McAfee vs Norton - Which is best

A handful of leading software brands are instantly recognizable. When it comes to antivirus, both McAfee and Norton fall into this category and are well-respected names in many homes around the world.

Both McAfee and Norton are trusted to protect against online threats, but the question is which one does it best in 2020? Hackers attack computers and networks as frequently as every 39 seconds, so it is important to choose the best available protection.

For this review, I will put both antivirus products through testing and consult the latest independent test lab results in order to conclusively answer which performs better against malware and viruses. In order to compare, I used two like-for-like offerings from each provider – McAfee Total Protection – 5 Devices and Norton 360 Deluxe.

Alongside basic malware detection and removal, I will also review additional security features bundled with each provider to see which offers the best value for money and all round protection.

If you don’t have time to read my full McAfee vs Norton comparison, I can tell you that my winner is Norton. It boasts superior malware protection results from independent labs and better additional security features such as a VPN, cloud backup and webcam protection.

Here’s what I found in my researching and testing on McAfee vs Norton:

Summary: McAfee vs Norton

McAfee

  • Useful system optimization tools
  • File shredder
  • Very low number of false alarms

Norton

  • Excellent protection against malware
  • Features webcam protection, ransomware protection and, password manager
  • Includes a VPN and cloud data backup
FeatureMcAfee Total ProtectionNorton 360 Deluxe
Antivirus and Antispyware
Firewall
Webcam Protection
Password Manager
Anti-Phishing✔ ✔ 
Ransomware protection
Banking and Payment Protection
Parental Control
Network Attack Protection
Encrypted storage 
Automatically update apps
VPN✖ 
PC Cloud backup ✔ ( 50 GB) 
File Shredder 
Performance optimization 
Identity theft protection ✔ (Included when you are enrolled in auto renewal) 

Background

McAfee was founded in 1987 and is headquartered in Santa Clara, California. McAfee has been securing devices over the last 30 years, providing protection against viruses, malware, fileless attacks, and other threats.

Today McAfee operates a global threat intelligence network to gather data on threats from over 500 million endpoints.

Norton has been around for 28 years making it one of the best known names in the industry.  Since 2001 Norton antivirus has been produced and distributed by Symantec Corporation in California.

Pricing & Compatibility

At the time of writing Norton and McAfee each offer five subscription tiers.

As the tables above show, the first three products in each lineup are priced at a similar range, but top tier products cost significantly more.

Both Norton and McAfee offer first-year discounts at the time of writing. The cost for McAfee Total Protection – 5 Devices in the first year would cost $39.99.  The 1st year offer on Norton 360 Deluxe was $49.99.

Norton offers a 60-day money-back guarantee allowing you to try out the product and make sure it works for you. McAfee In contrast McAfee offers a 30-day free trial so you can download Total Protection for free with no credit card required.

I have used both the free trial of Total Protection and the money-back guarantee from Norton and can confirm that my subscription fee was refunded in full with no problems.

It’s worth noting that McAfee’s Total Protection does include ID monitoring. To get the same with Norton you need to go for the higher subscription tier, Norton 360 with LifeLock Select, which costs $149.99.

Both McAfee and Norton are compatible with Windows PCs, iOS, Android and MacOS.

Effectiveness against malware

I wanted to know which antivirus product offers the best protection against malware, so I installed both Norton and McAfee on my own PC for first-hand experience. Once I had a program installed, I then proceeded to run my own malware detection tests using two methods.

First I ran real-time detection tests that scan for malware threats in real-time while you are using your PC. The second type of test I ran was an offline test using multiple malware samples downloaded from Eicar (The European Institute for Computer Antivirus Research). To run this second test I had to turn off the real-time detection setting on the antivirus program and run a full system scan.

I also consulted the detailed test results provided by major independent antivirus test labs AV-Comparatives and AV-Test to try and get the bigger picture. Here are the results of my research and tests.

Test FileEicar Sample 1Eicar Sample 2Eicar Sample 3Eicar Sample 4Live Sample 1 (Adware)Live Sample 2 (Trojan)Live Sample 3 (Trojan)
NortonBlockedAllowedAllowedAllowedBlockedBlockedBlocked
McAfeeBlockedBlockedBlockedBlockedBlockedBlockedBlocked

My tests on both antivirus products are shown in the table above. The results show Norton blocked one of the Eicar samples but allowed three. Norton blocked all three live malware samples including Adware and Trojans.

For Norton, the Eicar.com and .txt files were blocked on HTTP. Zip files were allowed on HTTP. The .com file was blocked on HTTPS, while the .txt and .zip files were allowed on HTTPS.

