Everybody tells you to install antivirus on all your computers, and mostly doing so is no big deal. But the first time an antivirus pop-up on your gaming rig spoils a super-combo, you’re likely to turn off that protection permanently. The designers at McAfee feel that pain, so they’ve developed McAfee Gamer Security just for gamers. It combines a super-light antivirus component that never interrupts gameplay with a set of boosts aimed at making your gaming experience speedier and smoother. Its stripped-down feature set did well in testing, but it’s hard to picture a gamer shelling out cash for this limited product.
The most common price for a one-device standalone antivirus product is around $40 per year. Bitdefender, Webroot, and ZoneAlarm are among those that hit this price point. For around $60, Kaspersky Anti-Virus, Bitdefender, and others give you three licenses. McAfee’s own standard antivirus product costs $59.99 per year, but that subscription gets you unlimited licenses for every Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS device in your household.
McAfee Gamer Security also costs $59.99 per year, the same as McAfee AntiVirus Plus, but rather than unlimited installs, this subscription protects exactly one PC. The only comparable product price-wise is Symantec Norton AntiVirus Plus, which also costs $59.99 for one installation. In both cases, the price seems steep. That’s especially true because McAfee’s basic antivirus for Windows is so feature-packed it’s effectively a security suite, while McAfee Gamer Security has everything possible stripped out.
Getting Started With Gamer Security
Installation is quick and simple, substantially quicker than the full-scale McAfee antivirus utility. The main window uses a slate-gray theme that’s reminiscent of popular game platforms, and its home page is devoted to boosting performance. A second page offers some simple settings. You don’t get to security until the third and final page.
The security page features a big status indicator and a simple toggle for real-time scanning. Pro tip: Don’t turn off real time scanning. One big button launches a scan, another shows you what’s in quarantine—their placement depends on how you’ve sized the window. That’s pretty much everything.
Note, too, that where McAfee’s regular antivirus accepts installation on Windows versions back to Windows 7, Gamer Security requires Windows 10. And not just any Windows 10—you must have at least version 1809, the October 2018 update. Given Microsoft’s insistence on updates, if you have Windows 10 at all, you probably have a version that’s recent enough for McAfee.
Unobtrusive Malware Protection
Gaming emphasis aside, this is a security product, and I tested its malware protection capabilities as such. One difference from the norm was evident right away—there’s no button to run a full system scan. What gamer wants to sit around and wait for a lengthy scan to finish? Indeed, McAfee AntiVirus Plus took hours to complete a full scan. Gamer Security instead scans vulnerable areas frequented by malware. After the first scan, it only checks items that have changed, and relies on real-time scanning to handle new incursions.
On my standard clean virtual machine, the first scan with McAfee Gamer Security finished in nine minutes. During the process, it alarmingly cranked its estimated completion time up to 50 minutes before bringing it down to earth. A repeat scan finished in less than a minute. Again, this is what most antivirus products would call a quick scan.
Like other McAfee products, Gamer Security’s real-time protection doesn’t scan files merely because Windows Explorer has displayed their details. Rather, it waits until the file tries to launch. Even when you don’t have a full-screen game running, it’s unobtrusive. For most of my malware samples, it simply slid in a very small notification saying “1 threat stopped. Click for details.” This was invariably accompanied by a confusing Windows error message about “Insufficient resources.” I do wish the product could suppress that message.
This is the third time a McAfee product has been challenged with my current set of samples. The first was several months ago, when I ran the then-new samples past our four Editors’ Choice antivirus products to get some initial data points. When I reviewed McAfee AntiVirus Plus, I re-ran the test and found that it caught a few more. That’s not surprising, given that it had already “seen” the samples.
Gamer Security did even better, this third time around. It currently has the best overall score, 9.8 of 10 possible points, sharing the top spot with Microsoft Windows Defender Security Center. I feel, though, that this score should come with an asterisk. Other products only got one chance at this sample set.
One more thing. In my initial testing, McAfee AntiVirus Plus missed three real-world ransomware samples, allowing them to do their dirty deeds without interference. When I retested that product, it caught two samples but still let the remaining one slip through. Gamer Security eliminated all three, as the antivirus should have done in the first place.
For a fair comparison, I challenged Gamer Security with hand-modified versions of my ransomware samples. It caught almost all of them immediately on launch, but one modified sample managed to elue its clutches and encrypt the files in my test system’s Documents folder. Clearly the behavior-based ransomware detection needs work.
This product’s designers reasonably assume that gamers spend their time gaming, not idly surfing the web for new memes and cat videos. Gamer Security does not attempt to steer the browser away from malicious or fraudulent websites. It does integrate with the file download system in Chrome, Edge, and Internet Explorer, providing the security scan for downloads. When I ran my malicious URL blocking test using the very latest samples, it scored very well despite the lack of a direct URL-blocking component. Note that even if you use a different browser, McAfee scans all files, downloaded or otherwise, before they launch.
With a double-barreled approach, McAfee AntiVirus Plus steered the browser away from about half the malware-hosting URLs and wiped out the other half on download, for a total of 100 percent. Gamer Security, working strictly at the point of download, managed 98 percent. That’s a better score than any competitor except Trend Micro Antivirus+ Security, which managed 99 percent.
Decent Lab Results, But…
Normally I lead with test results from the independent labs. If teams of researchers have put a product to the test and published their scoring, I consider that highly significant. However, the research labs all state clearly that their results apply only to the specific product tested, not to a product that licenses the same antivirus engine, and not necessarily to another product from the same company. Given that Gamer Security very deliberately uses streamlined antivirus technology aimed at supporting the gaming experience, I can’t swear it would score the same as McAfee’s mainstream antivirus technology. On the flip side, it’s unlikely the modified antivirus would score better, so there’s still relevance in discussing the lab results.
Let’s start with the bad news. In tests conducted by MRG-Effitas, a product either performs at or near perfection or it fails. I follow this lab’s banking-specific test and another test using the full gamut of malware types. Along with Avast and Trend Micro, McAfee failed both test in their most recent iterations. About half the tested products passed both, among them Bitdefender, Kaspersky, and Norton.
Products that pass tests by AV-Comparatives earn Standard certification, while those that do more than the minimum can earn Advanced or Advanced+ certification. Of the four tests I follow, McAfee showed up in results for three. Like Windows Defender and Panda, it earned one Standard, one Advanced, and one Advanced+ rating. Bitdefender is the only product currently holding four Advanced+ certifications, though Avira, Kaspersky, and Vipre all have three.
At AV-Test Institute, the researchers rate products on Protection, Performance, and Usability, assigning up to six points for each. McAfee earned six points for the latter two categories, but just five for the all-important protection. Its total score, 17 of 18 possible points, is good, but F-Secure and Microsoft earned a perfect 18, and several others managed 17.5.
To evaluate a product’s handling of real-world malware attacks, the testers at SE Labs capture malicious websites in their entirety and use a replay system to hit multiple antivirus systems with identical attacks. Products can earn certification at five levels, AAA, AA, A, B, and C. Results in the latest round of testing ranged from A to AAA, and Trend Micro was among the majority that received AAA certification.
As you can see, the labs use very different methods for reporting a product’s effectiveness. I’ve devised an algorithm that maps all the results to a 10-point scale and generates an aggregate lab score. On this scale, McAfee scored 8.7 points. Of the seven other products tested by all four labs, all but one did better, with Kaspersky’s 9.9 point score at the top. Bitdefender Antivirus Plus also earned 9.9 points, but from just three labs.
Once again, the labs tested McAfee’s mainstream antivirus technology, not the streamlined antivirus engine of Gamer Security. The results probably carry over. Gamer Security did just as well in my hands-on testing, but the labs don’t guarantee it would score the same in their tests.
I used to be a gamer, back when PC games involved typing KILL DWARF, or moving your character slowly through a fantasy world. I haven’t kept up with the fast pace of modern games, so I had to install a few before I could see this product’s game-boosting features.
The main page displays performance stats for CPU, GPU, RAM, and Network. You can click any tab to see what processes are eating up a resource. Of course, you can do most of that by expanding the view in Task Manager. A fifth tab reports Frames Per Second. You can flip to Gamer Security while you’re in a game to view FPS trends (though I think I’d rather stay in the game). More importantly, after a gaming session has finished you can review the FPS graph over time.
When Gamer Security detects that you’ve launched a full-screen game, it pauses a half-dozen background services that might suck up resources needed for gameplay. It also boosts the game’s priority for resource usage and downgrades other processes, as well as suppressing popups, updates, and other interruptions.
Naturally I couldn’t run these demanding games on my virtual machine test systems. When I tried an installation, it suggested I replace my graphics card. No problem; I switched to a physical test system. Even this machine is underpowered for gaming, but at least the installations succeeded. Alas, not being familiar with the gaming environments, I simply could not notice any difference with and without the Auto Game Boost feature enabled.
What Do Gamers Think?
What do actual gamers use for security? What would they think of this product? For a view on those questions I consulted a couple of experts—my own adult children. They’ve been online since before they could walk, and gaming is a big part of their lives.
My son is online at all hours playing and competing in fighting games with contacts all over the world. He occasionally competes in tournaments and has rebuilt his fight stick with custom parts for maximum performance. It turns out that for security he relies on Windows Defender combined with a generous dollop of good sense and experience.
My daughter streams all kinds of content on her Twitch Creative channel. She plays game and anime music that her followers request, live on the keyboard. She draws and paints artwork live, both digital and on paper. She plays through retro games with commentary, and more. A security program that interrupted her stream would get slapped down fast. She relies on “one of those free programs that starts with A,” and appreciates that it stays out of sight so well that she can’t quite remember which.
Both were unimpressed with my description of Gamer Security. My son pointed out that if he wants to suppress background processes or prioritize resources for games, he can (and does) just reach in and make those changes himself. Both felt that the best price point for such a product is zero dollars, but agreed that some of their peers might be willing to pay as much as $20.
A Good Concept
I appreciate that McAfee’s developers are looking past “one size fits all” for security. However, I’m not convinced that McAfee Gamer Security hits the needs of its target audience, especially not after talking with my in-house experts. And the pricing makes my brain hurt. For $59.99, I can install McAfee Antivirus Plus on every device in my household, with no limits. For that same price, I can install Gamer Security on exactly one PC. The concept is good, but it needs work.
The all-devices nature of a McAfee Antivirus Plus subscription is part of what propels it to Editors’ Choice status, even though it doesn’t score as high as some competitors in lab tests. If you want consistent perfect and near-perfect lab scores, look to Bitdefender Antivirus Plus or Kaspersky Anti-Virus. Like Gamer Security, Webroot SecureAnywhere AntiVirus aims for minimum impact on system resources, and its visibly the smallest antivirus around. For now, I’d suggest that gamers install one of these Editors’ Choice products, tune it to minimize notifications, and make use of the interruption-free gaming mode that comes with most modern antivirus tools.