McAfee Total Protection 2021 full review

Though the recent news that McAfee is about to go public for a second time isn’t really relevant to anyone buying its malware-protection software, it means it’s a standalone company once more.

The new version has had a facelift – at least for the Windows app – and is now a lot more user-friendly. This extends to the notifications which previously could end up confusing people whereas the new messages are much clearer and certainly avoid inducing any panic.

The other focus is on scam protection. 2020 has seen a huge rise in the number of scams related to coronavirus, and Total Protection 2021 can warn you when websites can take control of your PC and when it’s unwise to click a link on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit and other social media sites, though this is only on Windows for the moment.

McAfee Total Protection 2021 review

Plus, the VPN is now integrated into the main app rather than being a separate download making it more convenient and, again, less confusing.

The other notable enhancement is that machine learning is used for faster detection of threats. Put simply, this means Total Protection should be able to identify threats well before they are added to the global database and subsequently pushed out to users’ machines.

McAfee says that machine learning has been improved and is less likely to give false positives, which are warnings about threats that are actually harmless.

Finally, there’s protection from ‘fileless’ threats. In other words, Total Protection now scans legitimate system files for malicious code rather than assuming they’re safe.

Updates have also been made to the Android and iOS apps, with the former getting enhanced app privacy tools which warn you when apps request unusual permissions, and there’s now native autofill for passwords in iOS (just as there is for Microsoft Edge on PCs).

New interface

The redesigned Windows app uses space better and also makes it far easier to see if everything is fine or not. Below the top message, which reports various things about what’s going on in the background, the main window offers three categories: PC, Web and Identity.

McAfee Total Protection 2021 review

In each of these you’ll find features and tools related to those areas, and it’s a sensible way to split things up given how many features there are these days.

Under PC is Antivirus, Firewall, Secure apps and App Boost. You can drill further down to get to the settings within those, or you can click the Settings shortcut at the top right (like before) for quicker access to specific features such as Real-Time Scanning as well as your account details, reports and general settings.

McAfee Total Protection 2021 review

However, once you’ve gone through the initial setting up of protection that can’t be automated – such as enabling Web Advisor in the browser(s) you use – there shouldn’t be any need to open the app or change any settings.

And that’s how malware protection should be: it should have your back while you get on with the things you want to do online.

When something happens that needs your attention, the notifications clearly explain what happened and whether or not you need to do anything: typically you don’t.

If you want zero notifications (which isn’t a good idea) you can turn off all alerts. But since some of these will warn you when a program disables the firewall, for example, it’s better to leave the alert settings at their defaults.

The list of features is long, there are two which you’ll get from rivals that are still not in Total Protection. One is a monitoring service that alerts you if your logins are ever leaked on the web or dark web. McAfee does offer that kind of service in the US, but not for UK users.

The second is cloud storage. This isn’t a big issue as it’s not really a security feature and so doesn’t detract from the protection offered. But it remains a bonus when you subscribe to rival packages such as Norton 360.

Behind the scenes, much is the same. You get all of the protections from the 2020 version – including cryptojacking – and there are some of the same niggles, too. One is that the default scan time of 4am every second Tuesday virtually guarantees your computer will be switched off, so it won’t happen.

It’s the same with the QuickClean tool, which clears cookies and clears space used by temporary internet files. That is also scheduled to run at 4am and, confusingly, is called Tracker remover in the updated interface.

McAfee Total Protection 2021 review

A useful feature is Secure apps which monitors for updates to any installed apps and lets you click a single button to install all available new versions. It also shows which are deemed ‘critical’ so you can install just those if you prefer.

Malware protection

Testing the effectiveness of antivirus software is, as SE Labs’ Simon Edwards says, a subtle art. Fortunately, McAfee Total Protection ranked fifth overall and third for Total Accuracy which evaluates how well the software can detect and protect against threats as well as how it handles what it calls ‘non-malicious objects’ such as web addresses and apps. See the full report here.

McAfee Total Protection 2021 review

In AV-Test’s latest report covering July and August 2020, McAfee scored 100% for widespread malware detection and 0-day threats which, obviously, can’t be bettered.

It fared less well in AV-Comparatives testing with two false positives, but we’re willing to give McAfee the benefit of the doubt here, and will update this review once the September-October reports are available.

McAfee Total Protection 2021 review

The most worrying result was a score of 79.5% for offline protection (when there’s no live internet connection), but that was much improved over the previous period of testing and beat Norton, Microsoft and others’ scores. Most devices do have a live internet connection, though, so this isn’t as damning as it might seem.

Factor in the minimal impact on performance, and Total Protection 2021 is among the best choices for Windows users for stopping all kinds of threats.

