Firewall hardware and software are essential components of computer security. A firewall protects a computer against unauthorized access by hackers, hijackers, nefarious websites and malicious software. All third-party firewalls also block threats already on your computer from communicating with the perpetrator or a third party, so hackers can't gain access to your personal data or computer. Windows 7 and the older Vista operating system also offer some basic outbound protection, though some experts say it should be more robust. Outbound protection is not part of the primary firewall that's part of the Apple OS X Lion operating system (OS), but it is available through a second firewall that's included. That second firewall, however, is hard to use and turned off by default.
Because software firewalls are part of the operating systems found on most computer systems, both Apple and PC, and because hardware firewalls are built into many Internet routers, standalone software firewalls aren't as widely reviewed as some other types of Internet security software, such as antivirus programs. That said, we did find some worthwhile coverage. Matousec.com, an independent tester of firewall performance, is so well regarded that other reviewers often use the test results in their own reports. Testing is rigorous and revised continuously, with the results posted for all to see. However, the site considers nothing but effectiveness, leaving usage issues to others.
Among mainstream publications and sites, PCMag.com provides reviews of firewalls on a semi-regular basis, and it includes better analysis of firewall performance in complete security suites than most. Other sites that offer some helpful input include NotebookReview.com, PC World and, for Mac users, Macworld.com. User input is available at several software download sites, including Download.com and Softpedia.com.
Both paid and free firewalls are available. Paid programs generally include updates for one year, though some have longer licenses. Most of the paid programs have 30-day free trials, but setting up a firewall is a time-consuming hassle that few people would want to repeat.
Some software publishers offer free and paid versions of the same firewall. Free versions lack some features and/or provide different levels of protection or support. For example, Online Armor Free is a free version of the very highly regarded Online Armor Premium (*Est. $40 for one year). Although protection is still relatively strong, it's missing some features found in the paid version. One example is DNS spoofing protection, which makes sure a website you are visiting is what it claims to be.
In addition to standalone firewall programs, firewalls are often part of an integrated Internet security suite. Suites also include antivirus software, a spam filter, anti-spyware software and parental controls. They are cheaper to buy than separate programs, and most are convenient to use. However, choosing a suite usually entails some type of compromise, because no suite does every job as well as the best standalone programs for each type of Internet security. On the other hand, using a suite more or less guarantees that each component will play well with the others, and software conflicts are among the biggest sources of dissatisfaction with security software. See the separate ConsumerSearch report for more information on Internet security suites.