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Videoconferencing vendors meet demands with free versions

Among the many impacts of the worldwide coronavirus crisis are numerous travel restrictions and work-at-home mandates. This is leading to a rise in demand for videoconferencing and collaboration tools, as organizations look to keep the lines of communication and business information exchange open despite the physical separation of participants.

Several vendors that provide these platforms have begun offering free versions of their products, as they look to help meet the extraordinary demands for virtual meeting capabilities around the world.

Here’s a roundup of some of these offerings:

Avaya

Avaya Holdings recently announced that it will provide its Avaya Spaces collaboration software for free to education institutions, including colleges and universities, along with qualified nonprofit organizations worldwide.

Since January, Avaya has seen a 200 percent increase in video collaboration traffic on the platform. There is an especially immediate need in the education sector, as school and university administrators consider the safety of their students while ensuring continuity of their classes, engagement with their students, and delivering on their educational objectives, said Avaya CEO Jim Chirico.

[ Related:  COVID-19 and tech: New collaboration tools mean new security risks ]

Avaya Spaces provides a cloud meeting and team collaboration offering that lets people and organizations connect and collaborate remotely. In addition to integrating chat, voice, video, online meetings and content sharing, the platform provides a set of meeting and team collaboration features including voice and videoconferencing for up to 200 participants.

As a mobile-enabled product, Avaya Spaces gives users a secure way to track communications and manage tasks when travel and connectivity are limited. The company said it’s continuing to explore opportunities to provide assistance during the global crisis, including helping customers ensure that contact center agents can continue delivering support to their customers in the safest way possible through work-from-home collaboration technologies.

[ Related:Don’t let the coronavirus make you a home office security risk ]

CallTower

CallTower, which offers cloud-based unified communications and collaboration products, said it’s providing free Cisco Webex Meetings and CT Cloud Meeting powered by Zoom conferencing solutions, with no commitment, through June 30, 2020.

The company had previously announced 90 days of free Microsoft Teams Direct Routing. CallTower said it is prepared to deploy

Cisco Webex Meetings and CT Cloud Meeting powered by Zoom in less than 24 hours.

CallTower wants to enable all workers to stay connected and to work with free, no strings attached conferencing systems, said CallTower’s CEO Bret England. CallTower has prepared a Resource Center for Remote Workforces to provide information on organizing and managing a wide-scale rapid deployment of remote-work communication systems.

Cisco and Webex

Cisco has expanded the capabilities on its free Webex offer in all countries where it’s available, not only those impacted by the coronavirus.

Additional features include unlimited usage (no time restrictions); support of up to 100 participants; and toll dial-in (in addition to existing VoIP capabilities). In addition, through its partners and the Cisco sales team, the company is providing free 90-day licenses to businesses that are not Webex customers.

Cisco said it is also helping existing customers meet their rapidly changing needs as they enable a much larger number of remote workers, by expanding their usage at no additional cost.

The company also announced it is expanding its worldwide meeting capacity, scaling up further in the US and Europe, working with non-governmental organizations to support schools and other organizations, and partnering closely with customers that are rapidly scaling up their work-from-home efforts.

Cisco said it’s continually improving its worldwide connectivity by working with carriers to assist with last-mile connectivity, in order to reduce latency between end-users and the Webex cloud.

8X8

The provider of an integrated cloud communications platform recently said it is expanding global capabilities for the free, stand-alone version of 8X8 Video Meetings. The company has sped up the global reach and capabilities of the platform, providing organizations and employees with location-independent access to unlimited meetings through any internet-connected desktop or mobile device without any additional software.

Since the beginning of February, usage has increased significantly, the company said, with users from more than 125 countries now deploying 8×8 Video Meetings. The number of new users has more than tripled.

New and enhanced features of 8×8 Video Meetings include unlimited usage, with no restrictions on the number of meetings or meeting duration; international dial-in numbers in more than 55 countries, including local and toll-free options; and a browser-based interface that allows users to start or join meetings in a single click or touch.

Other features include calendar plugins for Google and Outlook that allow users to schedule and join meetings directly from their calendar; cloud storage for meetings recordings; support for live streaming of large meetings to YouTube; a permanent personal URL to a private virtual meeting space; real-time meeting closed captioning and transcription’ and machine learning-based noise detection and alerts for enhanced meeting experience.

Google

Google has begun rolling out free access to its advanced Hangouts Meet videoconferencing capabilities to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers globally.

The capabilities include larger meetings, for up to 250 participants per call; live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers within a domain; and the ability to record meetings and save them to Google Drive.

These features are typically available in the enterprise edition of G Suite and in G Suite Enterprise for Education, the company said, and will be available at no additional cost to all customers until July 1, 2020.

Google said it’s continuing to scale its infrastructure to support greater Hangouts Meet demand, ensuring reliable access to the service throughout this period of higher demand.

Lifesize

Lifesize, a provider of video collaboration and meeting productivity products, announced that all organizations impacted by coronavirus worldwide are immediately eligible for an unlimited number of free licenses to use the company’s cloud-based video collaboration platform for six months.

The goal is to help organizations implement flexible, remote work policies during the crisis, and the offer allows both new and existing customers to quickly use video meetings and collaboration capabilities at scale.

As part of the offer, all businesses — regardless of industry or location — are eligible to receive unlimited hosts, meetings and call duration for Lifesize videoconferencing. Organizations can sign up for an unlimited number of accounts with up to six free months of Lifesize service. Existing Lifesize customers can add unlimited users at current paid service levels, allowing them to scale collaboration tools to every employee across their organization.

Lifesize’s platform supports video, audio and web conferencing for one-to-one and one-to-many meetings. Users can connect and collaborate through applications for iOS, Android, Windows and Mac devices, or natively through browsers including Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox.

LogMeIn

LogMeIn is providing free emergency remote work kits for healthcare providers, educational institutions, municipalities and nonprofit organizations.

The offer covers organization-wide use of many LogMeIn products for three months through the availability of the kits, which include products for meetings and videoconferencing, Webinars and virtual events, IT support and management of remote employee devices and apps, as well as remote access to devices in multiple locations.

For example, the Meet Emergency Remote Work Kit will provide eligible organizations with a free site-wide license of GoToMeeting for three months, the company said. The offering also includes any current LogMeIn customers.

Microsoft

Microsoft is offering its premium version of Teams free of charge for six months and lifted existing user limits on its free version. 

Teams is a part of Office 365 and any organization that’s licensed for that suite already has access to the application. Anyone not licensed for Teams can log into the product and automatically receive a free license that’s valid through January 2021. This includes video meetings for up to 250 participants and Live Events for up to 10,000, recording and screen sharing, along with chat and collaboration.

The free version of Teams includes unlimited chat, built-in group and one-on-one audio or video calling, 10GB of team file storage and 2GB of personal file storage per user. Users also get real-time collaboration with the Office apps for Web, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

RingCentral

The company is offering its RingCentral Office free of charge to organizations that have been impacted by the pandemic, such as schools, healthcare providers and nonprofits.

RingCentral Office provides videoconferencing, team messaging, business phones, short message service (SMS) and fax. For teachers who now have to ensure students remain on their education tracks through distance learning, RingCentral’s videoconferencing capabilities, team messaging and screen sharing enable them to stay connected with students.

In addition, remote school staff and teachers can stay connected with students’ parents without having to use personal cell phones. RingCentral’s cloud-based phone system provides phone numbers to organizations and every individual enabling them to call and send/receive SMS using those business numbers.

Similarly, healthcare providers who need to check in on their patients can leverage RingCentral’s business phone service. In addition, faxing any documentation is being offered. For nonprofit organizations offering services to impacted people mainly via phone and text, the RingCentral solution platform can be deployed within minutes for the entire organization.

StarLeaf

StarLeaf, a provider of meeting room tools and videoconferencing services for enterprises, announced measures for supporting customers and new users to maintain business continuity and to enable remote working for employees during this time of uncertainty.

The measures involve a number of new product and service offerings, including the introduction of a free version of the company’s conferencing software, available worldwide. StarLeaf said it’s also providing customers with additional licensing flexibility to better support them during this crisis. This is in addition to providing resources and increasing service capacity to meet increased demand.

The free version of StarLeaf is available across all devices, requiring only an internet connection and an email address to get started. Users can meet with anyone on video, regardless of their location. StarLeaf is also offering free trials of its service through its worldwide sales team and partner network.

For StarLeaf customers who might need to enable remote working for their entire workforce for an unknown length of time, the company introduced new flexible conferencing license options. These options provide customers with the ability to increase conferencing capacity as needed.

In addition, StarLeaf said it’s launching a new remote working hub to support users and customers with best practices and resources for working remotely.

Zoho

Zoho, which offers a suite of business software applications including email and collaboration software, has launched a Small Business Emergency Subscription Assistance Program (ESAP) to help its customers worldwide weather the global crisis.

For up to 20,000 qualified paying customers with 25 employees or less, Zoho is waiving the cost of every application they currently use, for up to three months.

Earlier, Zoho had launched Remotely, a virtual productivity platform of 11 collaboration applications, provided to businesses of all sizes around the world for free. The software is designed to help companies effectively make the transition to a remote workforce. Since its release, more than 5,000 new companies are running on the platform, and that number is increasing every day, the company said.

Zoho has seen an average of 500 percent growth in use of its collaboration applications and 1,000 percent growth in daily new users of Zoho Meeting.



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22 free screen-sharing apps for work-at-home collaboration

The flood of employees working from home due to the Covid-19 outbreak has caused many companies to explore different ways for people to communicate and collaborate, with apps and services replacing in-person meetings or gather-around-a-desk sessions.

Screen sharing, where one person shares their computer’s desktop or a single application with one or more people, generally serves one of three purposes:

  1. Quick collaboration and meetings between co-workers.
  2. Client communications, such as sharing a presentation or other application.
  3. Technical support for IT staffers (or any tech-savvy individual) looking to solve a remote worker’s computer issue.

Because of these different purposes, screen sharing is seen as a feature in different types of applications and services, from web conferencing and video chat services to remote access apps. In addition, there are a number of tools that just do screen sharing as their main functionality.

Fortunately, several of these apps and services have expanded their free offerings due to the current Covid-19 situation. Time limits on meetings, the number of participants allowed, and other restrictions on free versions have been lifted by some companies, at least temporarily.

Here is an array of apps and services that offer free screen-sharing capabilities, organized by the main focus of the tool (remote access, web conferencing, or screen sharing alone). Note that many free tools are not suitable for sensitive communications. Any organization that needs to share private company data should look to enterprise-level products.

Screen sharing as a primary function

Dead Simple Screen Sharing

Dead Simple offers screen sharing via web browser, through the installation of a Chrome or Firefox extension; no signup is required. An entire screen or just an application window can be shared with up to four participants — the host can email links to participants. The basic plan supports screen sharing and audio; other plans include videoconferencing features and support for up to 150 people for $18 per month.

Mikogo

screen sharing apps mikogo Mikogo

The free version of Mikogo allows presenters to share their screen, document or application with one person live over the web. Participants do not need to download or install plug-ins. Voice conferencing and remote support features are also available, but not video conferencing. The service currently offers a free 14-day trial of Mikogo Professional, which allows up to 25 meeting participants; after the 14 days are complete, the account automatically changes to the free version.

Screenleap

Screenleap lets you share your screen instantly to any device with a browser. Sharing is supported from Windows, Mac, iOS, Android or any OS that supports the Chrome browser. With an app download, you can quickly “share your screen now” to start the share. There are no audio or videoconferencing features with the free version, but you can type in a chat window to communicate with participants. The free plan allows up to 40 minutes per day, up to eight viewers, and two meetings. Basic plans start at $15 per month, with higher-end plans available.

Show My PC

The person who is sharing their screen downloads an app, with Show My PC providing an access code for others to view. Viewers can then see the presenter’s screen, but not control anything. There are no audio or video capabilities either. The company also offers home or office PC access services starting at $5 per month.

Screen sharing through videoconferencing

AnyMeeting

screen sharing apps anymeeting Intermedia

AnyMeeting’s Pro Video Conferencing plan, normally $13/user/month, is now free for users through the rest of 2020. In addition to the videoconferencing features, screen-sharing tools include desktop sharing, application window sharing, and individual Chrome tab sharing options. Meeting participants can also annotate on a shared screen in real time during a meeting.

