McAfee Internet Security 2019 review: Redemption at last

Founded way back in 1987, McAfee is one of the best-known names in computer security. Its reputation hasn't always been enviable, though, with a string of recent last-place performances in security suite reviews.

This time around, though, things are different. In April 2017, McAfee was officially spun off into an independent company by former owner Intel -- and the change appears to have had a salutary effect on the company. Believe it or not, in just a year, it's rocketed from the bottom of the malware-detection table to the top.

So remarkable is McAfee's rise that we'd be tempted to put it down to a statistical blip, but the results were confirmed across several months by two independent testing labs, with both AV-Comparatives and AV-Test reporting 100% protection rates against threats both old and new. This isn't a case of an excessively strict engine catching all types of malware through sheer trigger-happiness, either: with an overall false-positive rate of 0.4%, McAfee confidently outshone the likes of Bitdefender, Norton and Trend Micro.

The good news doesn't stop there, either, as performance has been enhanced too. Last year, AV-Comparatives ranked McAfee Internet Security as "mediocre" for launching apps, and merely "fast" for web browsing; in the latest test, those ratings have been upgraded to "fast" and "very fast" respectively. AV-Test confirmed that, of all the suites in its most recent report, McAfee had one of the lowest impacts on web browsing speed, and across all performance tests it ended up with a nippy performance score of 92%.

It's a drastic turnaround all right -- yet once you start interacting with the suite, what's chiefly surprising is how familiar it all feels, and I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment. For one thing, McAfee was never a product that aspired to match every feature of its rivals, and it clearly still doesn't. You'll look in vain for things like a secure browser, a recovery environment or configurable webcam protection. There's also no built-in ransomware protection, although to be fair McAfee does offer a free standalone anti-ransomware tool.

Still, the basics are covered. Naturally, you get real-time and on-demand malware scanning, plus web protection with McAfee's WebAdvisor browser plugin, and a custom firewall. The suite can also regularly check whether Windows and your installed applications need updating, and if you're playing a game in full-screen mode then the software will automatically detect that and keep out of the way. There's a straightforward parental controls module too, which can enforce online time limits and safe surfing based on WebAdvisor site categories.

McAfee also wins points for cross-platform support, as your licence allows you to use the software on Windows, macOS, Android or iOS. Predictably, those last three platforms don't get the full feature set -- on iOS you just get some mostly redundant anti-theft and data backup tools -- but if you're operating a mixed home network, as many of us are, it's nice to have everything under one roof. There's also a cross-platform password manager plugin which works with most major desktop and mobile browsers, but if you want it to store more than 15 passwords you'll need to cough up £20 a year. That sticks in the throat, especially since there are plenty of unlimited free systems out there.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the interface hasn't had the same type of performance boost as the malware engine. I've grumbled in the past about how unnecessarily slow the McAfee front end is, and while the main dashboard looks much cleaner and more attractive than previous releases, it feels just as sluggish: every time you click a link or button there's a little delay before anything happens.

It's fiddly, too. If you want to browse through the settings, you'll have to click your tedious way through opening 14 separate windows, with the settings themselves further concealed within a series of collapsed panes on each one. It really discourages you from fully exploring what the software has to offer, and somewhat cheapens the excellent work that's clearly gone into the back end.

Even so, if you don't require clever features, and don't want to tinker with custom settings, there's no denying that McAfee has suddenly become a surprisingly attractive offering. The cherry on top is the price: as with Kaspersky Internet Security 2019, you can pay £35 for a three-device package at the company's own store, but shop around and you'll find the exact same licence available for just £10 - at time of writing, in any case. In the past we've recommended you steer clear of McAfee, but on present form and at such a low price, it definitely deserves another look.