McAfee Antivirus & Security 3.1 Premium (for Android) review

A heavy hitter in desktop security brings top-tier malware protection to Android in an app brimming with features, but is held back by its execution and price.
Photo of McAfee Antivirus & Security 3.1 Premium (for Android)

McAfee Antivirus & Security for Android (free, $29.99 per year) is the mobile component of the company’s All Access (now McAfee LiveSafe) all-in-one suite and is free for All Access users. Even if you don’t have All Access, McAfee is certainly attractive with its well-known name, high malware detection scores, pleasantly minimalist user interface, and enormous slew of security features. But I was disappointed that the app didn’t live up to its incredible potential, and would recommend looking at lower-priced alternatives if you’re not an All Access user.

Malware Protection
For evaluating mobile malware detection, PC Mag relies on the results of third-party testing labs. According to independent testing lab AV-Test, McAfee detected 99.6 percent of the 1,972 malicious samples used by the lab. This is well above AV-Test’s reported industry average of 95.2 percent.

In my testing, I found that McAfee completed a device scan in a snail-slow four minutes and eight seconds with twelve apps running in the background. That’s a far cry from Bitdefender Mobile Security and Antivirus, which can scan a device in about ten seconds and detected 100 percent of the malware used in AV-Test’s evaluations. In fact, it’s the longest scan I’ve yet seen.

Despite the slow pace, McAfee doesn’t have a big impact on system performance. With only a McAfee scan running, the Usemon app reported that 60 to 70 percent of the system’s processing power was in use (Usemon reports 5 to 23 percent in use with no other apps running). There was little practical impact as well: I didn’t see any stuttering or slow down while playing Minecraft—Pocket Edition during a system scan. Rebooting my Samsung Galaxy S III with McAfee installed took only three seconds longer than normal—hardly noticeable at all.

In addition to scans, McAfee provides real-time protection, scanning each new app as it is downloaded. When McAfee detects malware, it triggers a pop-up window that includes very detailed information about the suspicious application. The app’s main page also changes, making it obvious and easy to deal with new threats without having to run another (lengthy) scan. In general, McAfee does a good job of keeping you informed about what it’s doing and how to improve your security.

I liked that McAfee gave you the option to “trust” an app it flags as malicious in addition to simply removing it. In my testing, I use a penetration testing app that looks like malware. If I needed it for my day-to-day work, I could mark it as trusted and McAfee wouldn’t bug me about it. If you change your mind about an app, or you read a thoughtful, well-written blog post about an app that you’ve trusted, you can quickly un-trust an app from the Trusted Apps tab.

Anti-Theft Tools
Though malware is the traditional enemy of security software, theft and loss are the biggest security concerns for Android users. As with most security apps for Android, most of your interaction with McAfee’s anti-theft tools happens through a web portal which you can use to trigger certain features on your device. McAfee will let you lock your phone or trigger a factory reset, wiping all data from your device, from your phone.

One big problem with the McAfee mobile security web portal is that during my Google Chrome marks it as potentially malicious. This could be enormously confusing for someone who just lost their phone, and doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the service.

During the anti-theft tool set up process, I liked that McAfee prompted me to enter the contact information for “buddies.” These are trusted individuals who will receive text messages if my phone has its SIM card replaced, and notifications when you reset your McAfee PIN.

The anti-theft tools on McAfee’s website are extensive, among the most voluminous of any security app I’ve tested. The mobile security website is broken into two sections: My Device, which covers the usual gamut of anti-theft tools (lock, wipe, locate, scream, etc.), and My Data, which handles your backup information. More on back-up and restoring features later in the review.

McAfee is very flexible in its approach to locking your device, giving you an editable message which appears on your device, the ability to sound an alarm and lock the device at the same time, and a remote unlock button. I also really liked how McAfee provided helpful updates about whether the device was locked or unlocked.

However, even when locked the device is still partly accessible to thieves. When locked, the notification tray is still accessible, leaving your messages open for perusal and allowing a thief to toggle airplane mode, GPS, Wi-Fi, and mobile data on and off. A thief can also access the app manager, viewing the apps currently in use, quitting them, and tapping to bring them forward. Anyone can also, albeit briefly, view the homescreen in a number of ways. Worse still, all the taps still count, so a fast-fingered thief might be able to pull off an attack like this one againstNorton Mobile Security that’s since been fixed.

McAfee isn’t alone with these kind of lockscreen issues. My Editors’ Choice for free Android security avast! Mobile Security & Antivirus had similar issues, though it was balanced out by execution and other features. That said, I am deeply concerned about the level of access available through McAfee while the device is locked. Bitdefender and Kaspersky Mobile Security, on the other hand, were tight like drums when remotely locked.

When testing the remote alarm (sometimes called a “scream”) on McAfee, I was shocked to discover that it is literally a scream.  A 94 decibel recording of a human scream, to be precise. It scared the hell out of me, and will probably do the same to a thief. Also, it will cease screaming after one minute, making it a bit easier to put up with when you’re just trying to find your phone in a messy room.Confusingly, McAfee’s web portal has two separate buttons for “track” and “location.” The first of these is interesting: it checks your SIM card and reports the current number assigned to your device. The second provides the usual Google Maps map, and lets you trigger (or revoke) continuous tracking for one or six hour intervals.

The “wipeout” feature lets you remotely trigger a factory reset that will remove all the information from your phone. This is a standard feature among most security apps and even Google’s Android Device Manager, though since it also wipes out your security software, it does mean you are surrendering your device to thieves. But McAfee also lets you selectively wipe contacts, text messages, photos, videos, call logs, and your SD card. It’s a great tool for keeping your personal information secure, even when your device is missing.

There are two additional features that I really liked, buried in McAfee’s fragmented settings. The first is airplane lock mode, which automatically locks your device when it’s placed into airplane mode. This is particularly useful, because if a thief wants to block all anti-theft commands from reaching your phone, they have only to quickly set the device into airplane mode. Second is Track SIM, which sends your phone’s location information to all of the people on your nominated buddies when your SIM card is changed.

SMS Anti-Theft Commands
I really like when apps include SMS commands to remotely trigger anti-theft features. After all, you can probably get to another cell phone faster than you can get to a computer. With McAfee you can lock, wipe, and locate your phone using special text message commands and your PIN code.

In my testing, the SMS commands were executed swiftly on the device. However, the wipe triggered via SMS only removes personal data like contacts, and does not trigger a factory reset. Also, the locate command returned a lengthy Google Maps link that was rendered useless because it was split over two messages. Worse yet, the Google Maps link didn’t work when I pasted both halves into a browser.

Both avast! and Bitdefender have powerful SMS commands, particularly avast! whose SMS commands were remarkably extensive.

Backup and Restore
Some security apps like Norton Mobile Security include backup options, but they usually only cover things like contact data. With your apps covered by Google, this leaves your photos unprotected. I was pleasantly surprised to find that McAfee backs up all your data—photos and videos included. McAfee says that they’re currently not limiting how much data you can back up.

From the McAfee app you can back up your data to McAfee’s servers or restore your phone from a backup. You can also turn on automatic backups, which is a very useful feature and one I highly recommend using. Note that your media files will not be included in automatic backups. Thankfully, when you do go to manually back up photos and videos the app is smart enough to exclude media you’ve already backed up.

The McAfee mobile security website gives you access to your backed-up information in the My Data section. Here you can browse (and search!), delete, and export your contacts, text messages, and call logs. These are powerful features that I am a little wary of. On the one hand, it means you can always access your important information, and maybe even track what a thief is doing on your phone. On the other hand, a jealous spouse could spy on their partner by installing McAfee onto their partner’s phone.

Along with anti-theft features, you can use the mobile security website to remotely trigger backup features as well. Contacts, text messages, and call logs and can be backed up remotely, though your other data must be backed up from your device.

While I was very impressed with the ability to back up media files with McAfee, I was disappointed in their recovery options. There’s no way to batch-download all your files, so downloading them is a real hassle. You also can’t restore the images directly to your device from the app. Because of its limited options, I’d consider McAfee a strong secondary backup option. See our story on how to back up your Android device for more options.

