McAfee Internet Security 2014 review

With its smart firewall, effective malware blocking, and accurate spam filter, McAfee Internet Security 2014 can be a good security suite choice. Just don't rely on it for parental control.
Photo of McAfee Internet Security 2014

The 2014 security suites just keep rolling in, many accompanied by a standalone antivirus and a feature-packed mega-suite. McAfee Internet Security 2014 ($79.99 direct for three licenses) comes equipped with all the expected suite features as well as a few interesting bonuses.

Like McAfee’s entry-level antivirus, the suite features a main window dominated by big, touch-friendly buttons. In fact, the only real difference in layout is that the suite adds a button dedicated to the parental control system. Also like the antivirus, the suite offers a separate Navigation Center, a simple list with links to all security components. Other Navigation Center links let you view reports and security history, manage your subscriptions, and view security information on McAfee’s website.

McAfee’s entry-level antivirus includes quite a few security features more commonly found in suites. For full coverage of those features, please read my review of McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2014. I’ll summarize my findings here.

Better Malware Blocking than Cleanup
On over half of my dozen malware-infested test systems, McAfee ran into installation problems. The impressive CleanBoot rescue CD fixed those problems. Post-scan difficulties on two systems required lengthy intervention by tech support, though.

McAfee and Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security 2014 both detected 75 percent of my pre-installed malware samples, which is on the low side. McAfee scored 5.9 points overall, beating Trend Micro’s 5.8. Bitdefender Internet Security (2014) earned the best score among products tested with this malware collection, 6.6 points. For a detailed explanation of my malware removal test, see How We Test Malware Removal.

McAfee Internet Security 2014 malware removal chart

McAfee was a lot more successful at blocking malware attacks on a system that started out clean. Like Trend Micro, it earned 9.2 points in my malware blocking test. Of all products tested with my current sample collection, only two scored higher. AVG Internet Security 2014 and Ad-Aware Pro Security 10.5 tied at the top with 9.4 points. To learn more about how I test malware blocking, see How We Test Malware Blocking.

McAfee Internet Security 2014 malware blocking chart

McAfee participates in testing with all the labs that I follow and gets generally good marks. It averaged 14.25 of 18 possible points in the latest two tests from AV-Test and rated ADVANCED in recent tests by AV-Comparatives. If you’d like to know more about the labs and their tests, see How We Interpret Antivirus Lab Tests.

McAfee Internet Security 2014 lab tests chart

Useful Shared Features
Both the standalone antivirus and this suite install McAfee’s SiteAdvisor toolbar for browser protection. I found this toolbar quite effective when I tried to re-download my malware collection. The links are getting a bit old, so many are only sporadically live, but McAfee identified and blocked even those that weren’t currently working. It blocked 90 percent in all, which is good. Note, though, that Trend Micro blocked 95 percent, and Norton Internet Security (2014) got every single one.

SiteAdvisor is intended to detect phishing (fraudulent) websites as well as malicious ones, and in past years it has proven very accurate. It didn’t do as well this time around; its detection rate lagged 38 percent behind that of Norton, which consistently does a very good job. Even so, suites that did worse than McAfee outnumber those that did better by over two to one. The article How We Test Antiphishing explains how I obtain my samples and score this test.

McAfee Internet Security 2014 antiphishing chart

Like Trend Micro, McAfee includes the same firewall protection in its antivirus and suite products. However, where Trend Micro just adds a “Firewall Booster” to Windows Firewall, McAfee offers a complete solution. Its default Smart Access mode manages program control without hassling the user, and it defended against all my Web-based attacks. It managed to fend off about 30 percent of the exploits attacks I launched at it (Norton blocked every single one!). I couldn’t disable the firewall protection by direct attack (though many of the suite’s other processes proved vulnerable). All in all, it’s better firewall protection than you get in many suites.

The antivirus and suite share quite a few other tools. You can use the My Home Network map to monitor and remotely manage other McAfee installations within your network. QuickClean frees disk space by deleting useless files and protects your privacy by erasing traces of your Internet and computer usage. The shredder component will securely delete sensitive files beyond the possibility of forensic recovery. A vulnerability scanner will find (and in many cases fix) unpatched security holes in Windows and in popular programs.

Backup Foulup
Even if your PC is completely destroyed by an accident or malware attack, you can recover if you have a good backup. That’s certainly one kind of security. McAfee offers a branded version of Mozy’s backup solution for this purpose. It’s not installed by default, but when you click the backup link, it walks you through the process.

You get 1GB of hosted online backup for each of your three McAfee licenses. Note that you can get 2GB for free by signing up directly with Mozy. McAfee gives you more, in a sense, but if you signed up with three different email addresses you could get 2GB for each system.

This feature hasn’t changed significantly since I reviewed McAfee Internet Security 2013. Once you register for backup, it automatically configures itself to protect the file types most people want backed up.

This time around, I didn’t get to see the backup system in action. It repeatedly reported problems connecting with the backup servers. My McAfee contacts confirmed that this is a problem on some systems, and that they’re waiting on Mozy for a solution.

Slow but Steady Spam Filtering
Where Trend Micro actually includes spam filtering with its entry-level antivirus, McAfee reserves this feature for its full security suite. It’s definitely a worthwhile addition. When the spam filter identifies a message as spam or as a phishing attack, it marks it as such in the message header. An antispam toolbar integrates with Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, and Thunderbird to automatically divert spam messages into their own folder. Those using a different email client can simply create a message rule to do the same.

McAfee’s antispam has a feature I haven’t seen in any other suite. You can configure it to periodically log into your webmail account and remove any spam from the Inbox, leaving valid mail intact. There is one small catch; it only works if you can download from the webmail account via IMAP or POP3.

