Founded back in 1987, bought by Intel in 2011, re-floated as an independent business again this year – McAfee has had a complicated life. But it’s still one of the largest cybersecurity companies around, with an expanding enterprise business, and some comprehensive antivirus tools for all the major platforms.
McAfee has recently decided to simplify its range, retiring the Antivirus, Internet Security and LiveSafe as main channel products to focus on its do-everything security suite, McAfee Total Protection.
The package has a very lengthy feature list. That includes real-time malware protection, URL filtering, firewall, spam filter, parental controls, a vulnerability scanner, file shredder, disk clean-up tool and more.
These aren’t the underpowered junk you’ll get with some suites, either – the type which are thrown in just to look good. Many of McAfee’s extras have standout features of their own, such as the password manager’s support for biometric authentication and face recognition.
McAfee Total Protection covers all your devices, with packages available for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. The mobile builds don’t have all the high-end functionality you’ll get in the desktop, but add plenty of new goodies of their own: device location, remote wiping, app locking, app permissions management and more.
This level of protection doesn’t come cheap at £40 ($50) for the first year, £80 ($100) on renewal. This does cover up to five users, though, and allows each of them to install McAfee on an unlimited number of devices. If you like the package and need to protect the whole family, it’s not going to feel too expensive.
McAfee offers another unusual plus in its so-called virus protection pledge. This is an assurance that if you get a virus they promise to “remove it or you’ll get your money back – guaranteed.” We would rather our antivirus didn’t allow us to get infected in the first place, but it’s good to know the help will be there if you need it.
At the time of writing, there’s no trial available for McAfee Total Protection. Instead you’ll get a 30-day build of McAfee LiveSafe. That’s not ideal, but the interface and technology is essentially the same, and it won’t prevent you from fully evaluating the product.
Setup is trouble-free. The installer downloads and installs its files without complaining about ‘incompatible’ software or hassling about options or settings. The setup program even minimises itself to stay out of your way, and you can carry on with something else while it works.
Once the process is complete you must hand over your email address to create an account, but even this is simpler than usual. You’re not taken to the website to fill in a form, you don’t have to click a link in a confirmation email: just type your email address in a box, and that’s it.
A first-run dialog box helps to complete installation by automating various initial tasks: downloading updates, turning on the firewall, running a first scan, and so on. It’s a welcome step for beginners and anyone in a hurry, and experts can skip it if they prefer.
When the interface finally appears, a series of popups highlight key areas of the interface and briefly explains what they do. This is a well-designed and genuinely helpful guide which can get beginners up and running right away, but can also be dismissed with a click by experts who know what they’re doing.
McAfee Total Protection comes absolutely crammed with features, so it’s no surprise that the interface is more complex than the standalone antivirus competition. While F-Secure’s stripped-back package gets away with a couple of buttons, Total Protection organises its tools across five tabbed dialogs: Home, PC Security, Identity, Privacy and Account.
This doesn’t make the program difficult to use. The opening Home page enables running Quick or Full scans with a couple of clicks. You can also launch them by right-clicking McAfee’s system tray icon, and Explorer integration allows scanning any drive, file or folder by right-clicking it and selecting Scan.
We found that even the Quick Scan was initially quite slow on our test system at around 10 minutes, compared to 45 seconds for F-Secure Anti-Virus. Still, if the program is being more thorough, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The engine appears to be using some optimisations, as subsequent scans were significantly faster. Overall McAfee had average scanning speeds, although its protection rates were better, with the program detecting almost all our test threats and not raising any false alarms.
URL blocking wasn’t impressive, with the program missing around 30% of our (relatively old) test links. When it did raise an alert, we were offered a link to a ‘site report’ to explain the problem, but this didn’t always work, either: on several occasions it gave us no information at all.
McAfee’s WebAdvisor browser extension adds other layers and features, including the ability to highlight dangerous sites in your search engine results.
McAfee’s antivirus doesn’t have nearly as many low-level tweaks and options as you might expect. If you’re hoping to fine-tune your protection – for example, deciding when and how to scan archives – you’re likely to be disappointed. But what you do get is much more accessible to non-geeks.
