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McAfee 2020 antivirus review: Good but not perfect

McAfee's antivirus software offers attractive pricing offset by so-so malware protection

McAfee antivirus products on computers, smartphones and tablets.
(Image: © McAfee)

Our Verdict

McAfee Antivirus Plus, McAfee Internet Security, McAfee Total Protection and McAfee LiveSafe are great deals for anyone with lots of devices to protect, but the company's malware protection could be better.

For

  • Top suite includes unlimited VPN
  • Identity protection comes with pricier products
  • Generous device-installation policy

Against

  • Good but not great malware detection
  • Lacks several common device protections
  • No parental controls in midrange package

There's something in McAfee's 2020 Windows antivirus lineup for everyone. From the basic McAfee Antivirus Plus to the superpremium McAfee Total Protection + VPN, each of McAfee's five products uses the same core malware-detection technology. They differ in price and in how many features they have, such as a password manager, parental-control software, unlimited VPN service or identity protection.

McAfee's generous installation policy makes its antivirus products attractive to individuals or families with many devices to protect. Still, McAfee's malware protection is a rung below those of the best antivirus software makers, and its security suites do without dedicated webcam and microphone protections, or a hardened browser for online banking and shopping.

Kaspersky's security software has those features while providing better protection. Bitdefender's protection is a hair short of Kaspersky's, but its security suites are feature-rich and have a small performance impact. Norton's packages are pricey but combine excellent malware detection, unlimited VPN service and LifeLock identity protection.

McAfee 2020 costs, and what's covered

The entry-level McAfee Antivirus Plus protects PCs, Macs and Android devices. It has a two-way firewall, a system optimizer, dedicated ransomware protection, McAfee's WebAdvisor browser extensions, file shredding and a new cryptojacking defense. At $60 for up to 10 devices, it's one of the best bargains among entry-level security suites. 

McAfee Internet Security adds a license for the True Key password manager and protection against spam. But it doesn't include built-in parental controls, which most other brands offer in this midrange product category. A 10-device subscription costs $90, although McAfee tells us it won't enforce that limit for home users.

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The premium McAfee Total Protection and McAfee LiveSafe share many features, including Identity Theft Protection Essentials and, finally, Safe Family parental controls. Total Protection is sold through retail channels while LiveSafe comes preloaded on new computers. (If you want file encryption, Total Protection is the way to go.)

LiveSafe and Total Protection each cost $70 for one computer, $90 for five and $110 for 10 devices, but the one-packs lack ID protection, while the 10-license subscriptions include five user licenses for the True Key password manager.

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At the high end is the superpremium Total Protection + VPN, which adds unlimited access to the company's Safe Connect VPN service. The $120 package can be installed on up to 10 devices but allows only five simultaneous VPN sessions.

Each of these McAfee security products is compatible with Windows 7 (with SP1) through Windows 10, macOS 10.12, Android 4.1 and iOS 10.0. They also support Android Wear smartwatches and Apple Watch.

The recently added McAfee Gamer Security program offers low-overhead protection for $60 for a single Windows 10 PC. We plan to review that product separately.

Antivirus protection

In addition to stopping viruses, worms, trojans and rootkits, McAfee defends against cryptojacking software that uses your computer to mine cryptocurrencies. All the McAfee packages in the U.S. and Australia also include Ransom Guard, which races to copy files under ransomware attack before they can be encrypted. (A new version will be rolled out worldwide in 2020.)

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You can start a full or quick scan in two clicks from the home screen; you can also right-click on any file in Windows Explorer to scan it alone. McAfee's 2020 products have a gaming mode to silence alerts and stop updates while you're otherwise engaged.

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Yet none of the McAfee security suites has dedicated webcam or microphone protection to stop snoops. And if your system gets overwhelmed by malware, you'll need to use another antivirus maker's system-rescue disk, as McAfee doesn't offer one to consumers.

Antivirus performance

McAfee's Windows malware engine is better at detecting known malware threats than detecting new ones. In recent evaluations of more than a dozen antivirus products by the German independent lab AV-Test, McAfee's protection was a step down from Kaspersky, Norton and Trend Micro.

McAfee detected 100 percent of widespread, well-known malware in all 10 monthly tests from January through October 2019. But its detection rate of brand-new "zero-day" malware was far from perfect, scoring as low as 97.0% (below the industry average) and hitting 100% only four times over the course of those same tests.

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That's well short of the flawless pace set by Kaspersky and Norton's detection engines, each of which detected 100% of all widespread and zero-day malware in those same tests. Bitdefender, Trend Micro and even Microsoft's built-in Windows Defender missed the 100% mark less often than McAfee.

Along the way, McAfee had two false positives, while Bitdefender had 15, Microsoft 12, Norton had five, Trend Micro three and Kaspersky two.

Austrian lab AV-Comparatives tends to catch more false positives, and McAfee racked up 20 in the lab's tests from February through October 2019. That's fewer than Trend Micro's 32 and Norton's 28, but far more than Bitdefender's four or Kaspersky's zero. (Microsoft got 132.)

Not much separates the front from the back of the pack in AV-Comparatives' malware-detection tests, and McAfee performed respectably well, averaging 99.2% in the February through May tests and 99.4% in the July-October tests.