Cisco Webex Meetings

Cisco recently adjusted its meeting limits and participant limits for Webex; the free plan now gives you meetings with up to 100 participants (up from 50), HD video, screen sharing, and a personal room, with no time limits on meetings (it used to be 40 minutes). The service does require you to sign up for a Webex Meetings account.

Discord

Originally designed for gamers looking to connect via voice, video and text, Discord allows screen sharing among its many features. Discord “channels” can be set up via web browser, or an application can be downloaded to a computer. It works with multiple mobile devices as well. The host and participants need to register for an account.

Google Hangouts

In Google Hangouts video and audio calls, you can share your screen with other users. During a call, you have the option to choose a presenter and start a screen share. Hangouts are free and users just need a Google account — which most people have already. Users can schedule meetings through Google Calendar, which gives all attendees the meeting URL. Google also offers a business version of Hangouts called Google Hangouts Meet as part of its G Suite office suite.

Jitsi Meet

screen sharing apps jitsi meet presenter mode Jitsi

This free multi-platform, open-source videoconferencing service offers screen-sharing capabilities during calls, including the ability for a host to share YouTube videos with participants. No accounts or downloads are required to use Jitsi Meet. Calls can be hosted right through the website, with Chrome extensions also available. People can be invited through a simple, custom URL, and users can trade messages and emojis with integrated chat during calls.

Proficonf

The free version of Proficonf offers unlimited meeting times with up to two participants and supports screen sharing, media sharing (including YouTube links), file sharing and a whiteboard. Additional Pro and Premium versions offer more participants (up to 250 in premium), along with additional permanent rooms. The host needs to sign up for an account.

Skype

One of the original videoconferencing services via account and download, Microsoft-owned Skype also allows you to create video meetings with no sign-ups or downloads if you don’t feel like downloading the app or signing up for an account. Screen sharing is supported through the free call offering. For companies looking to expand collaboration options for remote workers beyond video calls and screen sharing, Microsoft has a free version of its Teams software available to download; Teams is also included with many Office 365 business plans.

UberConference

The free version of UberConference supports up to 10 participants, but there is a 45-minute time limit on calls, and PINs are required. These can usually be handled through a calendaring application, however. Screen sharing is started through a share button on the UberConference dashboard.

Whereby

With Whereby, video meetings are conducted through a browser — no downloads or logins are required for guests. The free version gives you one user and one meeting room for up to four participants, with Pro and Business versions offering additional meeting rooms and users. The free version also supports YouTube video watching in addition to basic screen-sharing functions.

Zoom

screen sharing apps zoom screen share Zoom

Zoom‘s basic plan is free and allows for an unlimited number of meetings, with no time limits for one-to-one meetings. For meetings between three to 100 people, a 40-minute time limit is instituted, with upgrades available for longer meetings. Screen sharing includes desktop, application window and whiteboard, and also a connected iPhone or iPad (via AirPlay or cable).

Screen sharing through remote access

AnyDesk

The AnyDesk remote desktop software supports many different operating systems, including Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, iOS, Chrome OS and even Raspberry Pi. It’s free for personal use; business plans start at $11 per month.

Chrome Remote Desktop

02 chrome remote desktop connection JR Raphael/IDG

Chrome Remote Desktop lets you access another computer through a Chrome browser, a Chromebook, or an Android or iOS device. You can set it up for short-term access, such as for ad hoc remote support, or longer for remote access to applications and files. It offers cross-platform support, including Windows, Mac, and Linux systems.

LiteManager Free

LiteManager Free is remote desktop software that includes the main functions and features of the regular LiteManager program (omitting extras like audio-video chat, recording, and ticketing). It lets you control up to 30 computers.

MingleView

MingleView, a free peer-to-peer Remote Desktop sharing and control-based application, also lets you host online meetings and presentations with friends, family and work colleagues. Participants can join a meeting or troubleshoot any PC with a six-digit meeting ID. The tool supports unlimited participants and connections and works on Windows computers only; no Mac version available.

Remote Utilities

The Remote Utilities remote access program lets you connect to a remote PC over LAN or the internet. The free edition offers 16 different connection modes, firewall bypass capabilities, and connection over the internet by ID or by IP address/DNS name. A commercial edition is also available.

TeamViewer

screen sharing apps team viewer TeamViewer

TeamViewer lets you establish a connection to any PC or server within a few seconds, controlling the PC remotely as if you were sitting in front of the system. In addition to screen sharing, users can share video and audio with participants, and you can opt to show parts of your screen or individual applications if you want to avoid sharing an entire desktop. File sharing, chat and whiteboard features are also supported. The app requires a download, and you can email meeting invitations to other participants. TeamViewer is free for personal, non-commercial users — generally for students, friends and family support.

UltraViewer

The free UltraViewer app lets you control a partner’s computer to support them as if you were sitting in front of their screen. You can send and receive files via a chat window, as well as toggle the chat on and off. It supports screen sharing with multiple computers but is available for Windows only (XP, 7, 8, 10, Windows Server).

VNC Connect

The VNC Connect service offers a free home subscription for personal or hobbyist use, which lets you access up to five internet-connected computers securely from any device running the VNC Viewer app. However, the company doesn’t offer any support for home subscriptions. A 30-day free trial of the company’s Professional and Enterprise versions is also offered. Using the tool requires downloading the VNC Server app to the computer you want to control and the VNC Viewer app on the device you want to control from; both apps are available for an array of operating systems including Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android and Chrome OS.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Coronavirus prompts collaboration tool makers to offer wares for free

Major collaboration and video conferencing software vendors are now offering products to users at no extra cost in response to the spread of the coronavirus. 

Concerns about the COVID-19 virus have led to a boom in remote working, as organizations encourage employees to stay home and a growing number of conferences are cancelled. 

While many companies have seen their stock prices take a battering because of the disruption caused by the virus – the new York Stock Exchange was down sharply again Thursday – software vendors that enable remote work such as video conference software provider Zoom have seen stock prices climb dramatically. 

This week, Microsoft, Google and Cisco began to offer some services for free to those who need remote collaboration capabilities.

Google on Tuesday said it would start offering advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing capabilities to all G Suite and G Suite Education customers at no extra cost this week. The features, usually available to enterprise tier subscribers, include access to larger meetings of up to 250 participants, live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers in a single domain, and the ability to record meetings and save them to Google Drive. 