Choose Startup Settings, for instance, and you don’t get to disable or enable individual drivers. There’s just a single checkbox: ‘I want the fastest startup time’. Check this and McAfee stays out of the way until your PC is up and running, for maximum speed; clear it and the program scans for threats as soon as your system starts, for the best security. Simple, straightforward, and there’s absolutely no technical expertise required to understand what’s going on.
Other security tools
McAfee Total Protection is a full-blown security suite, not just an antivirus tool, and that means you get extras. Lots and lots of extras.
The firewall is a highlight. It sets itself up automatically and can safely be left alone, but unlike the antivirus, it gives experienced users all kinds of fine-tuning and configuration settings. You can browse or tweak rules imported from Windows Firewall, open or close ports, configure individual networks, view your firewall history, and more. The program also uses multiple high-level technologies to give the firewall more intelligence, and you can customise them all.
The spam filter has more technical abilities than we expected. It works with POP3, MAPI/ Exchange and webmail accounts. Furthermore, it gives you integrated toolbars for Outlook and Thunderbird. You can apply custom filtering rules, decide how email is processed, and import and manage a Friends List to avoid false alarms. Accuracy was poor in our tests, with the filter blocking only around 25% of junk mails, but the host of settings gives you plenty of room for improvement.
TrueKey is McAfee’s impressive password manager. You can sign in with a password, face, fingerprint, email (click a ‘verify’ link), a second device, even Windows Hello. It’s also possible to enter your existing credentials or import them from other password managers. A Launchpad opens sites with a click, or you can just have the password manager fill in your logons as you go.
There are extensions for Chrome, Firefox, IE, Edge and Safari, as well as mobile apps for iOS and Android, and changes on one device are instantly available on all the others. It’s a capable package, and priced at £20 ($25) a year when bought on its own.
The parental controls module works much like many others. Point the system at a Windows account and you can block web content by type or time, and get reports later on attempts to access dubious domains. It works, but can’t compete with the specialist competition.
There are plenty of smaller tools. The file shredder is simple but effective, allowing you to securely wipe the contents of the Recycle Bin, temporary internet files or whatever files you specify. By default these are overwritten once, but you can increase this level of protection for multiple overwrites if you prefer.
A clever networking module displays a map of connected computers and devices. You can get download links for the software to protect PCs, Macs, iOS or Android devices, and view and manage the devices when they’re installed.
A Vulnerability Scanner checks your system for missing Windows and application updates. It only covers the most common software, but it worked well in our tests, automatically installing some patches and letting us know when we had to install more complicated updates ourselves.
Finally, McAfee QuickClean is a simple clean-up tool for wiping away junk files and histories. It mostly works in the areas you’d expect – cleaning temporary folders, browser cookies – but we also noticed a few surprises, including the ability to delete our Outlook Deleted and Sent items.
McAfee delivered average accuracy in our malware detection tests, but these are too small-scale to give us more than a general idea of the product’s reliability. That’s why we also check how products perform with the big independent testing labs.
AV-Comparatives’ monthly real-world protection tests haven’t been kind to McAfee recently. The first four tests of 2017 have all placed the company in the bottom five (that’s 17th or lower out of 21).
AV-Test’s last Windows home user report used very different tests, but also showed McAfee trailing on protection. It’s not bad – the differences are marginal – but the engine isn’t quite up to the standards set by the competition.
The company does score better elsewhere. AV-Test’s March 2017 Android test found McAfee Mobile Security detected 100% of the test malware, and didn’t raise a single false alarm.
Protection isn’t the only issue: it’s also important that an antivirus package doesn’t hog system resources and slow you down. PassMark’s March 2017 Security Products Performance report used 23 metrics to assess the performance impact of each product. Its final scores placed McAfee Internet Security an impressive third out of fifteen, just behind Norton and ESET.
Assessing performance is difficult, but AV-Comparatives’ May 2017 Performance Test confirms PassMark’s verdict by placing McAfee equal second with Seqrite and Norton, and a fraction behind ESET. Whatever else you can say about McAfee products, they’re not going to slow you down.
McAfee Total Protection has lots of features and an excellent firewall, but its malware protection rates are below average, and there are better antivirus tools around.