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McAfee 2019 review: Finding the sweet spot

McAfee box art lineup

Updated with some price changes and new lab-test results. This review was originally published Sept. 27, 2018.

A year or two ago, McAfee's malware protection was the worst among the big antivirus brands. But a new malware-scanning engine introduced in mid-2017 changed all that. Now, McAfee's antivirus products are just a hair below the best programs at preventing infections, and their system-performance impact has gotten lighter.

Even McAfee's cheapest antivirus products come with useful optimization tools, such as a file shredder and a vulnerability scanner. McAfee AntiVirus Plus is the sweet spot in the lineup, covering at least 10 PCs, Macs or Android devices for a flat yearly fee of $60, undercutting most competing brands.

The more-expensive McAfee products include new identity-protection features and parental controls. (Parental controls no longer come with the midrange McAfee Internet Security.)

Yet, none of the products includes a hardened web browser, a virtual keyboard or dedicated webcam protection — useful security features that have become commonplace in other brands. If you want those, check out rival products from Bitdefender and Kaspersky, our top choices for best Windows antivirus software.

McAfee costs and what's covered

With five different consumer antivirus products, McAfee's security programs can satisfy many different types of users, from those wanting basic protection for a single system to large families who want all possible features. There are trial versions for each program but no free options.

McAfee's basic AntiVirus program is a PC-only affair for a single system, and it handles the basics for $40 per year. It includes the company's WebAdvisor browser protection, lots of optimization software and a two-way firewall, which is quite a lot for a starter product.

You'll also get 24-hour tech support, although you'll need to call or use the chat window, because the technicians no longer respond to emails.

The company's AntiVirus Plus program costs $60 per year. It's got an license for up to 10 systems — which is a good bargain — and extends coverage to Macs as well as mobile devices running Android and iOS. It adds a system optimizer, spam filters for both webmail and stand-alone email clients, and dedicated ransomware protection.

Next up is McAfee Internet Security, whose subscription prices run from $60 for a single device to $90 for up to 10 devices. Internet Security adds an anti-spam email filter and a single license for the built-in password manager, also available as a stand-alone program called True Key.

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Notably, McAfee Internet Security no longer includes parental controls. Those now come with only the most expensive subscription plans for Total Security and LiveSafe. These new parental controls have more features than McAFee's previous ones, but most other antivirus brands include at least some parental controls with their midrange products.

The McAfee Total Protection and McAfee LiveSafe plans are nearly identical, but the former is available at retail stores, while the latter usually comes preloaded on a computer as a trial version, which can later be extended for a price.

Both products' yearly subscriptions are available for one device for $70, three devices for $80 and five devices for $90. For $110 per year, you can get Total Protection for 10 devices or LiveSafe for an unlimited number of devices.

But while the one- and three-device plans add only file encryption, the five-device plans toss in a new identity-theft-protection feature as well, and the most expensive plans add McAfee's Safe Family parental controls. (The backup software that once came with Total Protection, as well as the encrypted online storage that came with LiveSafe, are both gone.)

One unspoken bonus: The 10-device licenses for McAfee AntiVirus Plus, Internet Security and Total Security have actually been for an unlimited number of devices in past years, and that policy hasn't changed as far as we know.

All the McAfee antivirus programs support Windows 7 through 10. The multiplatform programs also support macOS 10.12 Sierra and later, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and later, and iOS 10 and later.

McAfee AntiVirusMcAfee AntiVirus PlusMcAfee Internet SecurityMcAfee Total ProtectionMcAfee LiveSafe
List price per year$40, 1 PC$60, 10+ devices*$60-$90, 1-10+ devices*$70-$110, 1-10+ devices*$70-$110, 1-unlimited devices
Windows support7 thru 107 thru 107 thru 107 thru 107 thru 10
Bundled platformsNoneMac, Android, iOSMac, Android, iOSMac, Android, iOSMac, Android, iOS
Tech support24/724/724/724/724/7
Browser plug-insYesYesYesYesYes
File shredderYesYesYesYesYes
Game modeYesYesYesYesYes
System optimizerYesYesYesYesYes
Two-way firewallYesYesYesYesYes
Ransomware protectionNoYesYes
Password managerNoNoYes (1 license)Yes (1-5 licenses)Yes (5 licenses)
File encryptionNoNoNoYesYes
Identity protectionNoNoNoYes (5-device license and up)Yes (5-device license and up)
Parental controlsNoNoNoYes (10-device license only)Yes (unlimited license only)

Antivirus protection

McAfee's malware protection starts with a file scanner that seeks to match files with known malware "signatures." At the same time, heuristic analysis monitors file behavior, examines code and runs unknown programs in "sandboxes" to see what the programs do.

Anything that appears dangerous gets uploaded to McAfee's lab for analysis. McAfee sends newly generated malware signatures back down to its 465 million users several times a day.

McAfee AntiVirus Plus, Internet Security, Total Protection and LiveSafe include Ransom Guard, which copies files under attack if it detects encrypting ransomware activity. Once the program has foiled the attack, Ransom Guard rolls back the files to their original contents.

If you've already suffered a ransomware attack, McAfee can help you try to decrypt your files with the No More Ransom site. The website includes keys for removing more than 70 widely distributed ransomware strains, such as Amnesia and Cry128.

If McAfee's malware protection gets too intrusive, you can use the product's gaming mode, which can automatically turn off active scans and notifications when you start playing a PC game.

You can start a Full or Quick Scan with two clicks from the McAfee antivirus main interface window. You can also right-click any file in Windows Explorer to scan it.

Two caveats: Unlike most antivirus software, McAfee's products won't let you opt out of the automatic data collection that uploads usage and software data about your PC to better detect new malware. Furthermore, there's no McAfee downloadable software to create a system-rescue disk or USB drive. (You can get that for free from other antivirus makers.)

Antivirus performance

All of McAfee's Windows antivirus products use the same technology to ferret out malware. The core protection has improved a lot since mid-2017 and is now among the best in the business.

In tests conducted at our Utah lab between February and June 2018, McAfee Total Protection scored a perfect 100 percent, catching everything we threw at it. This ties Trend Micro Antivirus + Security; McAfee also bested Bitdefender Antivirus Plus (99 percent) and Kaspersky Anti-Virus (98 percent).

Results from German testing lab AV-Test did not quite mirror our own lab's results. McAfee Internet Security stopped 100 percent of widespread malware, detectable by signature scanning, on Windows 7 and Windows 10 systems in all tests in 2018 and in the first four months of 2019.

But McAfee's success rate against previously unseen "zero-day" malware, which must be detected by heuristic monitoring, was short of 100 percent in four of those 16 months.

We wouldn't be very concerned if the detection rate dipped to 99.9 or 99.8 percent, but McAfee mustered only 99.2 percent scores against zero-day malware on Windows 7 in January 2018 and Windows 10 in March 2019, 98.9 percent on Windows 10 in April 2018 and 98.6 percent on Windows 10 in October 2018. Those scores were below the averages of all antivirus products tested in those months and are even a bit below  those of Microsoft's free antivirus software.

Other big antivirus brands — Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Norton and Trend Micro — were ahead of McAfee, with Kaspersky and Norton enjoying faultless 100 percent scores across the board throughout all 16 months and the other two dipping below 100 percent only once each. On the bright side for McAfee, it had just two false positives the whole time, tying Kaspersky for the least.

McAfee was a bit behind Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Trend Micro, and a bit ahead of Norton, on tests conducted between July and November 2018 by Austrian lab AV-Comparatives. That company's test exposes antivirus products to the latest online malware. McAfee Internet Security averaged a 99.4 detection rate, with a high of 100 percent and a low of 98.5 percent; it garnered 16 false positives over those six months.

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The October-through-December 2018 results from SE Labs, based outside London, put McAfee behind Kaspersky, ESET, Norton and Trend Micro; Bitdefender did not participate in that round. McAfee detected 100 percent of malicious code but nevertheless allowed system compromise by five targeted attacks; only Kaspersky and Microsoft scored 100 percent. (In SE Labs' previous round, McAfee let through 14 targeted attacks.)

Security and privacy features

Even the basic AntiVirus and AntiVirus Plus products get quite a lot of extra features, all of which they share with the four more-expensive programs.

There's McAfee's WebAdvisor (formerly SiteAdvisor) service, which blocks phishing attempts, corrects mistyped URLs and scans potentially dangerous downloads. WebAdvisor (which anyone can get for free) works with the Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers, as well as Microsoft's Edge browser on Windows 10, version 1709 (Fall Creators Update) or later.

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McAfee's PC Boost system-optimization tools can divert system resources to foreground applications, stop background videos, "shred" sensitive files and make sure you have the latest software updates. A two-way firewall checks data leaving the system as well as data trying to enter the system.

McAfee Internet Security provides a single license for the McAfee password manager. McAfee Total Protection comes with from one to five password-manager licenses, depending up the subscription plan, while LiveSafe gets five licenses.

McAfee's Safe Family parental controls come with the 10-device Total Protection plan and the unlimited LiveSafe plan. Like those plans, Safe Family costs $100 a year on its own. It can schedule kids' screen time, block URLs, track the locations of the kids (or at least their phones) and block specific mobile apps.

All Total Security and LiveSafe plans get the File Lock encryption software. But McAfee has discontinued both the backup software that once came with Total Security and the single gigabyte of online backup space that came with LiveSafe.

For 2019, McAfee has tossed in an identity-protection service with the five-, 10- and unlimited-device Total Protection and LiveSafe plans. It's a "white label" variant of Experian's IdentityWorks service, which starts at $10 per month on its own.

However, all the McAfee products still lack protection features that have become commonplace in other antivirus products. There's no hardened browser for online shopping and banking, no on-screen keyboard to avoid keylogging software, and no webcam protection to avoid peeping Toms.

Performance and system impact

To measure the 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 20,000 addresses in an OpenOffice spreadsheet. Our test bed was an Asus X555LA notebook running Windows 10 with a 2GHz Core i3 processor, 6GB of RAM and 117GB of files on a 500GB hard drive.

Prior to the installation of Total Protection, our test system took an average of 6 minutes and 51 seconds to complete the OpenOffice name-matching routine. This time rose to 7:48 with Total Protection installed but not scanning, a passive performance decline of nearly 14 percent.

That's a bit more than found with the latest version of Kaspersky Total Security, which saw a performance hit of about 12 percent, and much more than the 8 percent performance decline we saw with Bitdefender Total Security.

McAfee's full active scan took a relatively small toll on performance, letting our OpenOffice benchmark finish in an average of 7:57, a performance decline of 16 percent from the preinstallation baseline. That's a bit better than Bitdefender's result and much better than Kaspersky's 21 percent full-scan performance hit.

McAfee's quick scans did even better, with an average 7:46 OpenOffice completion time, which was indistinguishable from the post-installation passive background impact. To be fair, Bitdefender's quick-scan performance hit was also the same as its background load.

The McAfee program's first full scan seemed interminable, taking 1 hour 22 minutes and 49 seconds to examine 225,053 files on our machine's hard drive. Happily for us, this sped up to 47 minutes on the second and third scans, after McAfee's scanner learned what to concentrate on. (Scan times will vary according to system configuration.)

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A quick scan of the most-important threats took only 34 seconds and looked at 6,219 files. But both that and the full scan were well behind Bitdefender's 7.2-second quick scan and 32:08 full scan.


McAfee's interface has a brighter and sharper look for 2019. Everything you need is in your face, and a green check mark in the upper left tells you everything is safe and secure.

The front page also lets you add McAfee protection to other computers, and there's a large section reminding you to set up the password manager, automatic software updates and other items.

Separate tabs take you to PC Security (scan settings, scan scheduling and firewall), PC Performance (optimization tools), My Privacy (antispam and file encryption) and My Info (account and product data).

The Settings pullout menu provides a backdoor into the program, and there are so many options that it requires some scrolling to take them all in.

Finally, the program Task Tray icon provides another way to work with Total Protection, with links for updating the program, starting a scan and getting help.

At the heart of Total Protection is McAfee's online account portal. Once you log in, it shows your current products, when they expire and which computers are protected. On the downside, it's a long, narrow strip that can be hard to navigate.

Installation and support

Installing McAfee Total Protection started with a 35MB installer program that led to a license-approval screen and a quickie system check for any lingering malware. Then, the rest of Total Protection flowed into the system, automatically installed itself and checked for updates. All told, the process took nearly 19 minutes — a long time compared to Bitdefender Total Security (8 minutes) and Kaspersky Total Security (a bit more than 5 minutes).

At the end, the installation process demands that you to sign up for auto-renewal with a credit card, which is good for the absentminded (like us) but bad for cheapskates (also like us). Once the program is fully setup, you can turn auto-renewal off, but it's an annoying three-step process that's harder than it needs to be.

The 2019 versions of McAfee's products no longer let you email questions or problems to the company's tech-support personnel. You'll need to restrict your interactions to phone calls or chat, but the technicians are available 24/7. If you don't want to be put on hold, check out the online resources: guided solutions, a virtual assistant app, community forums and a deep knowledge base.

McAfee stands behind its paid products with a guarantee to keep your system malware-free. Should you get a nasty infection, McAfee support technicians will set up a remote connection to fix the problem. If that doesn't work, they'll refund your money.

Bottom line

McAfee's antivirus products do their jobs well, from protecting against infection to providing a useful set of system-optimization tools. And the second-tier product, McAfee AntiVirus Plus, is one of the better bargains of the industry, covering 10 (or more) devices on multiple platforms for a very reasonable price.

We also like that the top-shelf products, Total Protection and LiveSafe, tossed in identity protection for their priciest plans. But for all those subscription fees, you should be able to get a hardened browser and webcam protection as well.

Credit: Tom's Guide