The move is set to remain in place until July 1. 

Microsoft is making the premium version of its Teams collaboration application available for free as part of a six-month trial offer for Office365 E1 payment plan. 

A free version of Teams is already available with limited features compared to the paid tier. Microsoft said that it will lift restrictions on user limits on the free Teams version beginning March 10, as well as letting users schedule video calls with coworkers.

“At Microsoft, our top concern is the well-being of our employees and supporting our customers in dealing with business impact during this challenging time,” the company said in a statement. “For many individuals and organizations, Microsoft Teams video-conferencing, chat and collaboration are playing an important role in helping people continue to work and collaborate. 

“By making Teams available to all for free for six months, we hope that we can support public health and safety by making remote work even easier,” the company said.

Cisco has expanded the list of features available as part of its free Webex offer in all countries where it is available. Additional features include support for up to 100 participants and unlimited usage. Customers that are not already using the service can sign up to a free 90-day license. 

And LogMeIn is making its GoToMeeting product available for free for three months to “critical front-line service providers,” the company said in a statement. That includes healthcare providers, educational institutions, municipalities and non-profit organizations. 

Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight, said the decision to offer short-term discounts  could spur longer term adoption of remote working tools.  But it could also raise questions about whether they’re taking advantage of the outbreak.

“While all these companies will argue that they are simply doing their bit to support people who are, either by choice or necessity, now having to work remotely, there will inevitably be suspicion and accusations that they are capitalizing on this difficult climate to promote their own solutions,” she said. 

“By providing additional features or free trials for a limited time, they can meet the spike in demand without actually cashing in [in] monetary terms, but of course they will be hoping that it means those users will see the benefit and opportunities that come from using their tools, and continue using them longer term – likely through a paid license,” she said. 

The rise in demand shows the shifting business perceptions toward remote working in general, she added.

“The sustained nature of the outbreak will mean that organizations that might otherwise have been quite averse to the prospect of allowing employees to work remotely will now be forced to experience it,” Ashenden said. 

“The question is whether this leads to changes in mindset in the longer term. For employees themselves, many will now be learning how to be productive when working from home, and how to collaborate with colleagues effectively outside of the office. I think we’ll see the issue of poor connectivity cropping up as well as more people spend more time on conference calls.”

Microsoft and Google have also announced that they have pulled out of two major events as efforts mount to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Having already cancelled its MVP Summit in the Seattle area, Microsoft said it will no longer be attending the HIMSS20 healthcare technology conference in Orlando, Fla., which typically hosts more than 40,000 attendees. 

“Out of an abundance of caution, we’ve made the difficult decision to withdraw from participating at HIMSS 2020. We look forward to sharing more on our latest healthcare innovations at a future date,” said a Microsoft spokesperson.

Google cancelled next month’s Cloud Next conference in San Francisco, Calif.  but will continue to host the event online.

Various other high profile tech conferences have been called off in recent weeks, including Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, and Facebook’s F8 developer conference. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Avast Free Antivirus Review & Rating

You might expect that a free antivirus would come with only the most basic protection, with advanced bonus features reserved for paying customers. In truth, many of the most popular free antivirus tools offer full-scale protection along with a ton of extra features. Avast Free Antivirus gives you more than many competing commercial products. On top of excellent antivirus protection, it adds a network security scanner, a password manager, browser protection, and more. It’s an amazing collection of security features, considering that this product is free.

Avast acquired rival free antivirus company AVG in 2016. Fans of both companies can rest easy; three years later, there’s still no plan to merge them into a single product. Both have many thousands of users worldwide, but each is strong in geographical areas where the other is weak. And the underlying antivirus engine is exactly the same in Avast and AVG AntiVirus Free, as demonstrated in my tests and independent lab tests.

This product is only free for personal use. If you want to use Avast in a business setting, you must upgrade to Avast Premium Security, which replaces both Avast Internet Security and the all-inclusive Avast Premier. It’s a simpler product line than most, just a free antivirus and a for-pay suite.

During installation, Avast offers to install Avast Secure Browser, noting that it’s private, secure, and fast. By default, it also makes this your default browser. The installer also presents a full page devoted to explaining how Avast uses your nonpersonal data, and how you can opt out if you wish.

The biggest part of Avast’s main window is a slate-gray rectangle with a bit of texture, decorated with a status icon and a big button titled Run Smart Scan. A left-rail menu lets you switch from the main Status page to Protection, Privacy, or Performance. Across the bottom, you find a banner offering you a welcome gift. Unwrapping the virtual gift reveals a discounted upgrade to Avast Premium Security. If you reject the upgrade, it offers a 60-day trial. Avast really wants you to experience the suite!

Avast Free Antivirus Main

One of this product’s features needs special mention, because it’s virtually invisible, and it’s disabled by default. After you reach into settings and enable Passive Mode. Avast takes pains to avoid interfering with other antivirus tools. If you install another antivirus, Passive Mode kicks in automatically. To avoid conflicts, it disables all real-time scanning and other active protection. You can still launch scans manually. There’s precedent for this behavior—Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center does something similar.

Lab Scores High and Plentiful

It may seem counterintuitive, but antivirus makers typically pay for the privilege of having products included in testing by the independent labs. The companies do benefit from testing, in two ways. A high score gives the company bragging rights. If the score is poor, the company can improve by examining what went wrong. When the antivirus doesn’t bring in any income, a company might be tempted to skip the expense of testing. Not Avast. I follow four independent testing labs that regularly release test reports, and all four of them include Avast.

The analysts at AV-Comparatives perform a variety of security tests, of which I follow four. Products that do well enough to pass the test receive a Standard rating, while those that show advanced features and capabilities can rate Advanced or Advanced+.

Out of the four tests, Avast earned three Advanced+ ratings and one Advanced. That’s quite good, though Avira and Bitdefender Antivirus Plus

AV-Test Institute reports on antivirus capabilities in three areas: protection, performance, and usability. With six points possible in each category, the maximum score is 18 points. Avast got all six points for usability, meaning it didn’t screw up by flagging valid programs or websites as malicious, and earned six more points for malware protection. It came close in performance, with 5.5 points. AVG precisely matched that score.

