As the second-best selling security software in the country (behind Symantec), McAfee is a well-established brand when it comes to keeping your PC secure from viruses, malware, and, let’s face it, reckless Web surfing habits. But compared to the competition, McAfee’s security suite, Total Protection 2009, is a bit rough around the edges: its interface isn’t as palatable, users suffer more pop-ups, and its utilities and parental controls aren’t as detailed. But thanks to a low cost (just $39.99 per year) and a promise of free improvements that address these grievances, it’s still worth your consideration if you’re in the market for a security program that does everything.
Installation and Setup
Total Protection 2009 has a long install time compared to other security suites. As with the other programs, we installed the 150MB file on our Toshiba Tecra M10. Although we only had to click once, the installation cycled through many screens, only some of which showed progress bars. In total, the installation took 11 minutes and 13 seconds, whereas Symantec Norton 360 3.0 took less than a minute to install. At least we weren’t required to register, as with BitDefender Total Security 2010, or restart, as we had to with ZoneAlarm Extreme Security 2010.
Total Protection’s user interface isn’t just less sleek than Norton 360’s candy-colored UI, it’s also relatively confusing at first, filled with small fonts and links. The network map, in particular, is initially difficult to read, although McAfee’s choice to label safe computers on the network as “friends,” at least, makes sense. There’s an advanced menu, but it just shows bullet points of what’s covered under each section (such as security); you have to click links to configure each of these sections. Even then, there aren’t many options (e.g., Do you want e-mail protection? IM protection? Spam protection? Yes or No?). There’s also no Back button in the advanced settings; you have to click the home link in the left pane, which also contains a list of the product’s major categories, such as backup and maintaining your computer.
The interface, at least, is self-contained, which is to say when you click on a new link you’ll rarely see a pop-up in a new window or, worse, your browser. This convenience aside, however, Total Protection is generally less than user-friendly for low-tech users, and doesn’t offer as many manual controls for advanced users as some of its competitors, such as BitDefender Total Security.
In addition to monitoring the network and providing firewall protection, Total Protection includes e-mail and IM protection, parental controls, and spam protection. The parental controls, like the UI, are confusing, not to mention limited in scope.
For one, you can’t see the parental controls in the main menu or the left-hand pane; you have to go into the advanced settings. Even then, these controls aren’t intuitive. The opening screen shows a list of Windows user accounts and their level of privilege (e.g., guest, administrator). Before you start configuring parental controls for that account, you must enable or disable age-appropriate searching and image filtering and decide if it’s a young child, child, younger teen, older teen, or adult (McAfee doesn’t list any age ranges along with these categories). Next to each user you can check a box saying “This user can only access sites in the allowed Web Sites list,” a list that you get to generate.
You can block certain keywords from the left-hand pane, as well as block or allow particular Web sites. The keywords are linked to certain age groups; for instance, we typed “porn” after configuring one of our user accounts for a “young teenager.” Immediately, we saw a list of the different age categories. Only the adult one had a check mark next to it (as opposed to a red X), meaning porn would be off limits for anyone younger. Certain male and female body parts were limited to older teens and adults, although you might have to enter a derogatory word for the body part for Total security to recognize it as a forbidden search query. Other words got past the filter: “violence” and “drugs” were acceptable even for young children. It would be nice if parents could just add keywords to a blacklist and leave McAfee’s (often debatable) judgment out of it. At least McAfee lets users block or allow whatever sites they want, an easy process.
As with some other suites, such as Trend Micro Internet Security, users can check a box on the scan page so that the computer will shut down after the scan is complete. By default, Total Protection shows a splash screen when you start Windows, and notifies you when there’s a security threat and when the server is updated. Other options include manually updating, being notified before downloading updates, and downloading automatically and then being notified; not being notified isn’t an option. All in all, we saw more pop-ups than we did with Symantec Norton 360, but about as many as we saw with BitDefender Total Security (albeit, a security suite with more customizable settings).
While it’s impossible for us to tell if a security suite fails to detect a particular virus, we can rely on third-party assessments that are able to do just that. Virus Bulletin ranks McAfee’s detection rate at 93.6 percent, which falls short of BitDefender’s 97.7 percent, Symantec’s 98.7, and ZoneAlarm’s 97.8. Still, it’s higher than Trend Micro’s 91.3 percent.
Total Protection’s tune-up utilities are less comprehensive than the competition: QuickClean, a catch-all tool, completes a host of tasks, such as cleaning the registry and deleting temporary files, Not all of these processes are enabled by default, but you can easily go into the settings and check boxes to add more. Disappointingly, there’s no tool for removing unnecessary startup programs. And the defrag feature just opens Vista’s own Disk Defragmenter. Overall, the UI isn’t confusing, but it’s also not an innovation on McAfee’s part. There’s also a task scheduler that you can use to automate these scans. One unique feature we do like is the Shredder. As its name suggests, it destroys unnecessary files its finds, such as temporary ones, a pleasant thought for paranoid people who worry about the prospect of someone retrieving this data.
To test Total Protection’s performance impact, we timed how long our Toshiba Tecra M10 took to open several applications—Google Picasa, Internet Explorer, iTunes, and Microsoft Word—both before we installed the program and while we were running a virus scan. Before the installation, the computer took 1, 4, 1, and 2 seconds to launch these programs. During a scan, these times rose to 8, 15, 3, and 8 seconds, respectively. That’s a more severe performance impact than what we observed with BitDefender Total Security, Symantec Norton 360, or Trend Micro Internet Security Pro. Excluding Internet Explorer, those times were well above the average open times of 8 seconds (iTunes), 5 seconds (Picasa), and 6 seconds (Word).
After installing the software and running the first scan, the boot time on our Tecra M10 decreased by 20 seconds, a definite improvement. (Other security suites we tested did not improve boot time; some even worsened it, such as Symantec Norton 360, Trend Micro Internet Security Pro, and ZoneAlarm Extreme Security, which increased the boot time by 15, 17, and 49 seconds, respectively.)
While we’ve been pretty critical of Total Protection’s UI and selection of parental controls, McAfee promises that Total Protection 2010, which is currently in a free, public beta but won’t ship until January 2010, will offer a cleaner interface (the version we tested takes a cue from Norton 360’s bright, tabbed interface) and new features, such as automatic PC shutdown (after a scan, that is), a battery saving mode that minimizes McAfee’s activity while the computer is unplugged, and more comprehensive parental controls, including ages for children in years (not categories) and time restrictions for certain users. The newer version will cost $79.99. Fortunately, McAfee operates as a Software-as-Service (SaaS), so if you buy the inexpensive, but flawed $39.99 version now, all of these better features will be pushed out to you in January.
Online Backup, Licenses, and Support
With a sale price of $39.99 on McAfee’s site, Total Protection 2009 is a bargain compared to its competition, which cost $60 or $65 annually. It comes with three licenses, which is typical for this class of product.
As is, McAfee’s Total Protection 2009 suite doesn’t measure up to the competition when it comes to usability, performance impact, and a comprehensive selection of parental controls. But at $39.99, it’s cheap—almost half the price of its competitors—and users are guaranteed to get new features for free, which will address most of the reservations we have. If you’re on a budget and have faith in McAfee’s future updates, Total Protection 2009 is worth a look.