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That's a bit behind Bitdefender, Microsoft and Trend Micro, all of which scored higher in the 99th percentile. Kaspersky averaged 100% in the first round but 99.1% in the second; Norton averaged 99.6% and 100%, respectively. Only free-software maker Avira consistently averaged 100%.

London-based SE Labs accounts for how antivirus software handles malware after detection, and McAfee didn't do so well in the lab's October-December 2019 round. It got a protection rating of only 90% after letting four (of 100) pieces of malware infect the test machine, failing to detect two of those, and neutralizing instead of removing two others. However, McAfee had no false positives, giving it an overall score of 97%.

Kaspersky once again got 100% all around; Norton got a 99% protection score and 100% overall; Microsoft missed two pieces of malware and Trend Micro got dinged for false positives, but both ended up with 98% overall scores. (Bitdefender was not tested.)

Security and privacy features

All McAfee security products offer a lot of privacy protection, including a competent data shredder with four levels of elimination. They all also have McAfee's Vulnerability Scanner, which looks for password weaknesses, unpatched programs and other potential tunnels into your system. It took Vulnerability Scanner 20 seconds to check our testing laptop and found no problems.

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McAfee offers three performance optimizers. App Boost finds ways to speed up your applications; Web Boost balances the playing of online videos with overall performance and battery life; QuickClean tidies up temp and Registry files, and file fragments and shortcuts as well.

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McAfee's two-way firewall supplants the one built into Windows, and you can add your own rules. McAfee's My Home Network Manager can find holes in your Wi-Fi network's security. The 2020 lineup also comes with WebAdvisor browser extensions for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Edge to warn of dangerous websites.

Total Protection + VPN includes unlimited access to McAfee's Safe Connect VPN, which uses TunnelBear's infrastructure and software, supports Windows, macOS, Android and iOS, and has servers in 22 countries. As a yearly TunnelBear subscription costs $60 on its own, the additional $10 you'll pay to add VPN to a 10-license Total Protection plan is a bargain.

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McAfee's Safe Family parental-control software comes with the five- and 10-license plans for Total Protection and LiveSafe, but it requires a separate download and installation. It costs $50 a year (or $8 a month) on its own and can filter out objectionable and dangerous websites, schedule screen time, allow for family breaks, track and stop app purchases and locate family members — or at least their phones — on a map.

McAfee's Identity Theft Protection Essentials, available with Total Protection, LiveSafe and Total Protection + VPN, is built on Experian's IdentityWorks. It scans the web for your name and other personal data (like your Social Security number), keeps an eye on misuse of your social media profile and includes $100,000 of insurance coverage to help recover your identity and lost funds. We haven't reviewed it, but its features match up well with those of the best identity protection services.

Performance and system impact

To measure the system impact of using McAfee Total Protection, we used our custom benchmark test, which measures how long the CPU takes to match 20,000 names and addresses in an Excel spreadsheet. Our test bed was a Lenovo ThinkPad T470 with a 2.5-GHz Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 250GB of solid-state storage containing 43.3GB of files.

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Before we loaded any software, the ThinkPad registered a 7.8-second baseline score on the Excel test. That completion time rose to 8.2 seconds after McAfee Total Protection was installed but before any active scanning took place — an acceptable 5.1% background performance decline.

McAfee Total Protection exacted a moderate system hit during active scans. While we ran a full Scan, the ThinkPad's CPU took an average of 11.0 seconds to finish the benchmark, a 41% decline from the baseline. Quick Scans caused a 36% performance hit.

We wouldn't want such slowdowns while using a PC, but McAfee was actually less taxing than half of six antivirus products we recently tested. Only Bitdefender, with an 18% system impact during full scans, and ESET, with 22%, performed better. Kaspersky was the worst, with a 67% impact.

McAfee's first full scan took nearly 43 minutes to look at 281,180 files, but scan times dropped to an average of 5 and a half minutes as the software learned what to ignore. That's slow compared with Trend Micro Maximum Security's final full scan of 1:13, but McAfee looked at more files. McAfee's Quick Scan churned through the test system in 26.3 seconds, making it the speed demon of premium security suites.

Interface

The McAfee home screen displays a prominent white circle and green check mark to show you everything is safe. You can update the virus definitions and use the password manager right from the home screen.  

The interface is the master of context sensitivity. As you scroll through the major category tabs across the top, a left column shows different choices and a bottom row shows important features.

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The settings link leads to a long list of items you can turn on and off, affording a lot of customizability. McAfee's System Tray icon has links for updates, scanning, settings and checking on your subscription, plus a link to your McAfee online account.

Installation and support

Installation begins with McAfee's 41MB starter file. After you agree to the license terms, a quick scan runs, and then the program downloads its other components. All told, it took a little more than 10 minutes to install Total Protection on our ThinkPad.

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McAfee doesn't offer tech support via email, but there are technicians ready to talk to you 24/7 via phone or chat window. The McAfee site has lots of self-help items, and the company offers a money-back guarantee if its software can't clean up your system.

Bottom line

McAfee's five antivirus suites for 2020 protect all types of computers from online assault, shred inconvenient files and defend against cryptojacking. But they lack the hardened browser and webcam protection that Bitdefender has, and the basic antivirus protections aren’t as good as those from Kaspersky or Norton. Still, the flagship Total Protection + VPN includes a lot of protection and features for the money.