A total of 17.5 points is high enough for AV-Test to designate Avast a Top Product. Bitdefender, Kaspersky, and Norton AntiVirus Plus managed a perfect 18 points.

Trying to emulate real-world conditions as closely as possible, the experts at SE Labs capture drive-by downloads and other web-based attacks, relying on a replay system to hit each tested product with the exact same attack. The very best products receive AAA certification; others may be certified at the AA, A, B, or C level.

Avast managed AAA certification this time around. Quite a few other products also reached that level. Among them were Avira, Kaspersky, McAfee, and Norton. Despite having the same underlying antivirus engine, AVG only reached the AA level. Surprisingly, Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security came in with just A-level certification, the lowest score in this round of testing.

MRG-Effitas reports test results a bit differently from the other labs. Products that don’t manage perfect or near-perfect protection simply fail. In the past, Avast has passed the banking Trojans test, and achieved Level 2 certification in the all-types malware protection test, meaning that it let at least one attacker install, but remediated the problem within 24 hours. That wasn’t the case in the latest reports. This time around, Avast failed both grueling tests. AVG wasn’t tested, though it scored the same as Avast the last time both were included.

Of the many antivirus products I track, 10 don’t appear in results from any of the labs. Avast is one of the magnificent seven featured in all four lab reports. I use an algorithm that normalizes all the results to a 10-point scale and produces an aggregate score from 0 to 10. The aggregate score of 9.2 points for this free antivirus product is good; only a few have done better. Looking just at those tested by all four labs, Avira Antivirus is at the top, with 9.9 points. Norton comes next, with 9.8, and then Kaspersky, with 9.7. Bitdefender and Sophos each managed a perfect 10, based on three and two labs respectively.

Avast Online Security

The Avast Online Security extension installs in Chrome and Firefox. It installed automatically when I launched those two browsers. As usual, I had to give permission before the browser enabled it.

Online Security marks up your search results in popular search portals. Green means all clear, red means stay away, and gray means the site hasn’t yet been analyzed. You can click the toolbar icon to give a simple thumbs-up or down to the current page.

If Online Security detects any advertising trackers or other trackers on the current site, it displays how many it found as a number overlaid on its toolbar icon. Clicking the icon gets you a summary of found social media, advertising, and web analytics trackers. You can dig in for details and block some or all trackers on the current site or automatically block all trackers on all sites.

You won’t easily see the SiteCorrect feature in action. It kicks in when you misspell a popular domain name, steering you away from typosquatting sites that try to capture your clicks.

Online Security also watches out for dangerous and fraudulent websites. Avast also filters out such sites before they even reach the browser, but as you’ll see below, that protection must be combined with Online Security for maximum protection.

Avast installs the SafePrice add-on alongside Online Security. Like the similar feature in AVG, this add-on helps you find the best prices when you’re shopping online. Just click its toolbar icon to see what details it found. It also offers coupons, when available.

Online Insecurity?

All is not rosy in the world of Avast Online Security. Firefox recently removed this extension from its collection. Why? Because researcher Wladimir Palant reported that the extension sent vast amounts of information to Avast, seemingly more than required to do its job, and including “two different unique user IDs.”

Avast has been in the security business for more than 30 years. I found it hard to accept that the company would jeopardize customer privacy, so I checked with Avast CEO Ondrej Vlcek. “We have already implemented some of Mozilla’s new requirements,” said Vlcek, “and we will release further updated versions that are fully compliant and transparent per the new requirements.” He also noted that the takedown occurred just 12 hours after Mozilla’s announcement of its new store policies.

SecurityWatch

But what about all that data sent by the browser extensions? Vlcek went down the laundry list of data points that Palant identified, explaining each. Many, such as the referrer field, feed into URL analysis in the cloud. Some of the fields, such as the page title, “aren’t used and will be removed.” Avast collects the country code for a general idea of location, in lieu of capturing the much more personal IP address. Browser type and version feed into aggregate statistics, though Vlcek said a future version will let you opt out of that feature.

As for the unique user IDs Palant reported, Vlcek confirmed they exist, but said they don’t connect to any personal data. They simply let the cloud-based analysis system match up multiple reports coming from the same source.

When you install Avast, it makes a point of asking permission to gather information, specifically requesting “non-identifying data” and stating the data “is fully de-identified and aggregated and will not be used to personally identify or target you.” You can click to agree or decline the sharing request. I asked if declining to share data meant that Avast wouldn’t use those unique identifiers. Vlcek said no, the only difference is that if you agree to share, Avast retains and aggregates data reported by the browser extension, while if you decline, it discards the data after use.

Just about every antivirus product includes the ability to steer your browser away from unsafe or fraudulent URLs. To do this, they must send the URLs you visit to the cloud for analysis. Yes, that means that they could construct a complete record of your browsing activity. But any actual misuse of that data by a security company would spell its destruction.

Secure Browser

Previously called SafeZone, Avast Secure Browser is a Chromium-based browser with a boatload of security features built in. Naturally it includes the same protections offered by Online Security. It also blocks ads and flash content, prevents installation of dangerous extensions, controls which sites can use your webcam, and enforces use of secure HTTPS connections wherever possible. From its security center page you can launch an antivirus scan, switch to stealth mode, install Avast SecureLine VPN bring up the password manager, or clear your browsing history.

Secure Browser’s Bank Mode opens a browser window in a separate desktop that’s isolated from processes running on the regular desktop and protected against keyloggers and other spy tactics. As with the similar SafePay feature in Bitdefender, you can switch back and forth between the regular and protected desktops. In the past, Avast automatically offered Bank Mode when it detected you were visiting a financial site. I didn’t observe that happening this time around, but you can easily flip into Bank Mode manually.

Avast Free Antivirus Bank Mode

Going beyond the anti-tracking skills of Online Security, Secure Browser offers the ability to disguise your browser fingerprint. What’s that? Well, your browser offers a huge amount of information to websites, because sites can use that information to tune the pages they serve up. They can also process this information into a browser fingerprint that uniquely identifies you, for tracking purposes. Like the standalone TrackOFF Basic, Avast can randomize what the browser reports, just enough to prevent fingerprinting.

By default, the Hack Check feature notes when you log into online accounts and checks whether there’s been any breach associated with that account. You can also enter any email address for an on-demand breach check.

