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Windows firewall provides basic protection

If you use Windows Vista or Windows 7, you are somewhat protected by their included firewalls, but reviews say you will be safer with a third-party firewall. Windows Vista includes some protection against outbound threats, though that is limited compared to what's found in better third party programs. Windows 7's firewall brings a few improvements to the one in Vista, though experts say it's not a major step forward. Previews of Windows 8 contain a firewall that remains largely unchanged from the previous versions, but that could change with the final release.

The big complaint regarding the Vista firewall is that outbound security is limited by default and that turning on better protection could be difficult. Experts say it is better than having no firewall, but most free and paid third-party firewalls are more effective. The firewall included with Windows 7 doesn't draw many more compliments. PCMag.com's Neil J. Rubenking likes some of the incremental improvements, such as new network settings. But he expresses frustration that a two-way firewall, which controls which programs can access the Internet, is still lacking. "I hope that by the time Windows 8 comes around," Rubenking quips, "Microsoft will at least match the feature set of 10-year-old ZoneAlarm," which pioneered such features. Considering that you can get a better firewall for free, Microsoft's operating system firewall seems to offer only limited value.

Best firewall software for Windows users

Although standalone firewalls continue to exist, more are being interwoven within Internet security suites -- and that's especially true of free products. While the benefits of that approach are clear --  when all of your Internet security components come from the same vendor, it's more likely that all will work together in relative harmony -- there are also some downsides. The biggest one is that no single security suite will do all things equally well. Those with the most robust antivirus or anti-spyware features might have only so-so firewalls, or vice versa.

Comodo Internet Security draws some terrific compliments -- at least for its firewall component. Though you can get the same firewall as a free, standalone product, Comodo Firewall, many reviewers instead test the free Comodo Internet Security suite, which adds antivirus, anti-spyware and other protections. Paid versions of the suite -- Comodo Internet Security Plus 2012 (*Est. $40) and Comodo Internet Security Complete 2012 (*Est. $70 per year) -- are also available, and they add  features and support options.

Among the experts, Matousec.com has put the current version of Internet Security Suite through its paces with a look toward firewall performance. Impressively, it's the only firewall to garner a perfect score, though several other firewalls do nearly as well. Additionally, only Comodo Firewall receives a Recommended rating in the publication's newer and more challenging Proactive Security Challenge 64 test, although only a limited number of firewalls have been tested using that method.

PCMag.com's Neil J. Rubenking appreciates that Comodo Firewall stealths ports so that outside attackers can't see them. He also likes the program's flawless leak detection and its sandbox feature, which will allow unknown programs to run with limited access until Comodo determines whether they are a threat. However, Comodo asks for user input for every new program that attempts to touch the Internet, which Rubenking dislikes. "I'm much happier with a product that comes pre-configured for the best protection and doesn't need any user intervention," he writes. The optional Defense+ behavioral protection, which alerts users when programs act suspiciously, also irks Rubenking with its frequent notifications.

Although the Comodo software issues recommendations on whether to approve a program, less tech-savvy users may end up blocking crucial system processes if they block every attempted connection -- or allow attackers in with carte blanche approvals. Rubenking has a valid point, but in practice, hundreds of users review Comodo Firewall on sites like FileForum.com, Download.com and SnapFiles.com, and very few report having trouble with its hands-on approach. Gizmo's Freeware Reviews -- which names Comodo the best firewall around -- recommends that users check the box that allows the firewall to remember the block or accept decision to cut down on the number of requests.

Past versions of Comodo Firewall were plagued by complicated installation processes that tried to install bundled software from other developers on users' computers, but Rubenking reports that the installation process is more straightforward and streamlined. Tech support for the free firewall is limited to a support forum and an email ticket system, however.

As noted earlier, Comodo Firewall is available as a standalone download or as part of bundled packages, such as the free Comodo Internet Security suite. You're even prompted to install Comodo Antivirus when you download some versions of Comodo Firewall. You can choose to install the firewall alone, however. If you decide to go the bundled route, be aware that experts say Comodo's antivirus is nowhere near as effective as its firewall. Visit our antivirus report for more information about the best reviewed malware-squashing software.

Agnitum's Outpost firewall also draws some good feedback. The latest version is available as a paid standalone product, Outpost Firewall Pro (*Est. $40 per year); as part of a paid security suite, Outpost Security Suite Pro (*Est. $50 per year); or as part of Outpost Security Suite Free. Regardless of how it's packaged, however, reports say that the firewall provides excellent protection. Outpost Security Suite Pro and Outpost Security Suite Free score identically in tests at Matousec.com, near the top of the rankings and a few percentage points behind the firewall included in Comodo Internet Security. Differences between the two suites lie in some features unrelated to the firewall, and in customer and technical support.

Other reports are good but not glowing. Web User gives a brief evaluation of a recent version of Outpost Security Suite Pro and finds that the firewall, a past winner of the site's Gold Award, remains excellent. The magazine's Andy Shaw calls it, "One of the best firewalls around." However, while Shaw says that the software does a good job of protecting your computer from "the worst of the Internet," he complains that it's lacking some common features and its user interface can be a challenge. He also complains about frequent "questions it ought to know the answers to." Perhaps that blend of power and clunkiness is behind the mixed user impressions we see. For example, feedback at Download.com varies widely; many users praise the free and pro versions of the Outpost security suite, but a significant minority also give them the lowest 1-star rating. The editor of Gizmo's Freeware Reviews appreciates that the program automatically remembers to allow previously trusted applications, something that Comodo only allows manually.

Online Armor has rated well with reviewers in the past, but the current version receives only limited feedback. It's not among the firewalls rated at Matousec.com, and the most detailed expert reviews have become too dated to be useful. It does receive coverage in an  updated article in Gizmo's Freeware Reviews, where it ranks second to Comodo Internet Security, which includes Comodo Firewall.

Like much other security software, Online Armor is available in a free version (Online Armor Free) and in paid versions -- Online Armor Premium (*Est. $40 for one year) and the Emsisoft Internet Security Pack (*Est. $50 for one year). The basic version has the fewest features and comes only with  a support forum, but it does include behavioral-based HIPS detection that flags suspicious programs for user review. Gizmo's Freeware reviews says the firewall works well, but the lack of automatic updates and built-in help files are cited as negatives. Another issue: A sizable minority of users complain that Online Armor Free causes Windows 7 to crash … and crash often.

Check Point's ZoneAlarm is notable as one of the oldest and best-known firewalls around. ZoneAlarm's reputation has fallen, however, and the firewall included in ZoneAlarm Extreme Security (*Est. $45) provides mediocre performance in testing at Matousec.com and holds a Not Recommended status there.

At the same time, however, Neil J. Rubenking at PCMag.com gives ZoneAlarm Free Firewall 2012 a spin and finds enough to like to award it the site's Editors' Choice award. The firewall software's user-friendly SmartAdvisor feature -- which automatically and silently handles most block/trust decisions in the background and creates rare permission queries -- earns a ton of praise, as does ZoneAlarm's staunch defense against bypass attempts. He also likes the redesigned interface. The simple interface and hassle-free protection might appeal to users who find Comodo Firewall confusing.

Still, there are some negatives. PC World and Softpedia.com both rate ZoneAlarm highly overall, but each notes that the program attempts to add toolbars and change the homepage in Internet Explorer during installation. Additionally, use is impaired by a toolbar that's cluttered with features not available in the free ZoneAlarm firewall. The program's anti-phishing feature blocks malicious websites more effectively than Internet Explorer and most other tools, Rubenking says, but it blocks a whopping 38 percent less than Norton Internet Security 2012.

User reviews at Download.com and FileForum.com are mixed, with many giving ZoneAlarm below-average scores. Some say the software doesn't make a difference, but more troubling are the large number of users who report that ZoneAlarm and Windows don't play nicely. In fact, a majority of the reviews of the current version of ZoneAlarm at Download.com are 1-star ratings. Users cite problems at installation, problems at uninstallation and poor stability and performance issues at many points in between.

Internet security suites with firewall software

In most professional reviews, Norton Internet Security 2012 (*Est. $70) finishes at the top of the heap for best overall protection against all types of Internet threats. However, we've seen some contradictory reports regarding the effectiveness of its firewall. It flops in the latest tests at Matousec.com, with an effectiveness of 20 percent and a protection rating of "none." PCMag.com, however, conducts its own firewall testing and paints a much better picture. Rubenking finds Norton effective, easy to use and hard to bypass. It also blocks web-based exploits, something that free firewalls from Comodo, ZoneAlarm and others struggle with. "In my view this is exactly what a suite firewall should be," he writes. "It takes care of all essential firewall tasks without pestering the user."

Rubenking's testing indicates that Norton Internet Security reacts only to tests carrying malicious code, but it isn't clear whether this might be the reason the programs fared so poorly on the Matousec.com tests. Rubenking says that firewall effectiveness extends to Norton 360 6.0, which provides the effectiveness of Norton Internet Security 2012 but with "a friendlier face." Both suites earn Editors' Choice awards from the site. For more information about Norton Internet Security 2012, see the separate ConsumerSearch report on Internet security software.

Norton Internet Security 2012 edges out Kaspersky Internet Security 2012 (*Est. $80) overall in most reviews -- though most also say the margin of victory is not large. Experts say Kaspersky maintains a slight lead in antivirus efficiency, and another area where Kaspersky might have an edge is in its firewall. Matousec.com puts Kaspersky's firewall to the test in the Proactive Security Challenge, and it does very well -- passing about 93 percent of the challenges put to it. That's enough to earn a rating of excellent from that site. Kaspersky's firewall has not been tested with the new Proactive Security Challenge 64 methodology, however.

PCMag.com is among those that pay prime attention to firewall performance when evaluating security suites. Rubenking finds some issues with anti-malware performance -- saying that Kaspersky Internet Security 2012 didn't live up to the lofty results from independent tests in his trials. However, he has no qualms about the built-in firewall. Kaspersky successfully fended off all of Rubenking's challenges, including all attempts to take it down as might happen during an Internet attack. The firewall also keeps users informed of important events, such as website-based attacks, without bugging them with queries over every minor software access request. The one major downside: Kaspersky doesn't stealth every port completely, so outside attackers may be able to see your PC with their tools -- although TopTenReviews.com reports the firewall makes PCs appear invisible during basic scanning tests.

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