The spam protection level controls how aggressive the spam filter will be. You can lower the protection level to avoid having good mail discarded, but at the expense of missing more spam. Or you can raise it to catch more spam but risk having it discard valid messages. For testing, I left it in the default middle position; it did not discard any valid messages.

There are quite a lot of configuration options. You can define your own custom rules to block or allow messages containing specific words or phrases. Any addresses on your friends list will never be blocked, and you can import your Address Book into this list. You can also choose to block any message that’s marked internally as written in a character set for a language you don’t speak. Really, though, it works fine with everything left at the default values.

When I downloaded thousands of messages from a real-world testing account, I observed that this spam filter slows the download process noticeably. It took about 2.5 times as long to download a thousand messages, compared with downloading when no spam filter is installed.

On the plus side, the filter proved very accurate. It didn’t discard any valid personal messages or any valid bulk mail (newsletters and such), and only 3.7 percent of undeniable spam slipped past the filter. AVG, Bitdefender, and Kaspersky Internet Security (2014) all missed less spam, but they also misfiled one or more valid messages in the spam folder.

For an explanation of how I distinguish spam from valid mail and score this test, see How We Test Antispam.

McAfee Internet Security 2014 antispam chart

Unusual Parental Controls
McAfee takes an unusual attitude toward parental control. If you attempt to configure parental control for an account that has Administrator privilege, they warn that it’s just not going to work, that the child will be able to bypass the parental control system. Yet many parents do give older kids Administrator access for convenience. If you’re such a parent, McAfee is not for you.

It’s worth noting that other products do manage to implement parental controls even for Administrator accounts. It’s true that an Administrator can change the system time… so they don’t rely on system time for scheduling. As for uninstalling protection, the typical solution is to protect settings with a password. McAfee’s disclaimer doesn’t impress me.

You configure parental controls individually for each Windows user account. Selecting one of five age ranges pre-configures which categories the Web content filter will block. Of course you can make your own custom choices as well. Virtually every other parental control system handles configuration with a simple list of checkboxed categories. With McAfee, you must shuttle categories back and forth between the Allowed and Blocked list, and you can only see four at a time. Awkward!

Defining a schedule for when each child can use the Internet is similarly awkward. McAfee uses the expected grid, crossing hours of the day with days of the week. However, only six hours are visible at once, and dragging past the end of the list doesn’t make it scroll. If you want to mark a time range longer than six hours you’ll have to mark, scroll, mark, and scroll until you’re done. In any case, an Administrator user can evade the schedule by changing the system time.

I thought at first that the option to block websites containing naughty images or bad language from search results must be the same as forcing Safe Search to be turned on. However, in testing, that wasn’t the case, and I had no trouble searching on what surely were inappropriate terms. On the plus side, McAfee can filter even secure (HTTPS) sites, so your kids won’t evade parental filtering by using a secure anonymizing proxy.

Like Trend Micro, McAfee seems to only block entire domains. I found that I could visit porn feeds on Tumblr with impunity, since the alternative would have been for them to block all of Tumblr. Realtime analysis of page content means Kaspersky and Bitdefender managed to block only erotic stories on a couple of short-story sites. McAfee blocked one website completely and allowed the other completely.

A parental controls report lists all blocked websites attempted by the selected child, and also records any attempts to get online outside of the permitted schedule. That’s the extent of this suite’s parental control.

If you actually need parental control, either choose a suite whose parental control component is effective or invest in a standalone system like AVG Family Safety or Net Nanny 6.5. Definitely don’t rely on McAfee if any of your kids have Administrator accounts.

Small Performance Impact
My hands-on performance impact tests attempt to quantify the effect a security suite has on system performance. I average multiple runs with no suite installed, then repeat the test after installing a security suite. There’s almost always some measurable slowdown, but these days it’s rarely a big deal.

Getting security software loaded at boot time almost invariably slows the boot process, by a little or by a lot. There are a few exceptions; for example, Webroot SecureAnywhere Internet Security Plus 2013 didn’t slow my boot time test in any measurable way. After installing McAfee, that test took just 4 percent longer, a barely noticeable difference and way below the average for current suites, 23 percent.

A script that moves and copies a big collection of big files between drives took 20 percent longer with McAfee’s real-time protection keeping an eye on things, which is precisely the average for recent suites. For some reason, a parallel script that zips and unzips that same file collection took 40 percent longer. I ran an extra series of tests to verify. On the plus side, you surely spend a lot more time copying, creating, and moving files than you do zipping and unzipping.

As with most modern suites, the impact McAfee has on day-to-day system use just isn’t something you’re going to notice. For a more detailed explanation of my performance tests, see How We Test Security Suites for Performance.

McAfee Internet Security 2014 performance chart

A Good Choice
There’s a lot to like in McAfee’s suite. Its no-hassle firewall is better than many (though it doesn’t beat the best). Its spam filter proved very accurate in testing, and has the unusual ability to filter Web-based email accounts. In hands-on testing it did a good job defending a clean system against malware attack.

It’s good, for sure, but there are even better suites. Unless McAfee serves some very specific need, I’d still recommend sticking with one of PCMag’s Editors’ Choice security suites. They are: Bitdefender Total Security (2014), Norton Internet Security (2014), and Webroot SecureAnywhere Complete 2013.

Sub-ratings:
Firewall:
Virus removal:
Virus blocking:
Performance:
Antispam:
Privacy:
Parental Control:


Verdict
With its smart firewall, effective malware blocking, and accurate spam filter, McAfee Internet Security 2014 can be a good security suite choice. Just don't rely on it for parental control.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc