Security suite vendor McAfee debuts its 2010 product line today, introducing an overhauled interface and new features in a bid to remain competitive. The change to its interface is as dramatic a shift as the one that Avast introduced in its 2010 suites, although McAfee's look is drastically different from any major security program currently on the market. Most of the features in McAfee AntiVirus Plus, McAfee Internet Security, and McAfee Total Protection are not new, but the presentation is so radical that the improvements are likely to be glossed over. Users of older McAfee should note that VirusScan Plus has been renamed AntiVirus Plus.

The biggest feature update comes to McAfee's real-time defense engine called Artemis. These engines are now a commonplace feature in the better antivirus programs. First introduced in late 2008, Artemis is McAfee's blend of blacklists, whitelists, and cloud analysis. In the 2010 versions, Brian Trombley, McAfee's director of consumer product management, said, Artemis works in conjunction with McAfee SiteAdvisor to scan downloads as they occur. The scans include using real-time URL, IP address, and domain name data to evaluate downloads for threats before they land on your hard drive.

The revamped engine allows McAfee to change its threat ratings on the fly, although the procedure has an escape hatch built in, so if it falsely flags a site as malicious, users can override the rating and push through. There is no user override for malicious files. By using McAfee's labs, malware research, e-mail research, and Web research, Trombley said that "the goal is to tie together actors and sites."

The new main interface for McAfee's home consumer programs. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The firewall has changed, too, as McAfee has upgraded its home consumer firewall to match the one the company markets to businesses.

McAfee's new interface refocuses its features in a top-down format, which stands out from the typical left-nav and tabs design. At the top of the vertical window sits a notification bar, as many other security suites have. McAfee's stands out for not only color-coding what your status is, but also adding in what that means. So the "Your computer is secure" message is bolstered by a secondary one, "No action required." This may seem like a redundant statement, but Trombley said that three years of researching, the new interface and testing the improved features concluded that the change was essential for cutting down on user confusion.

Just below the status bar are supplementary status notifications, color-coded as well for ease of use. Real-time scanning, Updates, Firewall, and Subscription status sit on the left of the interface, while the time of your next scheduled scan and a link to change it reside on the right. Click on any of the four categories and the right pane change to reveal links to drill deeper into your security status. The Real-time scanning link, for example, offers additional links to scan, change your scan settings, or adjust real-time settings. This aspect of the interface is most similar to its competitors, although the big font and simplified terminology are appreciated for streamlining tasks.

Below all the status notifications are the guts of the program. Separated into four categories are Virus and Spyware Protection, Web and E-mail Protection, and Parental Controls (on McAfee Internet Security and Total Protection). Each one opens a small group of links that open further information about your scan settings, firewall and anti-spam controls, network protections, and parent control options.

Available at any time, the security report presents all essential security data in an easy-to-read, printable format. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

One thing that's notable about McAfee's updates is that none of the lesser products has its security features hamstrung in an effort to get more people to upgrade. What's available in McAfee Total Protection, the high-end version, is nearly identical to what's in the basic consumer McAfee AntiVirus Plus. What McAfee hopes users will find worth upgrading for is its included Mozy Online Backup, with McAfee Internet Security users getting 1GB of free storage and McAfee Total Protection users getting 2GB free; and parental controls.

The Home Network Defense feature is only available in McAfee Total Protection. It lets you see network settings of yours and other computers on your network, and to mark a computer on your home network as an intruder that will prevent it from accessing other computers on the network.

McAfee has discontinued several features from its previous versions. SystemGuards has been fully replaced by Artemis, and local backup has been replaced by Mozy. The Personal Information Protection, in which a user could enter personal data such as social security numbers or credit card information and expect to have its unintended dissemination over the Internet prevented was discontinued for not being effective. The PasswordVault for securing passwords on the Web has been replaced by browser-provided password protection, and the EasyNetwork system for local file sharing has been replaced by Windows 7's file-sharing system. This anticipates data just released, that in the few months that Windows 7 has been available to the public it has taken more than 10 percent of the operating system market share.

Intuitively, links on the right change as you click categories on the left. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

You should note that if you are switching to McAfee from another security vendor, it doesn't play nicely with other already-installed security apps and it will demand that you remove them before completing its own installation. Somewhat politely, it provides you with links to information on how to uninstall them.

As with most program overhauls, McAfee promises faster install times, faster scan times, more effective scans and a small memory footprint. CNET Labs hasn't finished testing the performance benchmarks against McAfee's competitors, and there's no third-party efficacy data yet available on McAfee 2010, but in empirical testing, the first fast scan finished in less than 10 minutes. Because of file marking, subsequent fast scans finished in less than one minute. Its first full scan took nearly 85 minutes.

According to McAfee, the first full scan will be 55 minutes faster on the 2010 version compared with the 2009 version. Subsequent full scans should be an astounding 120 minutes faster, from 135 minutes to 15 minutes. Also, according to McAfee, users should see their computers with the 2010 version start-up 300 percent faster than with the 2009 version, and that computer shutdowns with the new version should be 30 percent faster.

Mouse over a sub-category to reveal its status. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The most likely reason for the massive improvement in start-up time is that, like a few other security vendors, McAfee doesn't fully load all of its processes by the time that you can start using programs on your desktop. Trombley said that this doesn't affect the security of the computer, only that the McAfee interface isn't full accessible until about 90 seconds after the system tray icons appear.

Overall, though, McAfee's 2010 products felt light and didn't interfere with heavy computer use over a half-day of testing.

A one-computer license for McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2010 costs $39.99, while a three-computer license for McAfee Internet Security 2010 retails for $69.99, but it is currently available on McAfee's Web site for $20 off. McAfee Total Protection 2010 costs $79.99 for a three-computer license, but is also discounted currently by $20 on its Web site.