. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Several one-click buttons to run primary features from the main window have been introduced this year. These include a Scan button and an Update button on the left side of the interface, as well as a Fix button that appears at the top whenever AVG judges your system to not be safe. If the system gets a clean bill of health, the Fix button will disappear. There's also a new desktop widget for Windows Vista and Windows 7 users that lets them initiate scans and updates without having to open the full interface. It also contains links to AVG's Twitter and Facebook pages, which the company uses to bolster its support for the free version.

It's potentially big news that AVG Free has made the threat detection engines in the free version identical to its premium-upgrade siblings. This means that AVG Free users won't have to worry about getting a lesser standard of basic security, if it winds up improving the level of security. Independent benchmarks of last year's AVG versions were strong but mixed, scoring highly but not always consistently.

AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011's new desktop gadget for Windows 7 and Windows Vista pulls basic security controls out of the interface for easier access. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The PC Analyzer option is new this year, and scans your system for Registry and disk errors. It includes a disk defragmenter and a broken-shortcut cleaner, as well. Although the feature is restricted in full to paid users, if you have the free version, the PC Analyzer comes with a onetime offer to clean all errors it finds. This is an interesting twist on the idea of letting users detect but not repair errors, and it provides more functionality while not affecting the basic security of your computer.

AVG Anti-Virus 2011 and AVG Internet Security 2011, the paid upgrades from AVG Anti-Virus Free 2011, will be available Wednesday. This year, AVG Internet Security distinguishes itself from the free version by including a firewall, a download scan for files sent via instant message that looks at all ports, not just port 80, and its spam filter. The PC Analyzer option mentioned earlier is also included, and comes without restrictions. Telephone support is offered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A one-year, one-computer license for AVG Anti-Virus 2011 retails for $34.99, while AVG Internet Security 2011 retails for $54.99.

Besides the feature limitations of AVG Anti-Virus Free when compared with AVG's paid upgrades, the suite continues to offer an excellent level of security as it faces more intense competition from other free and paid security suite makers. Fans of AVG will definitely want to upgrade, while new users should consider it if they're looking for an effective freeware solution with solid link-evaluating features.