UPDATED with most recent malware-detection test results. This review was originally published Oct. 10, 2019.
McAfee Mobile Security offers an abundance of free features and a paid tier that removes the ads from the app. Unfortunately, unlike the similar Avast Mobile Security, the paid tier is pretty expensive compared to other best Android antivirus apps.
While McAfee has earned decent malware-protection scores in lab tests over the last couple of years, it hasn't matched the consistency of Bitdefender Mobile Security or Norton Mobile Security. Those cost, respectively, half as much and the same price as McAfee's Premium tier.
Unless you are specifically swayed by the extras found in McAfee, or are willing to put up with the ads and go with the free version of the app, this app is going to be a tough sell for most people.
McAfee Mobile Security costs and what's covered
As with almost all the antivirus products I tested, McAfee Mobile Security relies on a freemium marketing model. McAfee offers a remarkably robust free tier that includes features like anti-theft and Wi-Fi security that are more typically restricted to paid tiers.
Upgrading to the lowest-cost paid service isn't cheap, at $29.99 per year or $2.99 a month. That gets you safe web browsing, guest mode, app locking, phone support and freedom from in-app ads.
The next step up brings a built-in unlimited VPN service, but the price jumps all the way to $79.99 a year or $9.99 a month. You should absolutely look at stand-alone VPN options before going with this offering from McAfee.
As with most of the other apps I tested, there are corresponding desktop antivirus products from the same brand, and the value for multiple devices is more in line with the rest of the market.
McAfee AntiVirus Plus covers Windows, macOS, iOS and Android devices for $59.99 per year for 10 (in practice, unlimited) devices, and new subscribers could get this package for as low as $24.99 when I wrote this review. Pricier McAfee packages get you more bells and whistles, but with any of them you'll get access to some of the best Mac antivirus software and best antivirus software overall.
A Deep Scan of my Google Pixel 3 phone with McAfee took approximately 3 seconds. Beyond being impressive, this made me wonder if anything was actually happening. But as you'll see, the app does have a good malware-detection rate.
McAfee's web protection is available only to Premium subscribers, and it supports a handful of widely used browsers, including Chrome, Samsung Internet, Opera Mini and Firefox. Attempting to visit a malicious test website produced a warning in all supported browsers, with the options to either Keep Me Safe by navigating away from the site, or Open Anyway.
In third-party lab tests of malware-detection rates, McAfee usually does very well, but its results are sometimes erratic and generally fall just a bit below the very best.
In the most recent evaluations conducted by German lab AV-TEST, in July 2019, McAfee detected 99.9% of 3,347 "real-time" threats encountered online and 100% of 3,433 "widespread" Android malware samples collected in the previous four weeks.
Google Play Protect lagged far behind, with terrible detection rates of 44.1% of real-time malware and 54.7% of widespread malware, the lowest scores of July. (The other two apps that I reviewed in 2019, Qihoo 360 Security and Lookout Security & Antivirus, no longer submit samples to AV-TEST for evaluation.)
Most of the apps have pretty consistent scores from one testing round to the next, but McAfee is an exception. It scored 100/100 in May 2019, which is great, but in March 2019, it detected only 99.5% real-time malware and 99.1% of widespread malware.
That was still a bit ahead of the industry average for the 19 apps tested in March: 97.8% for real-time and 98.2% for widespread malware. But if you remove Google Play Protect's abysmal results, the March averages bump up to 99.7%/99.9%, and McAfee fell quite a bit under those numbers.
In-depth evaluations conducted by Austrian lab AV-Comparatives in July 2019 saw McAfee Mobile Security detecting 99.9% of real-time malware, matching the detection rates of Avast, Bitdefender and Kaspersky. Google Play Protect got 83.2%; Lookout, Norton and Qihoo 360 Security were not tested.
Free security features and tools
McAfee Mobile Security has a solid collection of anti-theft features, even for users of the free version, with support for remotely triggering an alarm, locking your device, locating the device, taking a picture with the Thief Cam, wiping your data and performing a full factory reset.
I tested all the features other than wiping and factory-resetting my device, and they worked within 3-5 seconds of my issuing the command via the web portal at mcafeemobilesecurity.com.
The portal is simple but nicely done, with a full-page map and a small overlay bearing icons for the various available options available. McAfee has a unique take on the thief cam: Rather than trying to capture a photo without the unauthorized user noticing, it creates a fake alert on the device and snaps a photo when the person taps to dismiss it.
Unfortunately, a few previous, useful features were casualties of recent changes in Google Play store policies. At the time of this review, the abilities to create a custom lock message; track the removal of your SIM card; and back up, wipe or restore call logs and text messages are all unavailable. McAfee is working with Google to try to bring them back, but there is no timeline for their return.
I'm never sold on these supposed performance enhancers. Operating systems do a pretty good job handling these things on their own. At least in my experience, McAfee's memory booster cleared out a negligible amount of memory, which would typically fill up again in short order.
Like the Bitdefender and Kaspersky antivirus apps, McAfee's can interact with a Wear OS smartwatch. McAfee's app can let you know when the watch gets out of Bluetooth range of the phone, and also notify you of an insecure Wi-Fi network or when the phone's battery gets low.
This feature is like a less-well-implemented version of the Privacy Report on Norton Mobile Security. It feeds you information about any app that you could also find in the app-settings menu of your device. McAfee does sort your apps by level of privacy concern and, at a certain threshold, puts them into a separate tab labeled Privacy Alerts.
This feature scans the Wi-Fi network to which you are connected to see if it lacks a password or encryption. Safe Wi-Fi also will report if your Wi-Fi connection has been hijacked, but I was unable to test that feature.
Unlike with Memory Boost, I think there is validity to a storage cleaner, as I'm regularly forgetting about some movie, show or podcast I downloaded that could easily be cleared off my device. Obviously, you can do this yourself, but it is convenient to see all the potential trash in one place and to clear it all away in just a few clicks.
Premium security features and tools
An increasingly common and useful feature among Android antivirus apps, this lets you create a secondary level of security using a PIN or your fingerprint to lock specific apps. You can use this for apps that you really don't want someone else to access should you hand them your device unlocked.
The user interface in McAfee's app lock is a bit of a mess, with too many tabs and odd alignment issues, but the feature works just fine.
This subset of App Lock is quite a useful addition, as it allows you to create a Guest account and select which apps that account can access. Rather than always having certain apps locked in case you hand your device over to someone else, this feature allows you to just quickly enable the guest mode when necessary.
Again, I strongly recommend that you look into stand-alone VPN options rather than paying $50 a year to upgrade to this built-in option with McAfee, but I didn't have any issues with the actual functionality. I had no significant slowdowns on my Wi-Fi speeds while using the VPN.
VPN Guard lets you choose from a number of server locations across the globe, although there is just one option for the U.S. You can choose to automatically connect to your VPN when on Wi-Fi or cellular data, but you can also flag trusted networks that won't trigger your VPN.
To evaluate the impact of running McAfee Mobile Security on my device, I conducted multiple tests using the Geekbench 4 Android benchmarking tool on my Google Pixel 3 phone running Android 9.0 Pie. I first established a baseline performance for the device before McAfee was installed, then ran additional tests following installation and during a full scan with the antivirus app.
With McAfee Mobile Security installed but not actively scanning, I saw a 5.32% decrease in the baseline Geekbench 4 score. There was a slightly greater performance decrease, of 8.19%, during a full scan.
This was only good enough for seventh out of eight apps in the passive category and fifth out of eight in the active category. However, in both cases McAfee's results were not far from the apps just above it in the rankings and well ahead of showings from the last-place entry, 360 Security.
Setup and support
McAfee has one of the most straightforward setup processes of all Android antivirus apps. It shows you a screen of all the permissions that you will need to grant, along with an explanation of why each is necessary. I was done setting the app up in less than 2 minutes.
Unlike many of the free options, McAfee actually offers online chat support 24/7, along with the McAfee support forums and knowledge center. Premium subscribers gain 24/7 phone support.
The user interface for McAfee Mobile Security reminded me quite a bit of Avast Mobile Security. In both, a large box dedicated to malware scanning dominates at the top of the screen, with access to four other primary functions below it. Both are quite a bit more convoluted in the ad-supported free versions, due to the large ads and constant prompts to upgrade.
As you dive deeper into the McAfee app, you definitely hit some more outdated-looking screens. App Lock is one such example, with a tabbed interface that doesn't seem to line up quite right, but even these screens remain intuitive.
One nice thing McAfee does is place little question-mark icons next to most features. Click on one, and you'll get a reasonably thorough explanation of what that feature does.
McAfee has a few clever ideas, like the Guest Mode and some of its anti-theft features, and a refreshingly simple setup process. But unless you are willing to put up with ads to stick with the free version, there's simply no reason to opt for McAfee Mobile Security over Bitdefender Mobile Security or Norton Mobile Security as a paid solution among the best Android antivirus apps.