Why McAfee is still at the top of my Not Recommended list

Over the years, when I’ve had to deal with McAfee products, I have been known to unleash torrents of invective that would make a pirate blush.Over the past month I tried the latest McAfee release. Here's why it's still on my Not Recommended list.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Over the years, when I’ve had to deal with McAfee products, I have been known to unleash torrents of invective that would make a pirate blush.

But I also know from experience that companies and products can change, and it’s important that I take a fresh look every so often to ensure that my conclusions are based on current evidence.

So I've been using McAfee software for the past month or so. What do I think?

Here’s the tl;dr version: Yeah, McAfee is still at the top of my Not Recommended list.

Here’s the long read.

Last month I took delivery of a new Dell PC. That machine—a Dell XPS 8300 with an Intel i5, 6GB of RAM, and a 1TB drive—is now serving as my backup Media Center box. Before the end of the year, Sinofsky willing, I expect it to be running Windows 8. It’s one of the quietest PCs I’ve ever owned, impressively fast, and at $440 from the Dell Outlet it was an unbeatable bargain.

That PC came with a trial version of McAfee Security Center installed. Rather than wipe and replace that security software, I elected to leave it running and have been using it for the past 27 days.

Earlier this month I also helped my Mom pick out a Dell laptop, which arrived at her house last week, also with a trial copy of McAfee installed. She lives 1000 miles away, but I promised her I would help her get things set up using Remote Assistance.

Two Dells. Two McAfee installations. Two splitting McAfee headaches in the past 24 hours. Two uninstalls. Here are the gory details:

The Case of the Overprotective Firewall

It should have been so easy to set up a Remote Assistance connection to my Mom’s new PC. She and I both have Windows Live Messenger installed. All she has to do is send an invitation from a chat window to get the remote-support ball rolling. I got her invitation just fine, clicked Accept, and then … nothing. On her end, Windows 7 helpfully suggested that a firewall might be causing the issue and offered to fix the problem automatically. Nope.

On a hunch, I showed Mom how to uncover the hidden tray icons on the Windows taskbar. Sure enough, a trial copy of McAfee Internet Security was running. I walked Mom through the uninstaller, and after a reboot we were able to make the Remote Assistance connection without any problems.

Once McAfee was out of the picture, it was all smooth sailing. I am very proud of the fact I did not use a single cuss word during that session.

The Case of the Dead Cable Tuner

My backup Media Center PC has three TV tuners: a pair of over-the-air ATSC tuners connected to a rooftop antenna for excellent high-definition broadcast coverage and an external ATI CableCard tuner connected to my Comcast account. That tuner has worked great since I first set it up four years and three PCs ago. But shortly after I moved it to this new PC it stopped recording. I tinkered with the connections, removed and reseated the CableCard, and power-cycled several times. Nothing.

So I reran Media Center setup, detecting all three tuners and configuring them from scratch. That worked, but it’s a brute-force solution that has some side effects (lost program guide settings) and should be necessary only in exceptional circumstances.

This morning, when I tried to switched to CNN, I was greeted with a familiar and very unwelcome message: “No tuner is available.”

And then I remembered the McAfee Security Center trial version installed on this PC. It’s due to expire in three days anyway, and in my testing I haven’t seen it do anything to justify a $40-a-year (discounted) price tag.

So instead of troubleshooting, I visited Control Panel and removed the McAfee software. After a reboot, I opened Media Center and had no trouble tuning in to every available channel. With McAfee out of the way, it was easy.

Both of these PCs were Dell consumer PCs, and in both cases what should have been a pleasant out-of-box experience was made needlessly difficult because of McAfee’s intrusive software. The Remote Assistance issue in particular is one that just should not have happened. This is not a new feature. A Windows security program should know how to deal with it right out of the box, not block it silently.

On the Inspiron 15R desktop, there was also a small mountain of shovelware, including a giant Dell Stage program that kept annoying us. I couldn’t get rid of it fast enough.

I generally like what Dell’s doing with hardware these days, but the plague of unnecessary software has got to go. In fact, it makes me really wish the Microsoft Store carried the laptop model she bought. (They carry some Dells, but not the 15-inch Inspiron.) The Microsoft Signature option, with “no trialware or sample software that can slow your PC” and Microsoft Security Essentials installed, would have been a real treat.

I have had little confidence in McAfee as a company since they released a defective virus update back in April 2010 that rendered target systems unable to start. And that was just the latest in a long line of screw-ups. See A pox on McAfee (2004), and the comments on this post (2007), and this post about McAfee’s sloppy response to the Conficker worm (2009). Based on this week’s personal experience, I continue to advise against using McAfee security software.

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