One of the fastest rising security stars is Avira's AntiVir antivirus and antimalware. Since earning high marks from AV-Comparitives in 2006, it's stayed at the top of the pack and consistently earned scores near or at the top of the charts for both on-demand comparisons and retrospective/proactive tests. The latest update includes an overhauled detection engine that runs faster, a zippier definition file updater, and a retooled interface.

AntiVir's clean layout belies the powerful features within. (Credit: CNET Networks)

I've been impressed with AntiVir since I found it last October, and the new version works even better. It completed a full system scan on my Windows Vista computer in about 20 minutes less than under Version 7, and definition file updates took about half the time they used to. Obviously, that's just an empirical eyeballing of the speed changes, but a third of an hour faster is certainly not insignificant and addresses my main problem with the previous version: that updates were painfully slow.

Avira states that the performance difference is because of modularization of the engine, which allows it to search faster and receive critical updates more quickly. A new failsafe system ensures that even during program code updates, the virus and malware detection engines are never offline. Whether this affects how it deals with viruses and malware remains to be seen, but since it sits at the top of the pack, everything should be fine as long as it doesn't get worse.

Check boxes give users the power to quickly narrow down their in-program searches. (Credit: CNET Networks)

The big change in the interface is the addition of a left-side navigation that makes it much easier to drill down to the features that you want to focus on. The spreadsheet-style layout hasn't changed, but it's organized better. The Events log defaults to show all, but check boxes make searching for and focusing on updates, for example, or detections, convenient and uncomplicated to manage. A row of icons above the spreadsheet helps users manage reports and get to more specific details.

Other new support includes built-in outgoing e-mail checking courtesy of a new SMTP function for the MailGuard, although this might be hamstrung in corporate environments, and support for Vista Service Pack 1. Changes to the Pro version includes the addition of a Web site scanner, while the Premium Security Suite includes the WebGuard and integrated file backup services.

Hands-down, Avira AntiVir has been not just the best freeware security program I've used, it stands up better than favorably to the big-box software competitors.