If you’re a Chrome fan, consider using Secure Browser. It’s Chromium-based, so you’ll find it familiar. And it really does offer a ton of privacy and security enhancements.

Decent Malware Protection

Malicious software from the Internet must run the gauntlet of numerous defense layers before it can infect your PC. Avast could block all access to the malware-hosting URL, for example, or wipe out the malware payload before the download finishes—I’ll discuss those malware protection layers shortly. If a file is already present on your computer, as my malware samples are, Avast assumes it must have gotten past the earlier protection layers. Like AVG, Emsisoft, McAfee, and a few others, it checks those files one more time before they execute.

To test Avast’s malware-blocking skills, I opened a folder containing my current collection of malware samples and tried to launch each one. Avast blocked 80 percent of them immediately, wiping them out so fast it left Windows displaying an error message reporting that the file could not be found. It killed off some of those that managed to launch before they could fully install, but missed others, mostly low-risk types.

Avast detected 87 percent of the samples and scored 8.4 of 10 possible points, which isn’t great. Sophos, Windows Defender, and Malwarebytes all detected 98 percent and scored 9.8. Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus

Kaspersky Free above and Bitdefender below. All three did very well in lab tests but not so well in my hands-on tests. When that happens, I give more weight to the labs, with their extensive staffs of research experts.

Unusual activity by a few files merited deeper examination. Avast displayed a message stating, “Hang on, this file may contain something bad,” and promising an evaluation within 15 seconds. A little animation depicts the analysis process, with a magnifier going over a document. All my hand-coded testing utilities triggered this warning; all three got a clean bill of health.

The samples I use for the malware blocking test stay the same for months. To evaluate each product’s capabilities against the very latest malware, I start with a feed of malware-hosting URLs supplied by MRG-Effitas. Typically these are no more than a few days old. I try to launch each one, recording whether the antivirus blocked access to the URL, vaporized the malware download, or totally failed to notice anything wrong.

Once I’ve recorded results for many dozens of malware-hosting URLs, I tally the results. Initially, I found that Avast blocked around 40 percent of the URLs and eliminated roughly 40 percent more during download, for a total of 81 percent protection.

Avast has done quite a bit better in the past, enough so that I went seeking a reason for the difference. It turned out I had to run this test again. I had used Internet Explorer as the browser, forgetting that Avast doesn’t have an extension for IE. When I re-ran the test using Chrome, the extension kicked in to help out, bringing Avast’s score up to a respectable 90 percent.

McAfee, Sophos, and Vipre Antivirus Plus hold the top score here. In their latest tests, all three managed 100 percent protection.

Avast Free Antivirus Unsafe Site

Excellent Phishing Protection

Phishing websites are significantly easier to create than websites that secretively launch malware attacks. All a phishing fraudster need do is create a convincing replica of a sensitive site. They go after banks and financial sites, but also try to scam such things as gaming and dating sites. Any user who logs in, not recognizing that the page is fake, has just given away account access to the fraudsters. If a thousand web surfers spot the fraud and just one falls for it, that’s a win for the bad guys. And when the authorities quash the fraudulent site, the fraudsters just pop up another one.

I test antiphishing using the very newest phishing sites, including plenty that haven’t yet been fully analyzed and blacklisted. I launch each probable phishing URL in four browsers. The product under test protects one of the browsers, naturally. The other three rely on protection built into Chrome, Edge, and Firefox.

Any schmoe can write a phishing protection module that blocks blacklisted sites. The best products use real-time analysis to identify frauds that are too new for the blacklists. Avast clearly has this capability; the company touts its enhanced real-time phishing detection technologies.

In my first round of testing, Avast only caught 81 percent of the fakes, way down from last year. I realized that because I used Internet Explorer for that test, I wasn’t getting full protection, as Avast doesn’t offer a browser extension for IE. I ran the whole test again using Chrome, with much better results.

Avast blocked some frauds below the browser level, displaying a popup reporting the page was “infected with URL:Phishing.” I saw this same popup when I tested with IE. However, for other URLs Avast Online Security steered the browser away from the page to a warning page stating, “This website is unsafe.” In some cases, it did both. With two layers of protection in play, Avast detected 97 percent of the frauds, the same as Webroot. It beat Edge handily, edged out Firefox, and was in turn edged out by Chrome.

Kaspersky and Trend Micro pulled a perfect 100 percent in their latest tests. Close behind them, Bitdefender, McAfee AntiVirus Plus, and Norton managed 99 percent.

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See How We Test Security Software

Scan Choices

If you just click the big button in the middle of Avast’s Status screen, it runs a Smart Scan. In addition to a quick check for active malware, this scan looks for browser threats, apps with missing security patches, and what it calls “advanced issues.” On my test system, it only found the last category.

Digging in for details, I found three efforts to upsell me to Avast Premium Security. It pointed out three sensitive folders needing protection from ransomware, noted that the system has only a basic firewall, and warned that hackers could hijack my DNS. Clicking the big Resolve All button sent me to the upgrade page.

Clicking Scan on the Protection page gets you more choices. The Full Virus Scan took 34 minutes on my standard clean test system, and a repeat scan ran eight minutes faster. That’s quite a bit speedier than my last test of this product, probably because since that time I upped the number of virtual processors in my virtual machines.

Avast Free Antivirus Scans

Avast offers a boot time scan, designed to eliminate pernicious and persistent malware that resists normal cleanup. Because the scan runs before Windows boots up, the Windows-based malware doesn’t have any chance to defend itself. You should set aside plenty of time for the scan. Two hours after I started it, the display still reported one percent complete. I checked its log in the morning, but alas, it doesn’t report scan duration. Note that Bitdefender’s Rescue Mode reboots in a non-Windows operating system for even more power against Windows-centered malware.

Wi-Fi Inspector

Avast was one of the first security products to add a network security scanner to its product line. Despite “Wi-Fi” in its name, the Wi-Fi Inspector can report on all the devices connected to any network, wired or wireless, and flag devices with security problems.

On my test system, the scan ran quickly and displayed my devices in a series of concentric rings, with the router at the center and the devices that connected most recently in the inner circles. The scan reported one problem—it warned that the HTTPS port on the main router was visible from the Internet (a necessary configuration setting for my Network Attached Storage backup device). The detailed warning included a suggestion to install Avast’s VPN, along with a link to open router settings.