Scam protection

It’s great to see scam protection added to the Windows version, but it’s currently quite basic and we’d like to see it rolled out to Android devices, if not iOS and Macs too.

When WebAdvisor is enabled for each browser you use (there’s support for Chrome, FireFox and Edge), you’ll see green ticks next to search results and the same in supported social media sites.

Downloads are scanned for viruses and there’s a big pop-up when you visit a site that can take control of your PC.

That doesn’t mean the site is malicious – most are legitimate remote access tools such as join.me and Teamviewer – but it’s a useful warning if someone on the phone directs you to one of these sites and you’re unaware of their capabilities.

We found that links on the supported social media sites weren’t always highlighted as promised: YouTube links on Facebook, for example, and it’s worth noting that the warnings are only shown when a URL is displayed in a tweet, not when the link is a clickable image.

It’s worth noting that some social platforms are adding their own scam protection, such as in Facebook Messenger.

Hopefully this will improve over time.

The File Lock module is only downloaded when you enable it, and offers protection for your most precious files. It will password-protect valuable information (or any files) against stealthy Trojans, ransomware, and simply prying eyes. Allied to this is the Data Shredder, which will ensure that the files you delete stay deleted with no hope of resurrection.

There are also options here to shred the contents of the Windows Recycle bin and your temporary internet files. You can also set the shredding level from Basic, which is fast, to Complete, which is slower but far more secure.

Also included in the Identity section is the TrueKey password manager. This allows you to use the multi-factor authentication, including fingerprint recognition if your laptop or phone supports it, and even facial recognition.

As mentioned, it’s now natively supported in iOS.

Mobile apps

Features in the McAfee Mobile Security apps vary between Android and iOS but both include the usual stuff, including web protection, anti-phishing and the ability to locate and wipe your device remotely. There’s also Thief Cam, which allows you to take pictures of whoever steals your mobile device.

Ransomware removal is there as well, and there’s access to the VPN service if that’s included in your subscription – you don’t have to use the separate Safe Connect app.

A nice touch is the ability to lock specific apps so they can only be used by those who know the passcode.

McAfee Total Protection 2021 review

On Android, there’s an improved privacy check that scans installed apps for the permissions they’ve been granted and warns you when they are “accessing an unusually high amount of personal info”, along with a big button to delete the app. That’s a bit drastic, especially if you like or need the app in question, so there are also options to edit the permissions and restrict them to what you consider essential.

VPN

McAfee’s VPN service is bundled with the 1, 5 and 10-device versions of Total Connect. Just note that the VPN service can only be used on five devices.

It uses the TunnelBear service, which McAfee bought a couple of years ago. It’s variously called ‘Safe Web’ and ‘Secure VPN’ depending upon which device you’re using.

One of the useful features available only in the Android app is App level protection. It means you can choose which apps use the VPN connection and which don’t.

Unlike the 2020 version of Total Protection, the VPN is now integrated so you don’t have to download a separate app.

McAfee Total Protection 2021 review

When you click on it in the Windows app, you get 22 countries to choose between, or you can leave the menu set to ‘Fastest Connection’.

It’s very simple to use, but that’s normal for a VPN. What’s surprising is that there are very few settings, and there’s no kill switch at all. That means you won’t know if the VPN stops unexpectedly, leaving you unprotected.

The good news is that we found speeds had improved considerably compared to last year and – better still – we were able to watch titles from the US Netflix library from the UK.

Price & Availability

McAfee – like virtually all its rivals – offers a discount for the first year of your subscription. At the time of writing, you can get a 10-device subscription for less than half price: £39.99 instead of £89.99.

You’ll only save £5 by dropping down to the five-device subscription (£10 after the first year), and a further £5 if you need protection for just one device.

In the US, the deals are slightly different where you can opt for a two-year subscription for $59.99 ($29.99 per year for 10 devices). And don’t forget that additionally includes ID protection, which you don’t get in the UK.

If you have a lot of PCs, laptops, phones and Macs that need protecting it does represent good value.

Take a look at the offers and sign up here.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for something cheaper we'd recommend visiting our round-up of the best antivirus here.

Verdict

McAfee has done a lot to improve Total Protection over the past year and the new interface on Windows is great, as are the simplified alerts.

Protection is very good overall and there are a lot of useful features, some of which need enabling before you’re protected, but it’s obvious which these are and it’s not difficult to sort out.

Although some features still require extra downloads before they can be used, everything is contained within the one app and again, it’s as simple as clicking buttons.

The VPN service is also much improved and while there are still some glaring omissions such as a kill switch, it’s actually worth having now.

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