Privacy with McAfee
The Privacy section of the McAfee app is perhaps the most surprising and powerful. It includes the normal warnings about what apps expose what information (and some information to help you decide what to do with these apps), but it also lets you block calls and SMS messages, manage what apps are visible, and even lock apps.

While I appreciated McAfee warning me about the information requested by certain apps, it wasn’t complete. Several apps were labeled as “unverified exposure,” which did not inspire confidence. Also, the Tell Me More button tried to open pop up window which I assume had additional information in it. Only it auto-closed it before I could read anything.

Once enabled, McAfee screens your calls and text messages, blocking users you place on a blacklist or only allowing users placed on a whitelist. It can also block all incoming calls, if you just need some privacy. A unique feature for SMS blocking is keyword filtering, which block all messages containing the words you designate. While unique, it does seem limited and McAfee doesn’t explain that keyword blocking blocks all messages which include banned words—including messages from people on your whitelist.

In my testing, I was a little disappointed that the Android incoming call screen will briefly appear when a blocked number calls—though McAfee quickly suppresses it. Blocked SMS messages do not appear at all, though for both calls and SMS McAfee briefly flashes a notification at the bottom of the screen. This could be problematic for people blocking stalkers or abusers that do not want to see any information about who contacted them.

Blocked text messages appear alongside a log of blocked calls in McAfee, but there is no option to export this log. This is unfortunate, since the information could be relevant in legal proceedings. Admittedly, none of the security apps I’ve reviewed offer exporting blocked call and SMS information.

The app-locking feature was a welcome surprise, and worked far better than the appropriately named (though poorly executed) AppLock. If someone tries to open one of the locked apps, they’ll have to enter your McAfee PIN first. It’s a great way to keep your personal information, like SMS messages, away from prying fingers. It could also be used to limit a child’s access when using the device. I was disappointed, however, that McAfee did not include a search feature to make finding and locking apps easier.

If your kids or your friends use your Android frequently, be sure to look at the Set Profile option. Here, you can create different profiles that only display the apps you designate. That way, if your kids want to play a game, you can activate the Kids profile and know that they can only see what you want them to see. Note that the profiles are actually homescreen replacements, so not all of the Android features will be accessible when profiles are active.

In general I was very impressed with the privacy features included in McAfee mobile security. It really makes the app feel more like an all-in-one security suite, rather than just malware and anti-theft tools.

Web Protection
Just because you’re on an Android device doesn’t mean you’re less likely to encountering a phishing site. To protect against those threats, which are usually spread through social media or SMS links, McAfee includes a web protection option.

According to the app it only supports the default Android browser. This is a major shortfall, since Chrome is enormously popular and also standard on Nexus devices. Most other mobile security apps generally support at least two browsers.

In my testing, I found there wasn’t a demonstrable impact on browsing experience when the web protection was activated. Users might experience some major impact on their browsing experience when  using the default browser, however.

Nearly Great
In many ways, McAfee gets it right. It has a near perfect malware detection score and includes powerful anti-theft tools, covering you from the two biggest mobile threats. Its slew of supporting security features is really impressive, particularly its backup options, app locking abilities, and support for multiple profiles. It has all the makings of a pricey, but worthy Editors’ Choice.

But the problem with McAfee’s features is that they feel very piecemeal. The app, while pleasantly designed, fragments the tools making it difficult to find some features. More importantly, some of those features aren’t up to par with the competition—particularly the anti-theft tools and specifically the app’s lockscreen. If this were a free product, some of these issues would be forgivable, but remember: this costs nearly four times as Bitdefender, our current Editors’ Choice for paid mobile security software.

McAfee brings a lot to bear with the third iteration of their mobile security suite. Now they need to refine the apps’ tools so that they work perfectly, and integrate and refine the apps’ design so that users can easily find and use those tools. With that in mind, I expect great things from the next update.


Verdict
A heavy hitter in desktop security brings top-tier malware protection to Android in an app brimming with features, but is held back by its execution and price.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc