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Posted on Apr 16, 2013 in Online Safety, What are Firewalls? | 0 comments

Which free firewall software is the best on the net? Find out with our free personal firewall comparison

Quick links for free personal firewall comparison:-

Windows XP Firewall
Windows Vista Firewall
Windows 7 and Windows 8 Firewall
ZoneAlarm

Like most Windows security products, there are dozens of different firewall packages available, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Before diving into our firewall comparison, you may wish to read What is a firewall? to familiarise yourself with firewall software and what benefits it offers to you. On this page we will compare the Windows firewalls with our favourite third-party Firewall, ZoneAlarm.

Windows Firewall

This software firewall was introduced with Windows XP service pack 2. Before then, Windows did include a basic firewall called the “Internet Connection Firewall” but it was not well supported and it was disabled by default. Every Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 and Windows 8 user should now have a basic firewall available to them.

The Windows Firewall should be enabled by default in Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP. XP users can check that their firewall is enabled by following this tutorial.

Checking firewall settings in Windows XP

Here’s a picture of the Windows XP Firewall configuration window:-

 

Windows XP Firewall

 

Compared to the third party firewalls in our free personal firewall comparison, there are very few configuration options for the Windows Firewall. The default options will be right for the vast majority of users, check out our Firewall tutorials for more information on configuring the Windows Firewall.

The biggest disadvantage of the Windows Firewall in Windows XP is that it does not monitor or filter outgoing connections in any way. For example, while the Windows Firewall in XP can block attempts by hackers or malicious software to connect into your computer from elsewhere on the internet, it cannot block a malicious spyware program connecting OUT through your computer to transmit data to another computer. For this reason, many Windows XP users prefer to use the ZoneAlarm Firewall covered later in this article.

The Windows Firewall in Windows Vista deserves it’s own special mention in this article. In Windows Vista, the Windows Firewall is greatly improved, so much so that its security features rival many of the third party firewalls. The biggest difference is that the Windows Firewall in Windows Vista can filter both incoming and outgoing traffic. To check the status of the firewall in Windows Vista, follow this tutorial.

Checking firewall settings in Windows Vista

Here’s a picture of the Windows Vista Firewall configuration window:-

 

Windows Vista Firewall

 

As you can see, the window is very similar to the XP Firewall. Whilst it is true that the Vista Firewall supports filtering of outgoing and incoming traffic, unlike the third party firewall we cover later in the comparison, filtering of outgoing traffic is disabled by default. Furthermore, you cannot enable it without accessing the advanced settings for Windows Firewall. Where are these advanced settings? Unfortunately you cannot access them via the control panel. Microsoft decided that they didn’t want average users poking around with these settings, so they are buried in a custom “MMC” or “Microsoft Management Console”. A Microsoft what? This is an advanced feature that regular users should never have to deal with. Explaining how to configure the advanced options of the Windows Firewall in Vista is way beyond the scope of a free personal firewall comparison page.

Microsoft have improved the Windows Firewall even further with the release of Windows 7 and these improvements were carried forward to Windows 8 too. You can check on the status of the Windows Firewall when running Windows 7 by following this short tutorial.

Checking firewall settings in Windows 7

Here’s a picture of the Windows 7 Firewall configuration window, this time things do look a little different. The configuration window is the same in Windows 8 too:-

Windows 7 Firewall

With the Windows 7 Firewall, it’s possible to configure different settings for different networks. This means you can be connected to a trusted home or office virtual private network and also an untrusted public Wi-Fi hotspot and manage your firewall settings for each connection individually. It’s also much easier to access the advanced firewall settings, which can be used to set up outgoing traffic filtering. However, while it’s easier to access these settings than it was on Windows Vista, actually configuring them is still rather difficult compared to many third party firewalls.

To summarise, here are the pros and cons of the Windows Firewall:-

Pros: Integrated into the operating system, starts monitoring network connections immediately, minimal configuration needed.

Cons: Does not monitor outbound traffic by default (or cannot monitor outbound traffic in the case of Windows XP), advanced settings for Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 are difficult to configure.

Don’t forget, you can learn more about the Windows Firewall in XP, Vista or Windows 7 by viewing our Firewall tutorials.

ZoneAlarm/ZoneAlarm Pro

Next up in our free personal firewall comparison is the ZoneAlarm firewall from Check Point. ZoneAlarm firewalls have been protecting PC’s since the turn of the millennium and the latest version remains a popular alternative to the Windows Firewall. The basic version of ZoneAlarm is free for non commercial use and offers excellent basic protection from hackers.

ZoneAlarm filters both incoming and outgoing traffic, popping up a helpful dialogue whenever a program tries to connect to the internet. At first these prompts can be confusing and a little overwhelming but if you remember to select “remember this setting” then the number of alerts quickly decreases to a minimum. In newer versions of the Firewall, the DefenseNet system recognises many programs and configures them automatically, dramatically cutting down on the number of alerts the end-user has to deal with.

Newer versions of the firewall have also streamlined updating, making the process completely automatic. Previously every time an update was required, a new executable had to be downloaded and run.

zonealarm-new-control-panel

Above – The control panel for ZoneAlarm, the free firewall from Check Point

 

Tutorials for configuring and working with ZoneAlarm are now available from our firewall tutorials section. They cover everything from installation to recognising and dealing with alerts. Check Point software now even generously supply a free version of ZoneAlarm firewall with integrated antivirus too.

Users looking for even greater security can move up to ZoneAlarm Pro or choose from a wide range of products which include integrated anti-spyware and anti-virus options as well as enhanced firewall software.

Lets take a look at the pros and cons of ZoneAlarm free now:-

Pros: Free for non commercial use, frequently updated, protects incoming and outgoing connections without additional configuration, fully covered by tutorials on Top-Windows-Tutorials.com.

Cons: Some alerts can be confusing to the novice user.

Now you’ve read our free personal firewall comparison, hopefully you will have a better idea which firewall is right for you. Check out our firewall tutorials for more information on ZoneAlarm Firewall or the Windows Firewall.

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