5 free Android security apps: Keep your smartphone safe
The Avast Free Mobile Security app includes anti-malware and anti-theft features, along with browsing protection that prompts you if you visit a malicious website. A privacy advisor helps you identify any installed apps that use permissions which could be potentially dangerous, while an application manager lets you manage running apps.
SMS and call filtering is also included, which lets you block incoming messages and calls and outgoing calls based on times and contacts you select. The app lacks any backup functionality, but a firewall and enhanced anti-theft features are provided for rooted devices.
In addition to automatically scanning apps you install, Avast can do full scans of all your installed apps on the phone and on the SD card. You can do this manually or specify days and times to have it done automatically.
By default, Avast will appear on the notification bar and menu, showing its status and offering a shortcut to open it. The main app screen is straightforward, listing shortcuts for each feature and the settings. Though there are many more settings and preferences compared to other security apps, the developers did a fairly good job keeping the interface user-friendly.
The first time you open Avast, it prompts you to set up the anti-theft feature. A neat touch: You can define a custom name for the separate anti-theft app -- ideally something inconspicuous that won't alert thieves to its presence. Additionally, the app is password-protected, and the shortcut can be hidden from the app tray. For rooted devices, it can even store the anti-theft app and settings in a way that survives hard resets of your device.
Avast's anti-theft functionality provides remote locating, a remote alarm with the ability to use custom audio, remote locking with a custom message (for example, "Return this smartphone to...") and remote wiping. You can set it to automatically lock and have the siren go off if the SIM card is changed or when you mark it as lost by sending it an SMS message.
Avast can even disable access to the Android program manager and phone settings, prevent USB debugging, and force the data connection on in order to remotely back up your data.
Currently, if you want to use the remote anti-theft and remote control features, you must send SMS commands to your device. Avast provides feedback via SMS replies as well -- for example, it will provide a link to a Google map after locating the device.
Avast has other useful features. You can have your phone call a given number remotely, forward SMS messages and call logs, retrieve contacts, and even pass raw data to any other app. However, in order to access these remote features you must send SMS messages from another phone; it would be much more user-friendly if there were a Web-based interface. Avast says one will be added in the first quarter of 2012.
Some of the features -- such as any that require SMS -- require 3G support and so won't work on Wi-Fi-only Android tablets. Avast says better tablet support is also expected in early 2012.
Avast offers some great underlying functionality, like hiding the anti-theft component and providing enhanced uninstall protection for rooted devices. But you'll have to wait for the Web interface for remote features, and look elsewhere for backup features.
AVG Mobilation Anti-Virus Free offers free protection for both phones and tablets against malware and browsing protection to prompt you when visiting a malicious website. It also includes SMS/text messaging protection that scans messages to ensure they're safe; various remote tools, including device locating, alarms, locking and wiping, and scanning. There is a malware scanner that analyzes data files as well as apps, a task killer, a tune-up utility to help save battery usage and storage space, and a personal data wiper to clear cache.
An app locker that password protects individual apps and an app backup tool are also offered as a 13-day trial. The Pro version (which costs a one-time $1.99 fee) unlocks the trials and adds a spam and scam feature; there is also a version available for tablets.
Anti-Virus automatically scans apps you install and lets you run full scans on demand or automatically on a daily or weekly basis, but oddly doesn't let you specify the days or time. It does, however, also scan for potentially insecure settings along with malicious content and media.
Though the app runs in the background, it doesn't appear on the notification bar or menu until it detects an issue. Once you open the app, the main screen can be a bit confusing -- it doesn't contain status info or shortcuts to the main features like most other security apps do. You tap the screen to run a scan or press the device's Menu button to access shortcuts.
AVG provides a website to use the remote functions. Though it's possible to access it via smartphones and other small mobile devices, the site is optimized for desktop/laptop access. It allows you to initiate remote locating on a Google map, initiate an alarm and remotely lock your device with a custom message; you can also set an unlock password, wipe the device, and remotely start scanning for malware. You won't find your phone's number on the site, but it does detect SIM card changes and will send automated email alerts to you when a card switch is detected.
Despite a confusing user interface, AVG Mobilation Anti-Virus Free is a fairly solid security app offering all the popular features for free. If you want the premium edition (for more features or the tablet app) you can get it with just a small one-time payment.
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