Avast does its best to identify each device by name and type, but it can’t always get that information. If you have some network skills, you may be able to identify a device from its IP address and MAC address. The vendor name may also offer a clue. You can change the type of any device to any of more than five dozen choices, among them vehicle, drone, and hand-held gaming console. You can also change the name to something more recognizable than, say, Unknown70259bb1f4e. And Avast remembers your changes for future scans.

In testing, I had a tough time finding the desired device type, because those five dozen entries aren’t in alphabetic order. With Router, PC, Mobile phone, and Tablet at the top, I’m guessing they’re ordered by prevalence.

Avast Free Antivirus Inspect

Avira users can install Avira Home Guard from the main Avira launcher; it works very much like the Wi-Fi Inspector. Bitdefender Home Scanner is another similar (and free) network security scanner, one that goes into more depth about possible security problems.

Simple Password Manager

Password management is an unexpected feature for a free antivirus, though Avira offers Avira Password Manager as a companion to its free product. Avast Password Manager handles all the basic functions, and does them well, but that’s as far as it goes.

To get started, you activate the password manager as an extension in Chrome, Firefox, and Secure Browser. Alarmingly, Avast does not force you to create a master password. You absolutely should not proceed without doing so. Click the settings link, and click the big Create Master Password button.

Avast doesn’t rate your password with a strength meter, but it pops up notes pointing out any problems. For example, when I entered “Password” it said to avoid common words. Entering “d8cd8fb” got the comment “Now that’s a password with muscles.” Adding three exclamation points brought the password to excellent status.

In each supported browser, Avast offers to save the login credentials you enter for secure sites. When you revisit a website, it fills in your saved credentials right away. I do prefer password managers like Keeper Password Manager & Digital Vault that require a click from the user before filling credentials. Doing so prevents password theft using invisible forms.

If you have multiple accounts on the site, you can click a little key icon in the username field to get a menu of all your choices. And it does handle Skype and other two-page logins.

With many password managers, clicking the toolbar icon gets a menu of logins. Avast works differently. If you’ve saved one or more sets of credentials for the current site, it displays those in a popup window. If that’s not what you want, there’s a link to open the app. From the same window, you can invoke the random password generator, which creates 15-character passwords using letters and digits (but not punctuation) by default.

In the app, you can edit your saved passwords to give them a friendly name. You can also add Secure Notes and Credit Card details. When you visit a web form that asks for credit card data, you click the Avast key icon to fill in the card of your choice. In addition, you can sync password data to Avast’s iOS or Android apps.

Avast isn’t much help if you’re switching from another password manager. It can import passwords stored in Chrome or Firefox, but that’s it. There’s no import from competing products, or even from plain CSV files. In addition, the password manager doesn’t report on weak or duplicate passwords.

Some password management features hide behind a paywall, with a list price of $1.58 per month, currently discounted to $0.99 per month. Paying customers get tech support on a 24/7 basis, receive an immediate alert on detection of a password leak, and can log into the mobile apps with a fingerprint. These aren’t very impressive as premium features. Truly advanced features like two-factor authentication and secure password sharing just don’t appear. If you want more from a password manager, you’re probably better off adding a separate free password manager.

Performance Features

Software is created by humans, and hence imperfect. White hat and black hat hackers are constantly finding security holes, and security companies strive to patch them as soon as possible. If you fail to apply security updates, you leave your computer open to attacks that exploit those holes. Avast’s Software Updater scans your computer and reports any out-of-date software it finds. You can click a link to find out what changed in each product, or click a button to install the updates. If you try to turn on automatic updates, you learn that this is a feature of the paid security suite. On my test system, it found an update for Firefox and reported that Flash and Java were up to date. I was left wondering if those are the only apps it checked. No Chrome? No other extensions?

When Do Not Disturb mode is active, the antivirus postpones scheduled scans and suspends all but the most critical notifications. This kind of feature is becoming very common in antivirus products. Avast notices when you run a program full-screen and offers to add it to the list. To avoid being a disturbance itself, it only does so after you shut down the full-screen program.

Premium Features

The Protection, Privacy, and Performance pages each contain some features that are locked away from users of the free edition, indicated by a lock icon overlay. Clicking one of these displays a little animation explaining the feature, with a big Upgrade Now button. In the current Avast lineup, if you want any of these you must purchase Avast Security Premium.

Avast Free Antivirus Premium

On the Protection page, locked icons include: Firewall, to keep hackers out of your system; Sandbox, to run suspicious files without risk; Real Site, website confirmation beyond detection of phishing frauds; and Ransomware Shield. This last item deserves some explanation. Avast’s regular behavior-based detection should catch ransomware just as it does other types of malware. On the chance it might slip up, Ransomware Shield bans unauthorized modification of your documents and other sensitive files.

Most features on the Privacy page are locked for free users, all but the password manager. You must upgrade to get the secure deletion Data Shredder (AVG gives you this feature at the free level). The Sensitive Data Shield scans your documents for sensitive data that could be vulnerable to exfiltration, and helps you protect it. The Webcam Shield offers a degree of spyware protection by limiting webcam use to known, trusted programs. AntiTrack Premium supplements the Do Not Track protection found in Secure Browser.

The button for Avast SecureLine VPN displays a lock, but it isn’t precisely locked away. Clicking the button starts the installation process. Only when you’ve gone through the process, launched the program, and tried to make a VPN connection do you find out that you must pay $2.89 per month to use it beyond a seven-day trial.

On the Performance page, the locked-up Driver Updater promises to reduce crashes by updating old and broken drivers. It installs the first time you try to use it. If it finds anything, you’ll have to go fetch the update yourself, or upgrade to Premium.

Avast Cleanup Premium works in much the same way. It happily scans your system for performance problems, but if you want to do anything about those problems, you must shell out for a subscription.

An Excellent Free Antivirus

Avast Free Antivirus offers antivirus protection that earns good scores in my hands-on tests and very good scores from the independent testing labs. As for bonus features, it offers much more than many competing commercial products, including a network security scanner, a password manager, and more. Avast remains an Editors’ Choice product for free antivirus.

