McAfee VirusScan 9.0 won't knock your socks off with a slew of new viral-busting tools, but it is an incremental improvement over last year's impressive VirusScan 8.0. The latest version is better at detecting and deleting troublesome spyware programs, plus it's faster at scanning outbound e-mail attachments and has retained the excellent McAfee Security Center interface. Like Norton AntiVirus, VirusScan 9.0 lacks a firewall, but at least Norton includes a port-blocking technology to thwart some inbound hacker threats. VirusScan isn't too much of a resource hog: during system scans, you'll still be able to use your PC as you normally would--open programs and files, surf the Net, and so on--without a significant performance hit. VirusScan 8.0 users should upgrade for the improved spyware detection, but new users should opt for an antivirus program with a firewall, such as last year's Editors' Choice winner, Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2004, or the newly released ZoneAlarm with Antivirus. In our informal tests, McAfee VirusScan 9.0 installed in less than 5 minutes. Fast, yes, but McAfee didn't run a scan before or after installation, which, in other antivirus apps, typically catches viruses during setup. While you can always run a manual scan via Security Center, McAfee should have automated its setup scans to help inexperienced new users. By comparison, in our informal tests, Norton AntiVirus 2005, which performs both presetup and postsetup scans, took 45 minutes to install.
The McAfee Security Center screen gives you a graphical snapshot of your PC's vulnerability to viruses, spam, spyware, and other threats. A series of security indexes, using a scale from 1 to 10, gauge your safety level. Helpful, yes, but essentially unchanged from last year. Dig deeper, however, and you'll see that McAfee has dropped version 8.0's austere configuration screen in favor of a tab-based, easier-to-read appearance akin to that of VirusScan 7.0. This makes VirusScan 9.0's configuration options, such as how to schedule an automated scan, a breeze to locate.
Outlook users will like the VirusScan icon that inserts itself on the standard toolbar. You can now run a quick e-mail scan simply by clicking this icon. Like leading competitors Norton AntiVirus and Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security, VirusScan automatically scans both inbound and outbound e-mail.McAfee VirusScan 9.0 is a top-flight viral warrior, and it has the skills to prove it. It runs in the background, stealthily scanning Internet downloads, along with instant-messenger and e-mail attachments, for viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and malevolent ActiveX Controls and Java applets. VirusScan also searches for spyware and adware--or, in McAfee parlance, potentially unwanted programs--during system scans.
But any good antivirus app does all this, right? Yes, but VirusScan does it without bringing your computer to its knees, which is more than we can say for archrival Norton. During a McAfee system scan, we were able to use our test PC normally--loading programs and files and surfing the Net--with only a slight performance hit. Example: Microsoft Word loaded in 6 seconds during a McAfee scan; Word took 35 seconds to load during a Norton scan. But there's a price to pay for VirusScan's frugality: longer scans. In our informal tests, it took McAfee 48 minutes to scan our 12GB disk partition, whereas Norton took a mere 37 minutes to scan the same volume.
VirusScan 9.0 takes less time to inspect file attachments, an important consideration for outbound e-mail. If the scan takes too long, many e-mail clients will time out and refuse to send the message. In our tests, VirusScan took six minutes to scan a 4MB outbound e-mail attachment, putting it on a par with Norton's performance.
Are there any shortcomings? Given its $49.99 retail price, VirusScan 9.0 should include a firewall or at least a port-blocking technology to stop unsolicited inbound packets. We'd like to see real-time detection of spyware, a feature found in McAfee's higher-end, business-oriented antivirus programs.In CNET Labs tests, McAfee VirusScan produced the same amount of a drag on system performance as Symantec Norton AntiVirus and Trend Micro PC-cillin did. The lightest hit on system resources came from Computer Associates eTrust EZ Antivirus. VirusScan took longer to scan our 1.3GB hard drive than both PC-cillin and eTrust EZ Antivirus.
To measure VirusScan's impact on system performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2002, an industry-standard benchmark. The Internet-content-creation portion of SysMark measures a desktop's performance running off-the-shelf applications, such as Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder, and Macromedia Dreamweaver. (We did not run the office-productivity portion of the benchmark because it incorporates McAfee VirusScan 5.13.)
Our test system was a Dell Dimension 8200 running Windows XP Professional, with an Intel Pentium 4 1.9GHz processor and 256MB of RDRAM. With VirusScan running, our test system scored a 94--meaning there was a 6 percent reduction in overall system speed. By comparison, Norton AntiVirus 2005 also scored a 94, a 6 percent reduction. (An Internet-content-creation score of 100 represents the performance of our test system without any extraneous software running.) In a test of scanning speed, McAfee took an average of 6.68 minutes to scan a 1.3GB directory--nowhere near as fast as speed-demon PC-cillin, which averaged 2.4 minutes.
In past VirusBulletin tests, McAfee's VirusScan has been tested only once, back in June of 2002, and it passed. By comparison, Norton AntiVirus has been tested 10 times and earned the coveted VB 100 Percent title each time. Norton AntiVirus is one of the few products tested to consistently win the VB 100 Percent award. Previous versions of VirusScan have also been certified by the independent antivirus-testing laboratories at West Coast Checkmark, ICSA Labs, and Checkvir.com.
For more details on how we test antivirus apps, see the CNET Labs site.We found McAfee's e-mail and online-chat support for VirusScan to be very good this year. Queries were answered promptly--for instance, we received a response to an e-mail question within 20 minutes--and the tech staff was polite and professional. Online chat is available 24/7, and McAfee promises a 24-hour response time for e-mail queries. McAfee's online VirusScan support site is very well organized and easy to navigate.
But phone support will cost you. McAfee charges $2.95 per minute after the first two free minutes or $39 per incident. Symantec has similar pay rates for its customers, but Trend Micro provides free 24/7 phone help to PC-cillin users.