After several years of minor changes that were touted as big improvements, Avira today released a new version with some serious heft behind it that the publisher hopes will position the free antivirus for future growth. Avira Free Antivirus 12, available exclusively today from CNET, along with the paid upgrades Avira Antivirus Premium 12 and Avira Internet Security 12, bring a new interface, tighter security engines, and an impressively zippy installation process to the suites.

The new installation is much improved and is among the fastest out there. The company says that it developed the two-click installation as part of its "less is more" strategy, where it offers the same level of protection as before without the hassle. Of course, that's a tacit acknowledgement of prior problems.

Anyway, the new install is the simplest of the major free security suites. The two-click process will auto-detect competing security components and remove them, so be warned if you think you're going to be more secure by running two overlapping AVs. Avira won't let you. Another click will take you past the toolbar and search engine re-direct, but at least Avira is polite: it's an opt-in, not opt-out, experience. The toolbar screen itself is a bit unclear: it's actually Avira's WebGuard feature, powered by an search engine that's part of the toolbar. There's also an option to have become your browser's default engine, although that's not checked by default.

The new main interface for Avira Free Antivirus 12. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Like many competitors, the WebGuard takes a more aggressive approach to detecting sites that could be hosting malware before they load on your computer. However, for the performance cost to the browser for a toolbar, search result ratings would be a nice compensation. Too bad they're not offered.

Avira runs a quick scan when you first install it to ensure that your system is clean. It took about one minute 25 seconds on my test machine. A full scan run immediately afterward took 96 minutes to complete, which is about average for that kind of scan. The engine powering the scans has been improved, too. Your Hosts file is protected by default, and resource usage has been slashed. And after the daily virus definition file update, Avira still takes over your screen with a pop-up asking you to upgrade.

The company told me that it kept it because its users like it. According to their market research feedback, the pop-up apparently reminds people that they've been protected. Be that as it may, I find it an unnecessary distraction that blocks me once a day from doing something more important than clicking away an ad.

CNET Labs noted some impressive scores from Avira, which performed at average or better in nearly every category we looked at. Details will be made available in the full review of Avira Free Antivirus 12, which will publish later today.

Avira 12's WebGuard toolbar. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The new interface is simple and mimics that of many competitors. A left nav shows you your tools, while the center pane focuses on a deeper dive into your security. New on-off buttons make it easy to toggle features, although it's noteworthy that the free version is quite restricted when compared with the free competition. No doubt, this is the easiest-to-use version of Avira yet.

Features-wise, the free version provides the kind of security that most people will be comfortable with. For people who want more, Avira Antivirus Premium 12 ($29.99 for a one-year license) comes with a suspicious behavior guard for when programs or files that might be trusted act in an unsecure manner; the silent/gaming mode for fullscreen use; and live telephone support. Avira Internet Security 12 ($49.99 for a one-year license) rolls in parental controls; an e-mail spam guard; anti-phishing measures; and a firewall that I found to be obnoxiously chatty and intrusive.

Longtime Avira fans will note that the suites also have undergone a bit of a name change. The product title "AntiVir" has been dropped, as Avira AntiVir Personal becomes Avira Free Antivirus, Avira AntiVir Premium becomes Avira Antivirus Premium, and Avira Premium Security Suite becomes Avira Internet Security. While product-specific names may work for some companies because of legacy associations, such as the Norton product from Symantec, new user confusion has likely forced security suite makers to streamline their operations.

Avira has had a mixed record on false positives, although recent tests indicate it's getting better on that front. However, there's no doubt that as a free product, it offers less than the competitors, and not for a truly heightened level of security. If you like Avira, I'd say you're fine to stick with it. But if you're not happy, it wouldn't hurt to look elsewhere.