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McAfee 2020 review

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.


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


  • 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. It's just below the top rung of the best antivirus programs.

Read on for the rest of our McAfee 2020 review.

UPDATED with the latest third-party lab-test results. This review was originally published Feb. 3, 2020.

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 if you're paying for the priciest options. 

Total Protection is sold through retail channels as well as the McAfee website, while LiveSafe comes preloaded on new computers but also can be bought directly from the McAfee website.

Total Protection comes in four flavors: $75 for one computer, $100 for five devices, $120 for 10 devices plus parental controls, and $140 for an unlimited number of devices plus identity-theft protection and unlimited VPN usage for five devices.

If you let McAfee renew your annual subscription automatically, then you can get the VPN with the cheaper Total Protection plans as well, plus a limited set of identity-protection features with the five- and 10-device plans.

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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.

McAfee 2020: 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.

McAfee 2020: Antivirus performance

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

McAfee detected 100 percent of widespread, well-known malware in all 20 monthly tests from January 2019 through August 2020. But its detection rate of brand-new "zero-day" malware was far from perfect, scoring as low as 95.4% (below the industry average) and hitting 100% only seven times over the course of those same 20 tests.

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

Along the way, McAfee had five false positives, while Bitdefender had 28, Microsoft 20, Norton six, Trend Micro six and Kaspersky three.

Austrian lab AV-Comparatives tends to catch more false positives, and McAfee racked up 8 in the lab's tests from February through May 2020. That's fewer than Trend Micro's 32 and Norton's 27, but far more than Bitdefender's two or Kaspersky's zero. (Microsoft got 6.)

Not much separates the front from the back of the pack in AV-Comparatives' malware-detection tests, and McAfee performed respectably well, averaging 98.9% in the February through May tests.

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That's a bit behind Bitdefender, Kaspersky, Microsoft and Trend Micro, all of which scored in the 99th percentile. Norton and Trend Micro each got 100%, at the cost of those aforementioned high false-positive rates. 

London-based SE Labs accounts for how antivirus software handles malware after detection, and McAfee didn't do so well in the lab's January-March 2020 round. It got a protection rating of only 93% after letting three (of 100) pieces of malware infect the test machine. However, McAfee had only one false positive, giving it an overall score of 97%.

McAfee did better in SE Labs' April-June 2020 round, blocking 99% of malware and neutralizing the remaining 1%. It did get two false positives. By comparison, Kaspersky got perfect scores in both rounds.

McAfee 2020: 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 theft protection services.

McAfee 2020: 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.

McAfee 2020: 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.

McAfee 2020: 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.

McAfee 2020 review: 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.