The base antivirus engine in AVG Antivirus Free is the same as Avast’s, but AVG just doesn’t offer the wealth of additional security features that you get with Avast. Go ahead and try it if you like, but we’re no longer calling it an Editors’ Choice.

Kaspersky Free is our other Editor’s Choice free antivirus. Where Avast gets very good ratings from the four independent labs that I follow, Kaspersky gets even higher marks. It comes with a bandwidth-limited VPN, but not many other frills. The key with Kaspersky is getting antivirus protection loved by the labs without any cost.



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Office 365 on Windows 7 gets free patches until 2023

Customers who continue to power PCs with Windows 7 after the operating system’s expiration date will be given one more update to Office 365 ProPlus – the application soul of the subscription service – before shutting down the feature pipeline.

But Office 365 ProPlus – the application stack that’s part of most business plans – will receive security updates long after Windows 7’s retirement on Jan. 14. How long after? Three years after.

The arrangement – “no” to new features but “yes” to vulnerability patches – was unusual enough to upend the typical definition of “support.”

“Office 365 ProPlus won’t be supported on Windows 7 after January 14, 2020,” Microsoft plainly stated in a support document last revised less than two weeks ago.

So, ProPlus is not supported but it will receive patches? Huh?

The contradiction about support is the source of confusion. Most users, whether of Microsoft’s operating system and applications or of any kind of software, hear the word support and equate it with fixes and patches. Software in support receives updates that quash bugs and fix problems, software out of support does not.

Yet Microsoft says that Office 365 ProPlus “won’t be supported” on Windows 7 even though it will continue to deliver security updates to the suite.

Again, what the hell?

First, a bit of background

Normally, when Microsoft axes an operating system – and stops patching its security vulnerabilities – it halts updates to other Microsoft-made software running under that OS at the same time. So, for example, when Microsoft set Windows 7’s end-of-support calendar at Jan. 14, 2020, that meant Office 365 ProPlus – or any Office – would also stop receiving updates then. (It works like this for Microsoft’s browsers, Internet Explorer (IE) and Edge, too.)

But Microsoft upset that cart when it announced Extended Security Updates (ESU) in September 2018. A “last resort” – Microsoft’s words – for commercial customers who would not make the Jan. 14, 2020, deadline for purging Windows 7, ESU would provide Critical- and Important-rated vulnerability patches to out-of-support Windows 7 machines. For a price, of course.

When Microsoft extended Windows 7’s security update support, it also had to extend that of Office 365 ProPlus (or make those Windows 7 PCs worthless for common productivity chores). And remember, customers were paying money to remain in support. And that’s what the company did.

“Office 365 ProPlus will be supported on devices with active Windows 7 Extended Security Updates (ESU) through January 2023,” Jared Spataro, vice president for Microsoft 365, said in a post to a company blog. “This means that customers who purchase the Windows 7 ESU will be able to continue to run Office 365 ProPlus.”

With a few keystrokes, Spataro committed Microsoft to providing patches to Office 365 ProPlus for three years after Windows 7 retirement.

Here’s what is to happen

Microsoft upgrades Office 365 ProPlus, like Windows 10, twice a year, in the late summer (around August) and the late winter or early spring (February or March). But Windows 7 users will get just one in 2020.

“Version 2002 is expected to be the last version of Office 365 ProPlus that will be available for devices running Windows 7 after Windows 7 goes out of support in January 2020,” Microsoft said in the support document.  (As with Windows 10, Microsoft tags Office 365 ProPlus with a four-digit label in the form yymm, so 2002 indicates a February 2020 release.)

Office 365 ProPlus, with its three different “channels” or distribution milestones, will upgrade to 2002 on this timeline, according to Microsoft:

  • Monthly Channel … late February
  • Semi-Annual Channel (Targeted) … March
  • Semi-Annual Channel … July

Once Office 365 ProPlus version 2002 is in place on Windows 7 systems, no future upgrades will be allowed onto the machines. Microsoft made that clear. “If you try to install a newer version of Office 365 ProPlus, such as Version 2005, on a device running Windows 7, you will receive an error message,” Microsoft said.

But monthly security updates will keep on coming through January 2023. (That month should be familiar; it’s the end of Windows 7’s ESU program.)

“We’re doing this to give you additional time to make the transition from running Office 365 ProPlus on devices running Windows 7 to a supported operating system, such as Windows 10,” Microsoft said, giving a reason if not necessarily the reason. Left unsaid, naturally, is the fact that once ESU came into existence, Microsoft had to continue patching Office 365 ProPlus, at least for those covered by the pay-for-patches plan.

Even though a specific ProPlus channel is usually available just for 14 months, version 2002 will be accessible to Windows 7 customers for much longer. How much longer? Remember, until January 2023.

“We’re making ((this)) exception just for Version 2002 to align with how long ESU for Windows 7 is available,” Microsoft said, coming clean.

On PCs powered by Windows 7, Office 365 ProPlus will be updated automatically to 2002 if those devices are getting updates directly from Microsoft’s servicing mechanism, Windows Update. If the PC is later migrated to Windows 10, ProPlus will automatically transition to the most recent available version. From that point, the machine will start receiving new feature-and-functionality upgrades, too.

Enterprises that manage ProPlus via, say, WSUS (Windows Server Update Services) or SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager) can continue to use their familiar tools.

Microsoft also said that Office 365 Business – the name for the application bundle offered with some subscriptions, including Office 365 Business Premium and Microsoft 365 Business – will be serviced on Windows 7 in the same way as ProPlus.

What about home users?

They, too, will get security updates to their Office 365 applications, according to a different support article Microsoft highlighted.

“As a valuable Office 365 subscriber, we want to continue to provide a stable Office 365 experience,” Microsoft stated on that page. “Even though Windows 7 will no longer be supported after January 2020, we’ve decided to continue to provide you with security updates for Office 365 for the next 3 years, until January 2023.”

You get patches … and you get patches

Everyone running Windows 7 after Jan. 14 will continue to get patches for Office 365’s applications – Word, Excel and the rest – for up to three years. The OS may be out of support (there’s that word again) and at risk from criminal exploitation, but Office itself will be safe.

Although few will look this gift horse in the mouth and object, it’s odd that Microsoft would give away Office security updates when it’s charging for the same thing for Windows 7.

But no one said Microsoft’s moves were logical.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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