When you download McAfee Antivirus & Security from Google Play, you get a solid two weeks of the premium version of the service, which normally costs $29.99 a year. After that, the app becomes the far more limited Free Version, which is a pale shadow of its for-pay self. While it has a few nice features, it offers very little to keep your Android safe.
Surprisingly, McAfee does not offer malware protection in the Free Version of its mobile app. Instead, the app says it will block attempts to use the malicious Android dialer exploit (aka USSD commands), which can force older versions of Android to perform a factory reset. This is really too bad, since the independent testing lab AV-Test reported that McAfee detected 99.6 percent of the 1,972 malicious samples used by the lab. That result is well above AV-Test’s reported industry average of 95.2 percent. Other security apps that offer free versions, such as Norton Mobile Security Lite Version provided malware scanning and protection.
In addition to disabling scans, the Free Version of McAfee does not provide real-time protection by scanning apps as soon as they are installed. In my testing, I successfully installed a penetration testing app without McAfee raising any objections.
It’s not too surprising that McAfee would restrict access to its malware detection features—after all, this is the technology on which many security companies have built reputations. But on Android, the sky-high average detection rates and strong showings from full-featured free services, like our Editors’ Choice avast! Mobile Security & Antivirus, mean that the market is choked with great, cheap alternatives. Malware scanning on Android is the least a security app can do, and the Free Version of McAfee doesn’t even do that.
Though malware is the traditional enemy of security software, theft and loss are the biggest security concerns for Android users. As with most Android security apps, your interaction with McAfee’s anti-theft tools for the most part happens through a Web portal, which you can use to trigger an alarm or track your device. The full version of McAfee will let you lock your phone, locate it, query its SIM card, trigger a factory reset, selectively wipe data from your device, and remotely trigger a horrifying “scream” alarm.
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.
The location tool works the same for Free users as it does for Premium ones. Your phone’s current location is displayed on a Google Maps map, along with the option to continuously track a device for one- or six-hour intervals. Note, however, that doing so will activate the device’s GPS radio and run the battery down quickly.
You can also activate Track SIM in the app’s settings, which will send text messages to the people you nominate when the SIM card in your device is changed. This is a great feature, since it might be the first warning you receive that your phone is not merely lost, but that someone has stolen it. Unfortunately, the SMS warnings includes a link to a McAfee site that is split over two messages and therefore very difficult to read. See more on SMS features below.
I’m glad that McAfee made these tools available, but Google’s free anti-theft service Android Device Manager has more options like remote lock and wipe. The SIM warning, however, is quite useful.
SMS Anti-Theft Commands
I really like when apps allow you to trigger anti-theft features by sending special SMS messages to your phone. After all, you can probably get to another cell phone faster than you can get to a computer. With McAfee Free Version, you can remotely locate your phone by sending a text message command and your PIN.
While the locate command did indeed find my phone, it sent back a lengthy link that was rendered useless because it was split over two SMS messages. Once reunited in a browser (with tedious effort) the link sent me to a McAfee website containing a screenshot of Google Maps displaying my phone’s location.
Because the link is split like this, it pretty much renders SMS location useless in the Free Version of McAfee. Frankly, I would rather it have not been included because right now it feels like a chore.
Backup and Restore
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Full Version of McAfee backs up all your data—photos and videos included. The Free Version isn’t so generous, but does allow the basic backup and restore functions.
From the McAfee app you can back up your text messages, call log, and contacts 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.
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, jealous people could install McAfee on their partners’ phones and spy on their phone activity.
You can use McAfee’s mobile security website to remotely trigger backup features as well, though your data can only be restored from within the app. Note that any media you backed up before McAfee’s trial subscription ran out are still available through the McAfee website.
Too Little Too Late
The goal of any free version is to eventually convince most free users to pay for the premium version of the software. To McAfee’s credit, it offers you a full two weeks to get used to the software before the Free Version takes over.
But once it does, you’re left with no malware protection, and little to protect you from loss and theft. If you enjoyed using McAfee (which I did, aside from a lockscreen issue), then don’t stick with the free offering. Upgrade immediately. Keep in mind, however, that top-tier security is available for free from avast!, or for a mere $9.99 per year from Bitdefender Mobile Security and Antivirus, our Editors’ Choice for paid mobile security.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc