[Editor's Note: This review was updated in February 2018 to reflect McAfee's improved performance in third-party lab tests. It was originally published Oct. 10, 2017.]
McAfee's 2018 Windows antivirus lineup can cover all the devices of a large family. All of the company's products come with a file shredder, many have an excellent password manager, and the top end offers backup software. Many of the products can be installed on up to 10, and perhaps more, devices using a single license.
On the downside, McAfee's antivirus software won't let you opt out of system-data collection, and it uses an excessive amount of system resources.
However, its malware protection has benefited from a new detection engine that debuted midway through 2017 and has boosted McAfee's performance in third-party lab tests, at least on Windows 10. If the upcoming Windows 7 results are as good, McAfee's rejuvenated malware-stopping power will put it in the top league of antivirus products.
Even then, we'll still recommend Bitdefender, Kaspersky Lab or Norton antivirus software over McAfee's because of their excellent malware detection and low system impact. But McAfee's generous per-machine pricing might make it the most affordable option for households with several PCs to protect.
Costs and What's Covered
McAfee Antivirus Basic ($39.99 per year for one PC) has a file shredder, a two-way firewall, anti-phishing protection and protective browser extensions.
McAfee Antivirus Plus ($59.99 for up to 10 devices) includes licenses for McAfee's Mac, iOS and Android software as well as for Apple and Android Wear digital watches. (The iOS devices won't get antivirus protection; this article explains why not.)
Next up is McAfee Internet Security, which adds parental controls, the excellent True Key password manager and antispam protection. The package costs $89.99 per year for up to 10 devices.
At the top of the pyramid are two nearly identical products, McAfee Total Protection and McAfee LiveSafe. Total Protection provides local-backup software and file encryption. LiveSafe features 1GB of encrypted online storage on McAfee's servers.
Total Protection costs $59.99 for one device, $89.99 for five and $99.99 for 10, while LiveSafe usually comes installed on a new PC and costs $99.99 a year to renew.
All these programs are often heavily discounted online. For example, you can probably get McAfee Total Protection for $50 a year. On its own site, McAfee sells only Total Protection and LiveSafe, but you'll find the other three products at third-party retailers both online and offline.
The 10-seat licenses for Antivirus Plus, Internet Security and Total Protection are actually unlimited and an excellent value for individuals or families with many devices. Each program has a free 30-day trial period and a money-back guarantee.
The McAfee 2018 lineup works with Windows 7 through 10. The cross-platform bundles add support for Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan or later, Android 4.1 KitKat or later and iOS 9 or later. They also work with Apple and Android Wear smartwatches.
McAfee's defenses check suspect code against a database of known malware signatures, which is updated several times per day. Behavioral monitoring and reputation analysis are used to catch brand-new malware.
Suspect software is uploaded to McAfee's Threat Center, which analyzes it and, if appropriate, adds it to the malware-signature database. There's no way to avoid participating in this data-collection program. (Most other antivirus brands let you opt out.)
All of McAfee's paid products include Web Advisor browser extensions, which put red dots next to dangerous search results and yellow dots next to suspicious ones; green ones are safe to use. Web Advisor supports Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Safari, but not Opera or Edge.
McAfee's scanning engine looks at every file being opened, but you can exclude files from its scrutiny. A gaming mode automatically engages when you go full screen to battle aliens or watch movies.
All five McAfee malware products use the same malware-scanning engine, which replaced an earlier, less efficient engine in May 2017. Since then, McAfee's malware-detection rate in third-party lab tests has drastically improved.
In the most recent Windows 10 evaluations conducted by the German lab AV-TEST, in November and December 2017, McAfee Internet Security had a nearly perfect score. It stopped 100 percent of both widespread, signature-defined malware and previously unseen, zero-day malware in two rounds of tests. McAfee also registered only one false positive, or benign piece of software flagged as malicious, over both months.
Two rival products, Norton Security and Trend Micro Internet Security, beat McAfee by detecting all malware without any false positives. Bitdefender Internet Security and F-Secure Safe also detected 100 percent of malware but had four and three false positives, respectively.
McAfee did even better in AV-TEST's September-October 2017 Windows 10 evaluations, stopping all malware without any false positives. That's a far cry from the last Windows 10 run-throughs using McAfee's old detection engine, which found only 95.6 percent of zero-day malware in March 2017 and 97.6 percent in April, on par with Windows Defender.
The picture isn't quite so perfect in the latest tests conducted by the Austrian independent lab AV-Comparatives, which exposes antivirus products to the latest online malware. McAfee Internet Security stopped 98.9, 99.7 and 99.2 percent of malware in November, October and September 2017, respectively, all on Windows 10. It had five false positives over all three months.
By contrast, Bitdefender Internet Security, F-Secure Safe and Trend Micro Internet Security each stopped 100 percent of malware in those three months.
Because AV-Comparatives switched its testing OS from Windows 7 to Windows 10 right about when McAfee introduced its new malware-detection engine, we can't really compare the old and new engines. But it's worth noting that McAfee got a lot more false positives before the switch.
McAfee's not totally off the hook yet. We're awaiting AV-TEST's next results from its evaluations conducted on Windows 7, which is less secure in general than Windows 10.
In the first Windows 7 runs conducted with McAfee's new malware engine in July and August 2017, McAfee stopped 99.9 and 100 percent of widespread malware in July and August 2017, respectively. But it snagged only 99.0 percent of zero-day malware in July. That's nevertheless an improvement over the old engine, which stopped only 97.2 percent of zero-day malware in February 2017.
Security and Privacy Features
All McAfee paid products, including McAfee Antivirus and Antivirus Plus, include a file-shredding utility and a two-way firewall that overrides the built-in Windows one. There's also a vulnerability scanner that looks for old versions of applications, which might be a security risk. It took 25 seconds to find two problems and offer to fix them on our Asus laptop.
McAfee Internet Security, Total Production and LiveSafe have parental controls that filter out objectionable web content and can limit a child's online time. For $5 a month, you can add Safe Family, an app that runs on computers and mobile devices that can locate your child's phone (and. presumably, the child).
McAfee's True Key password manager, which handles biometrics and two-factor authentication especially well, comes with Internet Security, Total Protection and LiveSafe. Internet Security gives you one True Key license, as do the one- and three-seat variants of Total Security; the five- and 10-seat Total Security versions, as well as LiveSafe, give you five True Key licenses.
LiveSafe comes with 1GB of encrypted online storage space, which isn't much these days. Total Protection lets you save files to a local backup drive, and gives you McAfee's File Lock feature to encrypt any file or folder.
No McAfee antivirus product has a hardened browser or a virtual on-screen keyboard for banking and online commerce, nor a dedicated defense against someone hijacking your PC's webcam. It also doesn't have a virtual private network (VPN) for secure communications. But the company recently teamed with Anchor Free to create the separate McAfee Safe Connect VPN, which includes 250MB of free data transfers a month or unlimited use for $7 a month.
Unfortunately, if your system gets bogged down with malware, McAfee offers no rescue-disk download or online-scanning site.
Performance and System Impact
We installed McAfee Total Protection on an Asus X555LA notebook running Windows 10 Creators Update. The notebook had an Intel Core i3-5005U processor, 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive containing 36GB of assorted files.
We used our custom OpenOffice-based benchmark test, which matches 20,000 names and addresses on a spreadsheet, to measure system performance. The data-matching task takes longer to complete when a processor is under a heavy load.
Against a pretest benchmark time of 6 minutes and 50 seconds, the system took 7 minutes and 21 seconds to finish the OpenOffice task after McAfee Total Protection was installed, but with it not actively scanning. This is a passive performance impact of 7.6 percent, more onerous than most of the other antivirus products we've recently reviewed.
During a full or quick scan, McAfee's OpenOffice benchmark times grew to 11:05 and 7:20, indicating slowdowns of 62 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively. The latter score is among the best in class — it's less than McAfee's passive impact — but the former is the worst we've seen lately. You would definitely notice such a slowdown when working on your PC.
McAfee took 1 hour, 10 minutes and 7 seconds to finish its first full scan of our hard drive. The full-scan completion time settled down to 41:55 on the third run, after McAfee had trained itself which files to ignore. A quick scan took 42 seconds.
Anyone who's used McAfee antivirus products in previous years will notice a lighter, airier and brighter interface for 2018.
The Home page bears an illustration of a monitor and a green check mark when things are safe. It also has a link to add coverage for more devices, and buttons to begin a scan, open the True Key password manager, update the software and clean browsers of cookies and trackers.
Switch to the PC Security tab, and you'll find toggle switches for Real-Time Scanning, Firewall, Automatic Updates and Scheduled Scans. The Identity tab provides links for Anti-Spam and Web Advisor. The Privacy tab has one for Parental Controls.
From the Home screen, you're two clicks away from starting a scan, but you can't specify which files to examine. Scans can be scheduled to run daily, weekly or monthly, or as one-time events.
Installation and Support
It took a frustrating 48 minutes — three times the typical installation time — to fully load McAfee Total Protection on our laptop. After three failed attempts, we used McAfee's utilities to totally purge the system of offending software, and then did a clean install.
McAfee requires you to enter credit-card information during installation because the license automatically renews when your subscription expires. After installation, we were able to turn off auto-renewal in the Account tab, but couldn't remove our credit-card data.
McAfee provides 24/7 tech support via a toll-free phone number, online chat or email. The McAfee website has a good variety of tips, FAQs and videos to help you fix a problem.
With flat fees for an unlimited number of devices, a strong complement of extra features and newly improved malware protection, McAfee's antivirus products are among the best bargains in the antivirus industry. That's especially true as three of them come with the excellent True Key password manager.
We still like Bitdefender and Kaspersky Lab's antivirus packages better, as they offer arguably better malware protection with a lighter system impact and a similar complement of extra features. But if you've got a big family with many devices and a tight budget, you could do worse than McAfee's midrange antivirus products.
Credit: Tom's Guide