McAfee has redesigned its antivirus application, VirusScan Plus, to provide three security tools -- antivirus, firewall, antispyware -- plus a package of system performance utilities in one product. On the surface that sounds great, but the changes appear to be only cosmetic. Looking inside, we found that McAfee offers few new security tools and also runs several agents and services that could slow older PCs. And we're still not impressed with McAfee's own lacklustre technical support package. For brand-name protection, this year we give the edge to Symantec, whose Norton Antivirus 2007 shows the most improvement over last year's product.
McAfee VirusScan Plus is available in retail stores and for download from the McAfee.com site. We found the setup from a download to be unnecessarily hard. For example, McAfee requires that you install its Download Center, then after the Download Center analyses your system, you must indicate what product you want to download. But wait, there's more: the Download Center must now connect to the Internet and download the file, which for VirusScan Plus is in individual pieces -- VirusScan, Personal Firewall, SiteAdvisor, and Security Center. On a wireless laptop, our initial download-and-installation process took about an hour. On a LAN connection, a second installation required only 10 minutes. What's interesting is that unlike other antivirus and firewall combos we've seen, McAfee VirusScan Plus doesn't require a reboot.
Once installed, McAfee VirusScan Plus 2007 occupies 75MB of hard drive space -- that's less than half the space required for Norton Antivirus 2007. Yet despite its small profile, McAfee actually runs more agents and services, consuming more system resources overall than Norton. Unlike Norton, which is strictly Windows XP, McAfee installs on both Windows 2000 and Windows XP machines.
If you should ever want to remove VirusScan Plus 2007, expect some hard work. First, you'll have to use the Windows Control Panel Add/Remove Programs panel to access an uninstall-like application that offers you the option to remove individual applications, should decide you, for example, that you want to keep the Site Advisor antisphishing tool. Twice, however, our install froze while uninstalling the VirusScan module; we had to terminate the uninstall process with the Windows Task Manager and restart the uninstall process to finish uninstalling the rest. Once the uninstall process did complete, and we rebooted our test system, McAfee left behind a mess. We had to delete individually several files within folders, along with several McAfee-specific registry keys -- which is more than the average user should be required to do. By comparison, Norton Antivirus 2007 did a much better job cleaning up after itself, although it still was not ideal.
The initial Protection Center interface offers a left-hand navigation for all tools, with a right-hand window pane for system status. McAfee's left-hand navigation consists of two tables of contents, one that lists basic features and a second listing with more-advanced tools. We like that McAfee has blended its various tools so that the overall product feels like a whole rather than like several stand-alone applications repackaged. But unlike Symantec, which not only redesigned its look but also rewrote much of its underlying code, McAfee didn't rewrite much code; despite its look, McAfee VirusScan Plus feels heavy and clunky.
McAfee's redesigned Security Center remains a shameless way to sell product. For example, let's say something called Content Blocking is not installed and needs further attention. Rather than explain why a lack of content blocking could be bad, it links to the McAfee online store so that you can purchase a copy of McAfee Internet Security 2007. To be fair, Symantec sells stuff too, but at least with Norton Antivirus 2007 the Buy Now icon is tucked away in the upper-right corner of an otherwise information-filled screen.
McAfee bills VirusScan Plus 2007 as its three-in-one security solution -- antivirus, firewall, and antispyware -- and we found that it does even more. Included within are system diagnostic tools to shred deleted files and defragment your hard drive; various network monitoring tools; and McAfee's own antisphishing tool, SiteAdvisor.
McAfee VirusScan Plus 2007 builds on its antivirus technology by incorporating features from the now-discontinued McAfee Antispyware application, such as proactive protection from "Potentially Unwanted Programs" (aka spyware). Antivirus and spyware scans are performed simultaneously instead of serially. New in VirusScan Plus is SystemGuard, which monitors real-time changes to your PC, such as spyware installation, ActiveX installations, and new Start Up menu items. SystemGuard blocks these with an alert until you say otherwise. Also new is X-Ray for Windows, which is Mcafee's tool to detect and remove rootkits.
By also adding features from the now-discontinued McAfee Personal Firewall, McAfee VirusScan Plus can report network traffic information, as well as hook into McAfee's Hacker Watch global network to report port traffic worldwide (spikes are sometimes precursors to major attacks). This may be more than the average user wants, so these tools are hidden within the Advanced table of contents.
We like the fact that McAfee VirusScan Plus 2007 also includes system performance utilities, such as McAfee's own file shredder and disk cache cleaner. What's missing from VirusScan Plus, however, is a tighter integration of all the tools around its central antivirus theme. For example, Norton has rebranded its firewall technology within Norton AntiVirus 2007 as Internet Worm Protection. McAfee has simply added a firewall to their antivirus application.
McAfee VirusScan (even with its new firewall) improves its scores on our CNET Labs' performance tests over those of last year, except in our boot-time test. On our iTunes test, VirusScan Plus gained ground compared with last year, taking 196 seconds as opposed to 243 seconds last year. On our Sorensen Squeeze test, VirusScan Plus also improved, taking 329 seconds compared to 337 seconds last year. McAfee showed the most improvement with individual file scans, taking only 116 seconds this year as opposed to 368 seconds last year. But in terms of boot speed, McAfee lost the most ground, taking 88 seconds -- the most of any antivirus product we tested; it took 62 seconds last year. To find out how we test, see CNET Labs' How we test: software: antivirus page.
We refer to test results from two leading independent antivirus testing organisations to determine how well a product will protect your PC. In the latest test results from AV-Comparatives.org, McAfee VirusScan 2006 earned an Advanced (second-highest) rating, catching 92 percent of all malware tested, and from CheckVir.com, McAfee VirusScan 2006 was one of eight products to earn its Standard (highest) rating.
McAfee has yet to work out the kinks in its technical support site, and unless you obtained your product through a vendor agreement, you'll have to go through McAfee for support. In order to get online technical support, for example, you need to choose a product. Not a problem, as long as you know that VirusScan Plus 2007 is called VirusScan 11 on the technical-support side of McAfee's site; most people won't know this but can probably guess it. Product-naming inconsistencies aside, the process is automated so that first you are presented with a series of likely FAQs and almost all involve problems with the Download Center. If none of these FAQs solves your problem, you're either invited to download an ActiveX component that will scan your system and program then contact a technical support person or you're presented with a list of free services such as posting to a community forum, community-answered e-mail, or free online chat. What's missing from the McAfee site are helpful online tutorials and manuals for download.
Although McAfee redesigned the look of its VirusScan product, we didn't find the feel to be much better than last year's offering. Despite some improvements in scan performance, McAfee might slow older PCs will all the services and processes it launches during a scan. And McAfee's own technical support could be better.