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McAfee 2012 blocks bots

McAfee takes aim at blocking bots in its latest version, although weak test scores mean that we don't recommend this year's McAfee suite.

The bottom line: McAfee takes aim at blocking bots in its latest version, although weak test scores mean that we don't recommend this year's McAfee suite.

Review:
McAfee released a major overhaul to its security suite back in 2010, coming up with a new vertically oriented interface that made navigating much easier. Since then, the annual updates have been incremental at best, improving the feature set yet not making substantial changes overall. McAfee Total Protection 2012 adds some new features, but these are frankly more about keeping up with the Joneses--or at least, keeping up with the Nortons and Kasperskys--than actually pushing any kind of innovation. Meanwhile, the suite's performance on tests both from CNET Labs and independent sources calls into question how effective it really is.

Installation
Installing McAfee was where our problems with the suite began. The registration process was simple enough, but it also aggressively detects competing suites to the point where the slightest bit of Registry detritus will cause the installation to freak out. If that happens to you, it will attempt to find the offending remnants. If it can't find them, you'll have to reboot and reinstall McAfee.

While there are legitimate security and performance problems that can be created by running two competing suites simultaneously, this is the kind of trouble that is not acceptable from with a expensive security suite. We also had problems when running other essential programs, such as a Web browser, while installing.

To its shame, McAfee's uninstallation process left a few Registry keys behind, too.

Interface
First introduced in 2010, the unusual vertically oriented design is surprisingly easy to use. Features have been clearly delineated, and potentially confusing names have been jettisoned. For example, firewall settings control how you access the Web, so they're listed under Web and E-mail Protection.

Also, McAfee stands out for not only color-coding what your status is, but also adding in what that means. The "Your computer is secure" message is bolstered by "No action required," a helpful tip. Click on any of the four categories just below the status bar and the pane just to the right reveals links that let you drill deeper into your security status. Mouse over the big subcategories at the bottom and a general status message appears next to the name. Click on one for more configuration settings.

This was the strongest part of the McAfee 2012 efforts, making the suite visually distinct without sacrificing usability.

Features and support
McAfee provides a solid list of standard security features, from antivirus and anti-malware protection, a two-way firewall, and antispam measures to real-time safeguards, parental controls, and search result rankings.

As befits a high-end suite, Total Protection 2012 also comes with some helpful extras, such as a secure file shredder, encrypted local storage, online backup, some basic Wi-Fi protection on home-based wireless networks, and tools for tweaking system performance.

It also introduces several new features. These include Net Guard, for blocking botnets and protecting your personal data from being sent out without your permission; a "hacked page" protection for blocking iFrames on malicious sites; "deep page" protection for preventing hacked pages within otherwise safe sites from resolving; and USB drive scanning.

The parental control package has been updated, too. Parents get protection against blacklisted Web traffic in programs other than the browser, such as instant-messaging applications; browsing logs; and the ability to monitor changes to the clock to prevent clever kids from circumventing the suite's program timer.

Two other small but important new features address the social nature of modern browsing, but are only available from McAfee's browser toolbar. One is a custom URL shortener, routed through McAfee servers, and the second is a new site-sharing service with hooks into your Twitter, Facebook, and local clipboard. However, these are limited to the browsers that support the toolbar, which are Firefox and Internet Explorer. Google Chrome and its rocketing market share remain ignored.

McAfee offers a good set of features that keep it competitive, but nothing that really looks forward or pushes the envelope.

Performance
Despite the smart interface and competent features, McAfee's performance has been abysmal when it comes to preventing threats, and middling when it comes to system benchmarks.

Since McAfee Total Protection 2012 shares an engine with McAfee Internet Security 2012 and McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2012, CNET Labs benchmarked all three. Note that while last year's benchmarks were tested on the basic installation of Windows 7 x64, CNET Labs is now using a Windows 7 x64 test bed running Service Pack 1. So while results are more comparable than they would be with, say, a Windows XP computer, there's still a notable difference between the test computers.

CNET Labs found that Total Protection's impact on boot time was smaller than average, but that its sibling suites had among the worst boot-time impact of any tested this year. And although all three were highly competitive in their shutdown times, they slipped below average again on scan times. Those three benchmarks are key, since those are the most noticeable during regular computer use, and we would've preferred to see better marks here. However, McAfee appeared to have a more mundane effect on an in-use computer, scoring slightly above or slightly below average on all counts.

McAfee did well but not great in real-world scan time tests. Its quick scan averaged 8 minutes, 8 seconds; that's much slower than many competitors. The full scan took an average of 2 hours, 5 minutes, longer than many competitors by about half an hour.

Security program Boot time Shutdown time Scan time MS Office performance iTunes decoding Media multitasking Cinebench
Unprotected system 40 6 n/a 395 120 342 17,711
Average of all tested systems (to date) 67.4 16.2 1,058 414 125 347 17,129
McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2012 90.7 12.8 1,156 423 126 344 17,294
McAfee Internet Security 2012 96.3 15.9 1,276 411 125 344 17,164
McAfee Total Protection 2012 61.8 11.3 1,299 409 125 348 17,243

Note: All tests measured in seconds, except for Cinebench. On the Cinebench test, higher numbers are better.

How good is the protection it offers? Surveying the results from several independent testing agencies, the answer is probably going to cause much gnashing of teeth among McAfee fans. AV-Test marked consistently low scores for McAfee Total Protection 2011 during the first two quarters of 2011. On a Windows 7 computer, McAfee scored 3 out of 6 on Protection, 2 out of 6 on Repair, and 3.5 out of 6 on Usability, for an overall score of 8.5 out of 18 and failing the minimum of 11 for an AV-Test certificate.

In the second quarter, on a Windows XP computer, McAfee Total Protection 2011 and 2012 did marginally better. The suite hit 3 out of 6 on both Protection and Repair, and 3.5 out of 6 on Usability, for a total of 9.5 out of 18, still not high enough to be certified.

Note that AV-Test defines its categories as follows: "The 'Protection' covers static and dynamic malware detection, including real-world zero-day attack testing. In case of 'Repair,' we check the system disinfection and rootkit removal in detail. The 'Usability' testing includes the system slowdown caused by the tools and the number of false positives."

In short, AV-Test found McAfee Total Protection 2011 and the new 2012 to be not worth the time or effort, at least from a purely protective point of view.

The most recent AV-Comparatives.org Whole Product test, which looks at on-demand scanning, retroactive tests, and "real-world" guards including cloud-based protections, showed generally dark trends for McAfee 2011 with a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. From January 2011 through August 2011, McAfee was the third-worst suite tested overall, ahead of only K7 and PC Tools with a 93.6 percent blocked-threat rate. The September 2011 test got a much better score, having blocked 98.7 percent of attacks and threats thrown at it. That's fourth-best for the month, an impressive turnaround that bodes well for McAfee 2012, but it's not enough to correct for prior failures.

A third testing lab, Dennis Technology Labs, had the worst news of the lot for McAfee. From its January 2011 test, in its Overall Protection test of high-end suites, Dennis Labs placed McAfee dead last out of 11, with an overall protection score of 54 percent. Dennis placed McAfee last in its Accuracy test, too.

It's fair to conclude that despite one glimmer of brightness for the future, McAfee has had a horrifically bad year when it comes to independent testing. While it is true that these tests are more of a snapshot in time than the final word on anything, they do provide us with a reasonable picture of the security field at a given moment. It's just not McAfee's moment.

Conclusion
McAfee has made good products in the past, and it may well do so again. However, the combined performance marks are a horror show, and there are too many inconsistencies throughout the rest of the suite to overlook benchmarks in favor of reputation.

Give McAfee Total Protection 2012 a miss.

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