McAfee Total Protection review: A good antivirus solution with room for improvement

McAfee is still good for PC security, and it offers a ton of features, but there are better options.

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At a Glance

McAfee is a longtime name in the world of PC security, and these days it offers three security products to consumers: McAfee Total Protection, Gamer Security (a suite specific to gamers), and LiveSafe—the latter provides protection for unlimited devices. This review is looking at Total Protection.

Total Protection comes at a variety of price points depending on how many devices you want to license. For a single device, you’ll pay $30; add another $5 and you get Total Protection for five devices; and for $40 you’ll get coverage for 10 devices. Those are first-year prices, however. McAfee’s MSRPs after the first year are $80, $100, and $120, respectively.

Note: This review is part of our best antivirus roundup. Go there for details about competing products and how we tested them.

Total Protection’s interface is well designed, but it takes some getting used to. Status information is stored in the left rail instead of menu items, while most actions sit in the main panel.

At the top of the window you get five tabs: Home, PC Security, Identity, Privacy, and Account. There are also icons for alerts, news, tips, and settings in the top-right corner.

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McAfee Total Protection’s Home tab.

Home is your basic dashboard with a green check mark or red alert to let you know whether your PC is protected. The primary section of the window sports a carousel to quickly carry out some of the feature-filled operations that Total Protection offers, such as performance boosts for third-party apps, deleting browser cookies and trackers, permanently deleting sensitive files, updating Total Protection, and setting up the password manager. Below that is a summary of everything McAfee is monitoring on your system and links to the app’s security report.  

PC Security shows whether the key components of Total Protection—such as the firewall and real-time scanning—are running, as well as tiles to initiate a scan, and some of the other operations we saw on the Home screen. From this tab you can run a security scan, check for desktop application updates, check for virus definition updates, and run browser protection. The carousel, meanwhile, prompts you to carry out some of those same features.

Next up we have the PC Performance tab. There isn’t much here except links to download the App Boost feature that improves performance of third-party desktop apps, and McAfee Web Boost. The latter is supposed to improve your browsing speed. It only works with Google Chrome, and McAfee Total Protection isn’t smart enough to identify browsers that are in the Chromium family such as the new Edge or Opera. That’s not a huge problem as all of these browsers can install Web Boost from the Chrome Web Store if you want it.

Web Boost is supposed to improve browsing performance, but the only thing it seems to do is stop auto-playing videos. To really improve performance you need to block ads, trackers, and stop those annoying pop-ups asking to enable site notifications.

The My Privacy tab used to be called Identity. This tab contains a file shredder for deleting sensitive files, a password manager, identity-theft protection, parental controls, and File Lock—an encryption app for sensitive files.

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Total Protection’s settings features a nice drop down menu.

My Info includes information about your McAfee account, home network protection, security history, help and support, and the About tile. The home network tile is worth noting as it shows all the devices on your network. That’s a nice addition, unfortunately it needs a better device database as almost everything except for PCs, Macs, and iOS devices wer identified by their local IP addresses. For power users that will be helpful enough, but most people won’t find this section particularly useful, at least not at this time. On the plus side, you can label a device as an intruder. At that point, McAfee’s firewall blocks the device from accessing your PC.

McAfee packs a lot of information and features in Total Protection, and it’s fairly well organized. Splitting information between the left rail and the main panel takes some getting used to. That rotating carousel, though, could be put to better use. It takes up so much of the interface and either duplicates the tiles below it, or provides information that’s not pertinent to each section. 

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McAfee Total Protection’s File Lock feature integrates with Windows File Explorer.

A nice change is that McAfee no longer opens a second window to carry out most operations. Now, it all happens within the primary window of the app. 

The app won’t amaze you with slickness or design, but that’s a good thing in a security suite, which should be part of your PC’s plumbing. Things can get messy without it, but you’d rather not have to think about it too much when it’s working.

McAfee does have pop-up notifications that appear now and then, and Total Protection’s carousel does take up too much space. Overall, however, McAfee stays out of your way while you work.

Performance

Both AV-Test and AV-Comparative regularly test McAfee. AV-Test found malware and zero-day attack detection was 99.81 percent in January 2020 and 97.8 percent in February 2020, with 402 samples. Malware detection was 100 percent for both months, from more than 20,000 samples.

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Total Protection’s My Privacy tab.

AV-Comparatives, meanwhile, found that McAfee had seven false positives during a real-world protection test in February and March 2020, and it blocked 98.4 percent of the test’s 372 malicious test samples, with 1.6 percent compromised. Malware detection was really good during an online scan at 99.7 percent, and online protection was 99.93 percent. Offline detection was low at 67 percent, however. There were also 25 false alarms during these tests of more than 10,000 samples.

SE Labs also tested Total Protection giving it a AAA rating, though during testing the software had three compromises. Compare that to AVG, ESET, F-Secure, Kaspersky, Sophos, and Trend Micro, which all had zero compromises.

If this were just one test, we probably wouldn’t sweat it, but all three testing houses we track found noticeable weaknesses in McAfee’s protection, with competing suites testing higher.

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A notification from Total Protection in Windows 10.

When we ran Total Protection through our usual Handbrake and PCMark 10 tests, we found McAfee had a mixed impact on performance. Handbrake completed its job of transcoding an 8GB high-definition video file in 4 hours, 28 minutes on our test PC. The standard time without any extra programs running is about 3.5 minutes faster. The PC took slightly longer than usual with McAfee running, but for a home user, that difference won’t have a massive impact.

PC Mark 10, meanwhile, earned a scored of 1,631 with McAfee running, and 1,660 without. That drop would most likely be noticeable during media-heavy operations. The other tests, including the large file transfer and unarchiving test were all pretty close in time. The archiving test, however, took 22 seconds longer with McAfee installed. Again, not a huge drop, but potentially noticeable in lower-end PCs. 

Conclusion

McAfee offers a lot of features and its pricing is pretty good. Last time we looked, it was a solid choice for PC protection, but its detection chops appear to have slipped based on recent tests. We really like the improvements to McAfee’s desktop design, but the most important issue is protection. McAfee will do a pretty good job of that, but there appear to be edge cases where the suite will fail and the competition won’t, based on third-party test results. 

For average users who aren't visiting unusual sites or opening weird email attachments, McAfee should be fine, but if you want the highest protection possible then Total Protection is not the best option right now.

At a Glance
  • McAfee Total Protection offers good PC protection and the pricing is fine, and the new desktop design on Windows 10 is very good. We'd like to see some better protection scores in the coming months, however, and we just don't like what the True Key tutorial is doing right now.

    Pros

    • Good protection
    • New design for the app is very good
    • Android privacy check is a welcome addition
    • Tech scam protection

    Cons

    • Mixed impact on performance
    • McAfee Web Boost only supports Chrome
    • True Key tutorial can't be dismissed