McAfee Internet Security 2013 review

McAfee Internet Security 2013 includes just about every feature you might imagine in a security suite. Its SiteAdvisor technology earned a new high score in phishing detection, but its antivirus protection is just average. Effectiveness of the other components also varies.
Photo of McAfee Internet Security 2013

I expect a full-featured security suite to include antivirus, firewall, antispam, parental control, and antiphishing or other privacy protection. With McAfee Internet Security 2013, you get all of that plus online backup, system cleanup, vulnerability scanning, and more. McAfee’s many components displayed a wide range of variation in their effectiveness, some excellent, some not so much. In the best suites, like Editors’ Choice Norton Internet Security (2013) , all the components are top-notch.

Most security suites come as a three-license package. If you need to protect four computers, you have to buy another package. Your $79.99/year McAfee purchase is a bit more generous: it does protect three computers, but if you need more you can simply add them for just $15 a year apiece.

The suite’s main window strongly resembles that of McAfee’s 2013 antivirus, with big buttons designed for use on a touchscreen. In fact, the only immediately visible difference (aside from the product name) is the addition of a button for parental controls. Both are fully compatible with Windows 8, and with previous editions all the way back to Windows XP.

For those still navigating with a mouse, the Navigation Center offers another way to access all of the suite’s features. It also includes links to McAfee resources including the Virus Information Library, an interactive Threat Map, and an expert-oriented site called HackerWatch.

Average Antivirus
The suite’s antivirus protection is exactly the same as what you get in McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2013. I’ll summarize my findings here; for full details, please read my review of the antivirus program.

Installing McAfee protection on my malware-infested test systems was something of a nightmare. On four of the test systems it wouldn’t install or wouldn’t run properly. McAfee’s standalone Stinger tool and CleanBoot Recovery Disc only fixed one of the problem systems. The others required hours of remote assistance by tech support or, in one case, hours on the phone.

McAfee detected 68 percent of the malware samples and scored 5.3 points for malware cleanup, which is precisely the average of products tested with my current malware collection. Norton and Webroot SecureAnywhere Complete 2013 earned the best scores in this test, with 6.6 points for each. Many products detected 100 percent of the rootkit samples; McAfee detected just 40 percent. Its 4.0-point score for rootkit removal is well below average, and way behind the 9.4 points earned by Kaspersky Internet Security (2013) . For details on my malware cleanup test, see How We Test Malware Removal.

McAfee Internet Security 2013 malware removal chart

McAfee proved especially effective at blocking sites that host or have hosted malware. When I tried to re-download my current sample set, it blocked 91 percent either at the URL level or during the download. That’s better than most, though VIPRE Internet Security 2013 and Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security 2013 managed 100 percent.

When I checked McAfee’s ability to detect and block already-downloaded samples, it detected 89 percent of them and scored 8.9 points. That puts it above the average for this test, but just barely. Webroot scored a near-perfect 9.9 against the same set of malware samples. The majority of current products detected 100 percent of the rootkit samples, and most of those earned a perfect 10 points for rootkit blocking. McAfee scored 8.0 points against rootkits. The article How We Test Malware Blocking explains how I test malware blocking and come up with these results.

McAfee Internet Security 2013 malware blocking chart

I reference independent lab tests, when available, to supplement my hands-on testing. All of the labs I follow do include McAfee’s products in their testing. In general, they rate it as good, but not great. Bitdefender Total Security 2013 , F-Secure Internet Security 2013, and others score much higher. The chart below summarizes recent tests. For more about the labs and their tests, see How We Interpret Antivirus Lab Tests.

McAfee Internet Security 2013 lab tests chart

Other Shared Features
McAfee loads up the standalone antivirus product with a number of features that many vendors reserve for the full security suite. Once again, you’ll want to read my review of the standalone antivirus product for a full description of these features.

The McAfee firewall resisted all port scans and Web-based attacks I threw at it. However, I did manage to disable many of the suite’s features using techniques that a malware writer could use. By default, the firewall makes its own decisions about which programs can make incoming or outgoing Internet connections, so you won’t be cursed with firewall popups. This edition claims to have enhanced leak detection, but it only caught one of the ten leak tests I tried. When I attacked it using exploits generated by the Core IMPACT penetration tool, it detected roughly a third of them.

McAfee’s SiteAdvisor, installed with both the antivirus and the suite, keeps you away from dangerous sites and marks up search results with red, yellow, or green icons. New in 2013, it now also marks up links on social networking sites. In my phishing detection test, it earned a new high score, 4 percentage points better than Norton (the long-time phishing champ). For an explanation of my phishing detection test, see How We Test Antiphishing.

McAfee Internet Security 2013 antiphishing chart

Other shared bonus features perform a variety of useful functions, mostly security-related. The QuickClean scanner finds and deletes useless files and browser traces to help system performance. The vulnerability scanner identifies and applies missing patches for Windows and important applications. Using the shredder, you can permanently delete any file, beyond all possibility of forensic recovery. As you can see, the designers are serious about the “plus” in McAfee Antivirus Plus.

No Valid Mail Marked Spam
McAfee’s spam filter analyzes your incoming email stream and marks spam or phishing messages by prefixing [SPAM] or [PHISH] to the subject line. The spam filter can automatically divert spam to a special folder in Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, or Thunderbird. For these email clients it also adds a toolbar that lets you flag misfiled messages.

Many antispam tools handle only standard POP3 mail. McAfee can also filter IMAP and Exchange-based email. If your Web-based email includes a POP3 option, McAfee can even periodically reach into the Web-based Inbox and clear out any spam. It’s definitely more flexible than many.

There are lots of settings, for those who like to fiddle. The default protection level balances the need to block spam against the need to avoid blocking any good mail. You can set it to be more aggressive (and risk blocking good mail) or less aggressive (and get more spam). Any address you add to the Friends List will never be blocked. Unless you’re fluent in a language that uses a non-English character set, you may want to block such messages. Finally, you can dig in and define your own custom filtering rules.

I assume that the average user won’t touch any of these settings, except perhaps the friends list, so I left all settings at their defaults and downloaded several thousand messages from a real-world email account. I did observe a noticeable slowdown. With no spam filter, my test system averages a bit over 9 minutes to download 1,000 messages. With McAfee analyzing the incoming data stream, it took 26 minutes for 1,000 messages.

The spam filter didn’t block any valid personal mail or valid bulk mail (newsletters and such), which is good. However, nearly 15 percent of undeniable spam slipped past the filter. The previous version managed to block all but about 8 percent. I did note that blocking foreign character sets would have improved the detection rate, so I advise turning on that option.

Spam filters for some suites have managed to avoid tossing any valid mail, while allowing less spam into the Inbox. Norton missed just 5.3 percent, for example, and Bitdefender just 6.8 percent. Also, neither of them slowed mail downloading appreciably. However, in a real-world situation you’d rarely download thousands of messages at once, so the slowdown I observed with McAfee probably wouldn’t be noticeable. And McAfee filters more email account types than the others; I like its flexibility.

For an explanation of how I analyze antispam accuracy, read How We Test Antispam.

McAfee Internet Security 2013 antispam chart

Basic Parental Control
McAfee’s parental control component will prevent your kids from visiting inappropriate sites, force Safe Search in popular search portals, and optionally let you define a schedule for Internet access. Its report lists blocked websites for each child as well as any attempts to get online during restricted times.

Parental control settings are associated with specific Windows user accounts, so you’ll want to make sure each child has an account. Also, the parental control system can’t protect Administrator accounts. If you’ve given an Administrator account to an older child, you’ll have to reset it to Standard/Limited. It’s worth noting that dedicated parental control tools like AVG Family Safety and Net Nanny 6.5 have no such restriction—they can handle Administrator accounts too.

For each child, you can either select one of five age-based profiles or make your own choices as to which of 20 possibly inappropriate categories should be blocked. Where most products display all categories with checkboxes for selection, McAfee uses a double-list interface. One list shows categories to allow, the other shows categories to block, with buttons that let you move a category between lists. The fact that you can only see four of a list’s items at a time makes it especially awkward.

The interface for defining a weekly Internet schedule is likewise awkward. As with most such systems, you use a weekly grid to define when access is permitted, dragging the mouse to change a series of cells. With most such products, you can drag in two dimensions, making it easy to, for example, allow access from 7AM to 8PM every day. McAfee only lets you drag within one day’s column.

Worse, the grid is much bigger than the display area, and it doesn’t scroll automatically. Once 7AM comes into view, the column headings vanish, so you’ll have to just remember that Sunday is the first column. I assume the point was convenience for scheduling with a touchscreen, but it sure made things awkward for the vast majority who still use mouse and keyboard.

On the plus side, the content filter is browser-independent, and it can even handle secure (HTTPS) sites. Your rebellious teen won’t evade parental control by finding a secure anonymizing proxy the way he could with the parental control in Bitdefender or Trend Micro. For Internet Explorer and other supported browsers, McAfee replaces the blocked page with a warning. When the browser isn’t supported or the site uses HTTPS, the browser displays an error message and McAfee pops up with an explanation.

The Internet scheduler could be fooled by changing the time zone or system time, but a Limited account can’t make that change. Nor can that Limited account enter the simple network command that disabled parental control in BullGuard Internet Security 2013 and Avira Internet Security 2013 . Even from an Administrator account, that particular network command doesn’t faze McAfee.

In addition to the Security Report’s Overview and Total Activity tabs found in the standalone antivirus, the suite adds a Parental Control tab. Here you can view each child’s activity during the timespan you specify. The report lists each blocked site, along with the number of attempts to visit that site, as well as any attempts to go online during a restricted time.

That’s the extent of McAfee’s parental control. BullGuard offers control of which programs each child can use, Kaspersky can manage and monitor instant messaging, and Bitdefender will email you with notification of abuse. McAfee sticks to the basics.

Online Backup
The online backup component, powered by Mozy, is installed the first time you go to use it. During installation it scans your system for file types that most people want to backup, like the contents of My Documents, and creates a backup set definition. You can change this setting later, of course.

The backup installer checks to make sure your Internet connection is fast enough and uses this information to estimate how long your initial backup will take. You also get an opportunity to set a balance between quick backups and faster overall computer use.

Quite a few security suites include a re-branded version of MozyHome 2.0 for online backup. Typically they give you 2GB, which is the same as what you could get for free directly from Mozy. McAfee Total Security offers 1GB for each of your PCs, so you’d get 3GB in all.

Surprising Performance Hit
I mentioned that McAfee’s spam filter measurably slowed the process of downloading email messages. When I timed a number of common activities with and without McAfee installed, I found that it slowed most of them as well, quite a bit more than last year’s edition. As always, I ran each test ten times (100 times for the boot time test) and averaged the results.

My browsing test times a script that loads an eclectic collection of 100 websites, waiting for each to fully load before going on to the next. With McAfee’s protection in place, this test took 28 percent longer than with no suite, almost twice the average of 15 percent.

Security products that scan files on access can at time affect simple file manipulation tasks. One of my tests times how long it takes to move and copy a large collection of large files between drives. Another times the process of zipping and unzipping that same collection. With McAfee on watch, the move/copy test took 44 percent longer, and the zip/unzip test took 48 percent longer. The averages for those two tests are 20 percent and 15 percent respectively.

The one positive result came with the boot time test, which measures the time between the beginning of the boot process and the time when the computer is ready to use. McAfee had no measurable effect on this test.

When I tested McAfee Total Protection 2012 it didn’t have nearly the same impact on performance. I measured no impact at all in the boot and browsing tests, and just 7 percent slowdown in the file move/copy and zip/unzip tests. Just to be sure, I re-imaged the test system and repeated my testing with and without McAfee installed. The results came out the same within a percent or two.

For details on how I measure security suite performance see How We Test Security Suites for Performance.

McAfee Internet Security 2013 performance chart

Good, Not Great
McAfee Internet Security 2013 definitely has some good points. Powered by SiteAdvisor, its phishing detection beat out all the rest. Its pricing model is a plus for those who have more than three PCs to protect. And its spam filter works with more email account types than most.

On the other hand, the suite’s antivirus protection is just average. Its parental control system offers only the most basic features and can’t handle Administrator accounts. And for some reason it displayed a much bigger impact on system performance than last year’s edition.

Norton 360 (2013) , an Editors’ Choice, offers virtually all the manifold features found in the McAfee suite, and they’re all top-notch. Webroot SecureAnywhere Complete 2013, also an Editors’ Choice, omits spam filtering and parental control, which may be fine for some. Depending on your needs, one of these would be a better choice.

Virus removal:
Virus blocking:
Parental Control:

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McAfee Internet Security 2013 includes just about every feature you might imagine in a security suite. Its SiteAdvisor technology earned a new high score in phishing detection, but its antivirus protection is just average. Effectiveness of the other components also varies.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc