You may think you’ve seen a balancing act at the circus, but that’s nothing compared to a security company’s task of balancing features between free and paid editions. Some companies put everything essential into the free antivirus product and drive paid conversions by adding amazing bonuses, or by making the free product consumer-only. Others withhold some important security elements, with payment required for full protection. Adaware falls in the latter camp. With Adaware Antivirus Pro, you get the behavioral protection and web-based security components that are notably missing from the free edition. You also get a firewall, a limited parental control system, and a few other bonus features, but it still doesn’t add up to a top-tier antivirus.
Less Expensive Than Many
At a list price of $29.99 per year, a one-license subscription for Adaware Pro costs $10 less than the going rate, which is just under $40. That’s the price for Bitdefender, Malwarebytes, Webroot, and several others. Norton costs $59.99 and doesn’t offer a volume discount. That same price gets you three licenses for Bitdefender, ESET, or Kaspersky. For about the same price, a McAfee AntiVirus Plus subscription lets you install protection on every Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS device you own.
Features Shared With Free Antivirus
Naturally, this product gives you everything that you’d get in Adaware Antivirus Free, and more. I’ll review the shared features here for those in a hurry. To learn more, go to my review of the free edition.
This utility’s user interface features the same light color scheme as the free edition. The main window is mostly white, with pops of orange. A status bar along the bottom shines green when all is well, but it turns red if your security needs attention. The main difference is that all the features are available, where most were marked Upgrade in the free edition.
Adaware showed up in one test report from AV-Test Institute in 2019, and from one AV-Comparatives report in 2017, but it has been otherwise absent from test reports for several years. None of the four independent antivirus labs that I follow have included it in any more recent tests. By contrast, Kaspersky Anti-Virus appears in all four reports, with nothing but maximum scores.
With no lab results to reference, my hands-on tests become paramount. In my hands-on malware protection test, Adaware’s free edition detected 94% of the malware samples and scored 9.2 of 10 possible points. Challenged with the same collection of samples, Malwarebytes scored a perfect 10, McAfee reached 9.9, and Webroot came in third with 9.8 points. Adaware scored better than when last tested, but still not near the top.
The pro edition adds a behavior-based detection system called Active Virus Control, so I reran my malware blocking tests for all samples that Adaware did not eliminate on sight. The results were better, but only slightly. The pro edition detected 96% of the samples and scored 9.4 points.
My malicious URL blocking test uses a feed of malware-hosting URLs very recently discovered by researchers at MRG-Effitas. I launch each one, taking note of whether the antivirus prevents the browser from reaching the URL, vaporizes the malware file during download, or sits idly by and allows the download to proceed unimpeded.
The free Adaware does not include protection against dangerous websites, so all it could do was scan the downloads and quarantine those it recognized. Its detection rate, 86%, is poor in comparison with competing products. I expected the pro edition to do better, and it did.
Tested with the same set of URL samples, Adaware Pro steered the browser away from 54%, allowing no possibility of a malware download. It caught another 39% by detecting and eliminating the payload, for a total of 93%. That’s much better than it did when last tested, but nearly half of recent product beat or matched this score. At the top, McAfee scored 100% protection, while Bitdefender Antivirus Plus, G Data, and Sophos came in at 99%.
Unimpressive Phishing Protection
The same Web Protection feature that fends off malware-hosting URLs also serves to divert your browser from phishing sites, websites that masquerade as secure sites to steal your login credentials. Phishing pages don’t use malware or fancy code. Rather, they try to trick you, the user, into giving away your username and password. These fake sites get shut down quickly, but if just one web surfer in a thousand falls for the ruse, the fraudsters are happy. They abandon the shut-down site and put up another.
To test phishing protection, I start by scraping many hundreds of reported frauds from sites that collect such things. I make sure to include both verified phishing frauds and sites too new to have been analyzed and blacklisted. After shaking out duplicates and obvious errors, I usually have several hundred left for testing.
In preparation for the test, I configure four browsers, one protected by the product under testing and the other three using the protection built into Chrome, Edge, and Firefox. I launch each suspected phishing URL in all four browsers at once, and record how each handled it. If the page fails to load in any of the four browsers, I discard it. If it isn’t clearly a phishing fraud, visibly trying to capture login credentials, I discard it. When I have enough data points, I run the numbers.
Adaware scored well in this test last time around, not far behind long-time phish-fighter Norton AntiVirus Plus. Not this time. With just 30% detection, it’s deep in the cellar, score-wise. All three browsers fared significantly better. The lesson is clear; if you’re using Adaware, don’t turn off your browser’s built-in phishing protection.
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When you pay for Adaware Pro, you get several other features besides the Web Protection that did well against malware-hosting URLs but not so well against phishing websites. The paid edition checks every email message and attachment for malware. As I mentioned, its Active Virus Control component tries to detect malware based on behavior. In testing, it made a slight improvement over the free edition’s malware protection score.
More importantly, Adaware Pro includes a personal firewall, called Network Protection in the settings. The Network Protection feature offers what you’d expect from a simple personal firewall. It blocks port scans, filters network traffic, and controls which programs can access the internet. However, it’s a bit wobbly.
When I attacked a physical test system using port scans and other web-based tests, Adaware successfully stealthed all ports. That’s something Windows Firewall manages without breaking a sweat. This test is only relevant when a Windows Firewall replacement doesn’t match the abilities of the built-in.
As for program control, by default you don’t get any. If you open Advanced Settings, you’ll see that when confronted with a program trying for network access, Adaware’s default setting simply allows it. The firewall in Panda Dome Essential is simple, too, but it goes a fraction deeper. By default, it allows outbound connections, but blocks unsolicited inbound connections.
When I tried configuring the firewall to ask for instructions about new programs, the results were confusing. It popped up to ask whether System should be allowed network access, and also asked about Windows components such as svchost.exe and dashost.exe, but it let an off-brand hand-coded browser connect without comment. It popped up for Chrome and Edge, but let Firefox and Opera slide right through. It even popped up to ask permission for its own service to connect.
I opened Network Protection’s settings and clicked the button to manage application rules. Each app that I approved through a firewall popup appeared in the list. I thought perhaps I’d see rules that Adaware created automatically for Firefox, Opera, and other apps that connected without requiring verification through a popup. However, those apps just didn’t appear at all. It seems that even if you do turn on program control, it’s not reliable.
The best program control systems make their own determinations about which programs should receive network permissions. Norton automatically configures permissions for known good programs, sends known bad programs to perdition, and closely monitors any unknowns. If an unknown program starts misusing its network access, Norton slaps it down. Kaspersky assigns each process a trust level and imposes stronger and stronger access limits as the trust level goes down. Really, no firewall should rely on the user to make these security decisions.
The best firewall protection in the world is useless if malware can reach in and turn it off, so I always try a few different techniques that might serve such a purpose. I couldn’t find any way to turn protection off by manipulating the Registry, and I could only terminate one of Adaware’s processes, the one that maintains an icon in the notification area. I couldn’t stop its single essential Windows service, but by setting the service’s Startup type to Disabled and rebooting, I rendered Adaware nonfunctional. True, when I tried to open the utility, it reported a problem and asked me to select Start Adaware Service from the notification area icon’s menu. However, doing so did not start the service—it seems I killed it. A malware coder could do the same.
I’m not impressed with Network Protection. Yes, it stealthed ports and blocked port scans, but the built-in Windows firewall can do that. The program control does nothing by default. When I turned it on for testing, it popped up queries about common programs, Windows components, and itself, while confusingly allowing other programs unimpeded access. A malware coder could take it down by reconfiguring its main service. Good thing firewall-type protection is a bonus rather than a key feature for an antivirus.
Poor Parental Control
Not every user has kids, and not all of those who have children feel the need to monitor their internet usage or enforce parental control limits. For those who want it, Adaware Antivirus Pro does offer parental control…barely. Note that this limited parental control system used to be reserved for the top-tier Adaware Antivirus Total.
You enable parental control on the Web Protection page. Once you’ve done so, you click Advanced Settings to choose one of five profiles: Adults, Young Adults, Teen, Children Permissive, or Children Restrictive. You can optionally customize the settings to tweak which of the content categories are blocked for each profile, or you can create a brand-new profile.
You’ll find 18 general content categories, including such things as Adult / Sexual and Drugs / Alcohol / Tobacco. Each of these expands to one or more specific sub-categories. For example, the Adult / Sexual category breaks down to Sexual / Porn, Nudity, Intimate Apparel, and so on. There are more than five dozen sub-categories, all told. Awkwardly, several of the categories have just one sub-category, with the same name. For example, the News category contains nothing but a News sub-category. Why couldn’t those go into the existing Misc category?
There’s no per-user configuration. Whatever profile you choose applies to all users. The program itself doesn’t point this out, but to keep the kids from making changes, you must click App Management in the left-rail menu and set a four-digit PIN. When you want to use the computer yourself, you use the PIN to choose the Adults profile. If you forget to reset the profile before unleashing the kids on the computer, you lose even the minimal protection this feature offers.
I set the profile to Children Restrictive, the most limited profile, and tried surfing around to naughty sites. I found that Adaware blocked inappropriate sites by replacing them with the same warning page as it uses for malware-hosting URLs and phishing sites. That seems a strange choice.
I did verify that the content filtering works with any browser, even a supremely off-brand browser that I wrote myself. However, it doesn’t handle secure (HTTPS) websites. Secure porn sites slip right past. And by logging in through a secure anonymizing proxy I effectively disabled all content filtering. In any case, I found several unquestionably inappropriate sites that sleazed right past the content filter. Epic fail.
Parental control in this antivirus attempts no monitoring or control beyond content filtering, and it does a poor job of that. If you need a security suite that includes effective parental control, look elsewhere. Norton’s parental control component is a four-star product as a standalone. Likewise, Kaspersky Security Cloud gets you the four-star Kaspersky Safe Kids parental system.
Previously, Adaware reserved parental control for the top-tier Adaware Antivirus Total. Moving what’s typically a suite-level feature into the standalone antivirus would normally be a big plus. But it really doesn’t matter where this simple-minded content filter moves, as it just isn’t effective.
Skip This Step
Yes, Adaware Antivirus Pro offers the Web Protection feature that we sorely missed when testing the free edition. None of the labs vouch for it, but it fared well in our important malware protection and malicious URL blocking tests. You get firewall protection and parental control, both unusual for an antivirus. But the firewall isn’t the best, and the parental control is the worst. I still wonder if the company wouldn’t do better to put Web Protection and Active Virus Control in the free antivirus and just skip the for-pay edition reviewed here.
Do yourself a favor—spend a little more and install one of our Editors’ Choice antivirus tools. With products like these available, there’s just no reason to look at Adaware Antivirus Pro.