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McAfee 2021 antivirus review

McAfee is a bargain for big families, but doesn't provide perfect protection

McAfee 2021 antivirus review
(Image: © McAfee)

Our Verdict

McAfee's 2021 antivirus lineup provides decent malware protection, but some other brands do it better.

For

  • Unlimited VPN service, identity-theft protection
  • New protection against tech-support scams
  • Tight, clean interface

Against

  • Heavy system impact during scans
  • No webcam protection or hardened browser
  • Some features don't work if you turn off auto-renewal
McAfee 2021: Specs

Malware protection: Good
System impact, background: Light
System impact, scans: Heavy
Windows compatibility: 7 through 10
Anti-theft: No
Backup software: No
File encryption: Yes
File shredder: Yes
Firewall: Yes
Game mode: No
Hardened/secure browser: No
Parental controls: Yes
Password manager: Yes
Performance scanner: Yes
Ransomware rollback: Yes
System optimizer: Yes
Webcam protection: No
Virtual keyboard: No
VPN: Yes
Wi-Fi scanner: Yes
Support options: 24/7 phone, chat

With an emphasis on protecting multiple machines on multiple platforms, McAfee's antivirus programs do much more than the minimum. 

They offer good, if not perfect, malware detection, and recently added features such as unlimited virtual private network (VPN) service and identity-theft protection complement the newly streamlined interface.

On the other hand, McAfee uses a lot of system resources during scans and lacks some security features found with other brands, including dedicated webcam protection and a hardened browser for online shopping and banking. 

Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Norton's programs are among the best antivirus suites that offer more features with better malware protection and lighter scans.

One more thing: McAfee's VPN and identity-theft protection, plus its money-back guarantee, are available only if you let your McAfee subscription automatically renew. In other words, you won't get everything you pay for unless you commit ahead of time to paying for it again. 

Read on for the rest of our McAfee review.

McAfee 2021: Costs and what's covered

McAfee has no free antivirus program, but you can try out McAfee Total Protection for 30 days for free.

The product range starts with McAfee AntiVirus, which covers a single Windows PC for $40 per year. It's got dedicated ransomware protection, a file shredder, a system optimizer and a two-way firewall, plus browser extensions for Chrome, Edge and Firefox that warn of unsafe websites, tech-support scams and risky social-media links.

McAfee AntiVirus Plus has the same features but covers up to 10 devices (in our experience, an unlimited number) for $60 per year and includes Mac, iOS and Android software — a bargain for any person or family with many devices. (We have separate reviews of McAfee's Mac and Android programs.)

McAfee Internet Security adds the True Key password manager (also reviewed separately) and an email spam filter. The program costs $60 per year for one device, $80 per year for three and $90 per year to protect 10 systems.

McAfee's flagship Total Protection and LiveSafe programs are similar, but while Total Protection is sold at retail, LiveSafe often comes with new PCs as a trial subscription.

Both include Safe Family parental controls, identity-theft protection (for U.S. customers only) and unlimited access to McAfee's virtual private network (VPN), but you've got to keep the McAfee subscription auto-renewal activated for the last two features. Neither the VPN nor the parental controls work with McAfee's Mac software.

While LiveSafe covers an unlimited number of devices for $120 per year, Total Protection has four different packages.

The $80 yearly Single Device subscription protects one PC but lacks file encryption or identity-theft protection. To get those, you'll need the $100 Individual/Couples package that covers five computers. For $120 per year, the Family plan covers 10 systems and adds Safe Family parental controls; its VPN use is limited to five users.

At the top of the pyramid is McAfee's $160 Total Protection Ultimate subscription, which adds Identity Theft Protection Plus, which includes credit-bureau monitoring and up to $1,000,000 for identity restoration. 

Considering that the best identity-theft protection services costs hundreds per year, this isn't a bad deal. Total Protection Ultimate covers 10 devices but also restricts VPN access to five users.

A stand-alone program, McAfee Gamer Security, costs $60 a year for a single Windows PC and balances online security with all-out performance. It uses McAfee's cloud resources to avoid placing an undue burden on your CPU. Once again, you get the VPN, identity protection and money-back guarantee if you leave the auto-renewal option on.

Like most antivirus software, McAfee products are often available at substantial discounts. Some programs may be easier to find at third-party retailers than on the McAfee website.

McAfee software works with Windows 7 (with Service Pack 1) through Windows 10. (McAfee Gamer Security requires Windows 10 version 1809 or later.) Software for other platforms supports macOS 10.12 through 10.15 and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean or later. McAfee Mobile Security for iPhones and iPads supports iOS 10 or later, but it isn't an antivirus app.

McAfee 2021: Antivirus protection

All five McAfee antivirus products scan for known malware and use cloud computing and machine learning to spot brand-new malware and other dangerous items. Updates for the McAfee malware scanner go out several times daily to the company's 500 million consumer and business users.

To keep McAfee's database current, the malware scanner on your machine will send new potential threats to McAfee servers. The scanner collects data only on threats you encounter and ignores your browsing history, passwords and other personal information, according to McAfee. Some antivirus brands let you opt out of this, but not McAfee. 

McAfee's Ransom Guard looks for suspicious file changes and quickly makes copies of targeted files if it suspects a ransomware attack. Advanced Malware Detection can speed the detection and distribution of a defense to the company's subscribers.

McAfee 2021: Antivirus performance

McAfee's malware-detection rates are generally a half-step behind those of rival brands Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Norton, although they have been improving recently.

In tests conducted by the independent German lab AV-Test in May and June 2020, McAfee's scanner found all known, or "widespread," malware samples thrown at it but detected only 98.8% of the new "zero-day" samples in May. It scored 100% on the June zero-days.

But in the next three bimonthly rounds of tests from July through December 2020, McAfee sailed through with 100% in both categories each time, matching the best. Some other brands that had less-than-perfect results have been getting better as well.

Bitdefender, Kaspersky, Norton, Trend Micro and even Microsoft's Windows Defender had perfect 100% malware-detection scores in all eight months of tests.

Latest test results as of January 2021
Malware detection rates AV-Test zero-day AV-Test widespread AV-Comparatives SE Labs
Bitdefender 100% 100% 99.6% n/a
ESET 100% 100%99.3% n/a
Kaspersky 100% 100%99.7%100%
McAfee 100% 100%98.5%100%
Microsoft 100% 100%99.5%97%
Norton 100% 100%99.5%100%
Sophos100% 100%98.3% 86%
Trend Micro 100% 100%100% 92%

McAfee was a bit short of perfection in Austrian lab AV-Comparatives' most recent tests. It detected an average of 98.5% of online malware in monthly tests from July through October 2020. Among the six other paid antivirus brands were normally review, only Sophos did worse, and that was on the enterprise rather than the consumer tests.

Bitdefender, ESET, Kaspersky, Norton and even Microsoft each scored more than 99%. Trend Micro scored 100% but racked up 63 false positives, indicating that its detection engine might be a little too sensitive.

McAfee got perfect scores in the most recent (October-December 2020) test results from U.K.-based SE Labs, matching only Kaspersky. But whereas the latter had perfect scores all year, McAfee fell short in SE Labs' previous 2020 rounds, letting five pieces of malware infect test systems.

Of the other brands in SE Labs' most recent tests that we review, Norton detected everything but was docked points for false positives and neutralizing rather than blocking one piece of malware. Trend Micro let through two pieces of malware, and Sophos a whopping eight. 

Bitdefender and ESET were not tested. Microsoft, which we review alongside free antivirus software, let one piece of malware infect a system.

McAfee 2021: Security and privacy features

Each of McAfee's products do the protection basics well but lack features many competitors have. The Identity tab in the McAfee software interface consolidates the program's privacy features, including the file shredder, password manager and Tracker Remover, plus a data shredder with three levels of erasure for getting rid of inconvenient or embarrassing files.

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Vulnerability Management looks for old firmware, weak passwords and other potential flaws in your apps and system software. There's also anti-phishing protection and a two-way firewall that replaces the Microsoft one.

McAfee's Home Network Management shows you devices that are connected to your Wi-Fi, identified by IP address. It also can block outsiders trying to burrow into your home LAN. McAfee's App Boost makes programs run faster by reprioritizing system resources, while the Web Boost browser extension for Edge, Chrome and Firefox blocks unrequested downloads.

McAfee Internet Security adds an email filter to stop spam and phishing attempts, while LiveSafe and Total Protection (for five or more devices) add file encryption.

McAfee's True Key password manager comes with Internet Security and all Total Protection and LiveSafe packages. The Safe Connect VPN comes with LiveSafe and the 5-device (or more) versions of Total Protection.

The VPN client software works across all platforms and uses the infrastructure of TunnelBear, a Toronto-based stand-alone VPN service that McAfee owns. It's a good deal considering that a TunnelBear subscription costs $60 a year on its own.

You can connect to servers in two dozen countries. It took 5 seconds for me to connect to a local server in the New York area, although my data speed dropped from 188Mbps to 90Mbps.

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Safe Family parental controls come with LiveSafe and the 10-user version of Total Protection. It filters websites based on a child's age and a personal profile, and also limits screen time, locates children's phones and schedules app blocking. On its own, Safe Family costs $50 a year. 

McAfee's Identity Theft Protection Essentials (ITPE) monitors the dark Web for your personal information. It comes with LiveSafe and the 5- and 10-device Total Protection packs; the top Ultimate Total Protection plan includes Identity Theft Protection Plus, which will reimburse you up to $1,000,000 for the costs of restoring your identity.

McAfee 2021: Performance and system impact

To measure McAfee Total Protection's impact on system performance, we used our custom benchmark test, which clocks how long it takes to match 20,000 names and addresses on a spreadsheet. Our testbed was a Lenovo ThinkPad T470 with a 2.5-GHz Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 250GB of solid-state storage containing 63GB of files.

Prior to McAfee's installation, our test took an average of 10.1 seconds to finish, which we used as our baseline. After we loaded McAfee Total Protection, that completion time rose to 11.0 seconds, an acceptable background performance decline of 8.9%. Bitdefender Total Security had twice the background impact.

However, the benchmark completion time rose to 19.8 seconds during a McAfee full scan and 14.0 seconds during a quick scan. The former is among the biggest performance penalties we've seen caused by antivirus software, representing a decline of 96% from the baseline and 80% from the post-installation score.

System performance impact as of January 2021
System hit Post-installation Full scan Quick scan
Bitdefender 19% 33% 31%
ESET 2%12% n/a
Kaspersky 12% 26% 22%
McAfee 9% 96% 37%
Norton 5% 51% 22%
Sophos 6% 47% n/a
Trend Micro 4% 57% 35%

To put it another way, the CPU performed about half as fast during a McAfee full scan as before McAfee was installed. By comparison, Bitdefender's full scan slowed the system by about a third, and Kaspersky's by only about a quarter.

McAfee's quick scan was still heavy, but not abnormally so, with performance hits of 39% from the baseline and 27% from the background impact.

Fortunately, McAfee's scans are over quickly. After the initial full scan, during which McAfee Total Protection took an hour to index the entire drive's 366,872 files, subsequent full scans took an average of 4 minutes and 5 seconds, about midway between Kaspersky and Bitdefender.

McAfee's quick scan took 1:33 to look at 7,247 files and stayed at roughly that duration regardless of how many times we ran it.

McAfee 2021: Interface

McAfee's latest interface is more efficient than previous versions, consolidating defenses for PC (Antivirus, Firewall, Secure Apps and App Boost), Web (Browser Security, Web Boost, Tracker Remover and Secure VPN) and Identity (Password Manager, File Shredder and File Lock encryption).

There's no overall appraisal of your security status, as you might see with other antivirus brands, but each major section has useful information. The Settings section has so many options that only one-third of them at a time fit on an HD screen.

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McAfee's taskbar icon can update the software, use the VPN, change settings for real-time scanning and the firewall and even connect you to the company's online support website.

McAfee 2021: Installation and support

Installing McAfee Total Protection starts with a trip to the company website or to a third-party retailer. You've got to enter credit-card information or an activation code, then create a McAfee account.

McAfee's auto-renewal policy sets you up to pay for another subscription when the current one expires. It's easy to change this after the software is installed but leaving it on is required to use McAfee's VPN and identity-theft protection features.

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The beachhead installer is only 41.2MB, but it downloads the rest of the files needed for the installation process. When the circular progress gauge is finished, the program puts you on the dashboard page, ready to run a scan.

McAfee's tech support crew works with Twitter and Facebook but won't reply to emails. They do offer 24/7 chat and telephone access 24/7, and there's a deep FAQ library. McAfee guarantees your money back if its software can't clean up your system — but, again, only if you don't turn off the subscription auto-renewal.

McAfee 2021 review: Bottom line

From its basic Antivirus through Internet Security to Total Protection and LiveSafe, McAfee's software and services hit most of the hot buttons for the security-conscious, often at a bargain rate considering how many devices can be covered by a single license.

The only major chinks in McAfee's online armor are the lack of a dedicated defense against webcam hijacking or a hardened browser for online commerce, plus the fact that some other brands detect more malware. It's also a bit stinky that the VPN and identity-theft protection won't work if you turn off subscription auto-renewals.

Overall, McAfee's protections are good, but programs from Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Norton provide more complete coverage and better malware detection.

Updated with new lab-test results. This review was originally published Jan. 22, 2021.