Mobile Security at a steep price

The bottom line: McAfee Mobile Security 2.0 gives your Android a fairly robust guard dog, but its steep cost may be too much for some.

The bottom line: McAfee Mobile Security 2.0 gives your Android a fairly robust guard dog, but its steep cost may be too much for some.

Review: Like many Android security apps, McAfee Mobile Security 2.0 realizes that while malware exists on Android, securing a mobile device must include features that combat theft and protect your data.

Note that this review is based on using McAfee Mobile Security on a Samsung Captivate Glide running Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread.

Although all security apps require some kind of registration process before you can use even their trial versions, we found McAfee's to be unnecessarily cumbersome. Along with creating a McAfee account, which is necessary for your license key and gives you access to the app's remote management features, you have create a password PIN for the app, and you have to respond to McAfee's verification code text message before you can use it.

The app installs on your phone as "McAfee Security."

Unlike some of the other big names that have jumped into the Android security pool, McAfee does not offer a free version with a paid upgrade. Instead, you get a seven-day trial, after which a year's license will run you $29.99. That currently makes McAfee one of the most restrictive security apps on the market, and possibly the most restrictive.

McAfee takes up a hefty 13.21MB on your phone, more than double the memory that many competitors take up. It has permission rights to your personal information, services that cost you money, messages, network communication, your accounts, storage, phone calls, and system tools.

The app is set to launch when you turn on your phone or tablet, although it hides itself from your notification bar unless you have security issues to address. The app launches to a white screen with the McAfee logo, and takes some time to load. It's not instantaneous. You must enter in your PIN every time you want to check out the app, which is a good security feature but annoying.

Once in, the app offers six security categories you can configure. These include Security Scan; App Protection; Call and SMS Filter; Backup, Restore, and Wipe; Lock Device; and Web Protection. Each one is accompanied on the left by a recognizable icon. There's also a healthy list of options under the hardware Settings button.

It's a well-designed interface, with colored icons to help you identify features and subfeatures. We weren't expecting it to be as easy to navigate as it was, but it's definitely got a good layout and look.

Features and support
McAfee Mobile Security 2.0 has some nifty extras layered on top of a solid features set. The basics are present courtesy a scanning engine that incorporates antivirus, antispyware, and antiphishing protection. It looks for malicious code on memory cards, and in apps, files, text messages, and Internet downloads.

The engine also offers protection from PUPs, Potentially Unwanted Programs. This includes dialers, commercial spyware, and adware, even when downloaded in conjunction with legitimate apps. The on-demand scan was zippy, completing in around 60 seconds.

McAfee's well-known tool for protecting against malicious links, called SiteAdvisor, has been bolted into the app, too. It blocks you from opening risky links from text messages and e-mail, and from social networking sites, and it works for browser exploits and malicious QR (quick response) codes, too. The QR code threat protection is unusual, but a good idea given the rise of QR malware in Europe.

Of course, a big part of mobile device security involves protecting the device itself. There's a remote device lock for preventing misuse of the phone and personal data, remote data wipe for deleting the phone's contents if it's stolen, a "scream" alarm to annoy thieves, and backup and restore data for preserving information. McAfee also offers uninstall protection, and you can customize a message to display if the device gets lost.

New in version 2.0 are app permission guards, and call and SMS filtering. The filter tool is a shocking oversight on Android, while the app protection analyzes app permissions and lets you know with helpful icons which apps are asking for which permissions. When looking at an app's permissions in McAfee, it provides an on-the-fly Trust-or-Remove option for quickly approving or killing off an app.

Like many competitors, McAfee offers a Web portal to make all those remote security features work. It's got a clean left-side nav, with most of the action happening in the center. Like the mobile app, it offers a lot of granular control via in-depth settings.

While the app is feature-rich, it's not perfect. It could have more in the way of parental options, or data throttling, but the biggest problem is having to enter in a PIN to even see the app's features. It's a real barrier to even checking up on what the app's done recently, and we think there's a legitimate concern that people will choose weak PINs such as 123456 to make using the app easier. Poor form for a security company.

As noted earlier, mobile security performance is hard to gauge on a purely antivirus-based scale because there just aren't that many threats out there, although they do exist. What we did look at were scan times, and how the phone startup times were affected by the app.

When looking at "cold booting" the phone, in which the phone is completely shut off, started, and then timed until the mobile data connection has been established, the Captivate Glide we tested without McAfee averaged 25.38 seconds to boot over three attempts. With Mobile Security installed, the phone averaged 28.06 seconds to boot over three attempts. The less than 3-second impact on startup time is a fast score, and in terms of the hard-to-quantify "feel," the phone bootup felt no slower with Mobile Security installed versus without it.

As noted in Features, McAfee's Security Scan averaged 60.15 seconds over three "cold boot" scans, and the App Protection scan took averaged 9.56 seconds over three "cold boot" scans.

Overall, McAfee Mobile Security 2.0 appears to not have a major impact on the phone's performance.

McAfee Mobile Security 2.0 offers a solid level of security, powered by the same Global Threat Intelligence network that McAfee uses to power its desktop products. That gives the app some cloud-based leverage, but Windows users familiar with McAfee's shaky rep over the past few years might not consider that a selling point.

Meanwhile, the features appear to be solid and heighten your security, but installing the app is frustrating and tedious, and it's a pain to have to enter in a PIN every time we touched the app--including when in the app the screen went to sleep. The $29.99 annual subscription is a hard sell, too. If you're a McAfee user on your PC and you use Android, this is probably the app you want so that your security products are unified and can talk to each other. Otherwise? You can get the same for less from other apps.

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