The .zip file extractions were disallowed on both HTTP and HTTPS. Live samples were immediately detected and deleted after unlocking and unzipping.

McAfee blocked all EICAR download attempts and blocked attempts to install live malware samples from password-protected files.

To test the quick scan feature, I turned off the AV tool so I could redownload EICAR and live samples and test again using this setting. Norton failed to detect the Eicar and live samples in quick scan mode. McAfee’s quick scan also failed to detect the malware threats and missed both the Eicar and live samples.

To complement my own tests I also took a look at some independent AV testing lab results. During September and October 2019 AV-Test continuously evaluated 19 home user security products using their default settings. Based on these tests each provider is given a score out of six in different categories. So let’s compare the scores given to both McAfee and Norton for various categories.

When it comes to real-world protection McAfee was rated as 5.5/6.0 by AV-Test while Norton scored higher with a perfect 6.0/6.0.

Looking deeper at the results I found that in protection against 0-day malware attacks, inclusive of web and e-mail threats (Real-World Testing), McAfee scored 99.3% protection rate in September 2019 and a 98.4% protection rate in October 2019. Although this is lower than a few other providers, it is still well above the industry average of 97%, therefore, McAfee still attains a high mark of 5.5 out of 6.0.

In contrast, Norton scored 100% protection rates against 0-day malware attacks, inclusive of web and email threats (Real-World Testing) in both September and October, making it more effective at protecting PCs against malware.

I also looked at AV-Comparatives’ latest Malware Protection Test from September 2019 to check if their results were similar to those recorded by AV-Test. As the table below shows Norton scored a 99.99% online protection rate, putting it in the top cluster of results. McAfee, on the other hand, scored 99.82%, placing it in the bottom cluster. So both independent test labs show that Norton is better at protecting against malware in the most recent tests.

AV-Comparatives False Alarm test is another useful method of comparing the two products and their ability to detect threats effectively.

False positives occur when the antivirus flags a non-malware file as malware. They impact how well an antivirus works because they hinder how well users can use their computers, apps, and files. If something is wrongly flagged as malware it can affect productivity and be an annoyance.

The test results from September show that McAfee had fewer false positives, with two recorded compared to seven for Norton.

Impact on PC performance

The first job for any antivirus is to make the users’ computer safer. It’s always a bonus if that can be done without slowing down the device too much. To test out the impact on PC speed and performance, I’ve recorded my own experience using both McAfee and Norton.

To analyze speed I recorded the time it took to run a full first scan and a quick scan with each software and looked for any noticeable drop off in my PC performance while scans were in progress.

Test TypeFull Scan Time (minutes)Full Scan # Items ScannedQuick Scan CPU Utilization %Quick Scan Memory Utilization %Quick Scan Disk Utilization %Quick Scan Time (seconds)
Norton121970000377641171
McAfee2237850003977912633

First up I ran a full scan with Norton which took 121 minutes to complete its run. During this process, I continued to use my PC as normal. I did notice a slight drop off in speed when launching a couple of apps on my PC and when accessing a website. A short time after this I ran a quick scan of my system and it took 171 seconds to complete the task.

McAfee on the other hand, ran the full first scan on my PC in 223. The McAfee quick scan was completed in 633 seconds.

To look at how each program used resources on the PC I recorded some data, as shown in the table below.

Test TypeControl CPU Utilization % (no scan)Control Memory Utilization % (no scan)Control Disk Utilization (seconds) (no scan)Full Scan CPU Utilization %Full Scan Memory Utilization %Full Scan Disk Utilization (seconds)
Norton1472138475381
McAfee12106610075253

When not performing a scan Norton records higher utilization of Control CPU and Control Memory than McAfee while, it uses less Control Disk utilization than McAfee. During full scans Norton uses less CPU and the same amount of memory as McAfee.

I have also looked at the benchmarking tests from AV-Comparatives and AV-Test to find out how each measures up in terms of impact on PC performance.

The Performance Test measures how installing the antivirus impacts PC speed during some common tasks. This includes:

  • Downloading files
  • Browsing websites
  • File copying
  • Installing / uninstalling applications
  • Archiving / unarchiving
  • Launching applications

The results of the test conducted in October 2019 show that McAfee scores top marks with a rating of very fast across all tasks performed. Norton scored slightly lower, with six ratings of very fast and two of fast.

AV-Test’s performance results from September – October 2019 give Norton full marks and show that the software outperforms industry averages in a number of categories. McAfee also scores 6.0 / 6.0, outperforming many industry averages when running on both a standard and high-end PC.

When it comes to performance, the latest results show that McAfee performs slightly better in benchmarking tests, although it is only a marginal victory. This backs up my own findings where both products had a very minor impact on speed and performance. In fact, I ran a number of day-to-day tasks with the antivirus running in the background and had no issues with lag or functionality.

Features

Aside from the antivirus engine itself, both companies bundle a number of extra features. Which provides the best additional features, Norton 360 Deluxe or McAfee Total Protection?

McAfee Total Protection 

  • Award-winning Antivirus
  • Performance Optimization
  • Home Network Security
  • Security Experts and Online Support
  • Multi-device Compatibility
  • Password Manager
  • Safe Web Browsing
  • File Shredder
  • Encrypted Storage
  • Identity Theft Protection

Norton 360 Deluxe 

  • Anti-Spyware
  • Antivirus
  • Malware & Ransomware Protection
  • Online Threat Protection
  • Smart Firewall
  • PC Cloud Backup 50 GB
  • Password Manager
  • Parental Controls
  • Secure VPN
  • PC SafeCam

Several of the extra features are found in both the McAfee and Norton packages, such as firewalls, password managers, and network security scanners.

Rather than compare those products I want to take a closer look at the different additional security features each provider offers. Which tools you will find the most value from will largely depend on your personal needs. I will take a look at some of the standout benefits of each and briefly explain what they do:

McAfee Total Protection 

File Shredder – Delete sensitive files completely to ensure no traces are left behind. This means even if you sell your PC your private information will be secure.

Encrypted Storage – Keep sensitive files private by storing them on your PC with 128-bit encryption. This stops hackers from accessing your files.

Identity Theft Protection – Available when you’re enrolled in auto-renewal, stay ahead of would-be identity thieves with identity monitoring and recovery tools.

Norton 360 Deluxe 

PC Cloud Backup 50 GB – Backup the contents of your PC to the cloud so you never lose files. Backing up all your essential files is the surest way to survive a ransomware attack.

Secure VPN – A VPN can provide privacy and help to secure private information like your passwords, bank account details, and credit card info. This is especially useful when using public Wi-Fi on your PC, Mac or mobile device.

PC SafeCam – Keeping your webcam secure is more important than ever after a rise in popularity in blackmailing scams and spying by hacking into a users’ PC webcam.

Sign up & Installation

The McAfee sign up process is straightforward enough with the first year discount automatically applied at the checkout. The order also lists the Virus protection pledge and the Identity Theft Protection – but it is important to ensure you leave auto-renewal left on if you want to benefit from this offer.

Downloading the installation file took just a few minutes while installing McAfee Total Protection was also quick and easy. I ran through a few installation options and the software was soon up and running. I set a first scan to run in the background that took about 10 minutes to finish.

The Norton checkout was simple and clear with the first year discount shown and the regular renewal price shown underneath. Norton also try to push other services at the checkout point but I ignored this offer. After entering my details and buying the software I used the link to download and install the security suite. Less than 10 minutes after starting the process, I was underway running the full antivirus check on my PC.

How easy is the interface to use?

Like most modern antivirus interfaces McAfee and Norton offer intuitive, user-friendly, and pretty straight-forward design. Both applications look nice enough, but which is smoother and more intuitive to use?

McAfee has a clean look with white and dark grey as the primary colors. The main dashboard displays the current system security status as well as a menu of links to get to popular settings.

There are functional buttons at the bottom to quickly launch virus scans, update apps or remove trackers. The screen layout is not perfect, but it is quite easy to use.

Norton uses an interface divided into one main panel with four different blocks along the bottom keeping everything within one click. The top panel lets you know the current protection status. Norton uses alerts to let you know about changes in the software or any issues, which can be a bit annoying.

Customer Support

Norton offers 24/7/365 support on all of its product tiers. Online you will find a FAQ, community forum, and live chat. There is also a phone support number you can call, plus Facebook, and Twitter accounts you can contact.

McAfee has clear navigation to get you to different topic areas for support on its website, including help with PC, Mac, mobile or billing. A virtual assistant offers guided help, plus a community forum to post your questions.

McAfee also offer help from the self-service knowledge base or technical help from live chat or social channels.

Conclusion

Not a major surprise, but Norton 360 Deluxe is my pick here. Whilst McAfee is a good all-round product, Norton comes in at a similar price point with better protection scores and slightly more useful security features such as a VPN, webcam protection, and Ransomware protection, so I would give Norton the edge.

When it comes to speed, Norton was not quite as strong as McAfee but this was only marginal and not enough on its own to knock Norton off the top spot.

See also: