New ZoneAlarm is quietly effective (review)

Quieter yet more effective, the latest ZoneAlarm Firewall Free should be considered an excellent tool for replacing the otherwise adequate default Windows firewall with a stronger option that includes better outbound protection, antiphishing guards, and ZoneAlarm's behavioral detection network.

The changes made to improve the default firewall in Windows 7 are impressive, but the newest version of the free ZoneAlarm Firewall argues that Microsoft still has a long way to go. ZoneAlarm 9.2 introduces multiple new features to one of the world's oldest computer security programs including quieter outbound protection, behavioral detection from the ZoneAlarm Internet security suite, automatic Wi-Fi security setting activation, antiphishing protection, an overhauled ZoneAlarm toolbar, and 2GB of online storage for free.

Installation

Program installation was largely a smooth experience, taking about 5 minutes. Users will have to reboot their computers after its done. Prior users of ZoneAlarm's paid security suites might encounter some odd behavior if the uninstallation process of one of those programs left remnants, but this should be the rare exception and not the rule.

ZoneAlarm, outbound guardian

Interface

ZoneAlarm has unified its security interfaces, so users familiar with one program won't see dramatic changes in another. The left side contains navigation links; the center window is where all the action happens. As noted in the review of ZoneAlarm Extreme Security, it's not a bad design but it doesn't pop visually. The text links can be hard to read because of font choice, and although the center buttons are big, the details within could be easier to read.

Features and support

Designed to be used in conjunction with an antivirus program, the strongest tool in ZoneAlarm's belt is the outbound firewall. Though Windows does offer some outbound protection, it's not activated by default. Most users tend to leave it off because they either don't know about it, or when they do turn it on it regularly interrupts their workflow with pop-up security warnings. Older versions of ZoneAlarm used to be noisy with pop-ups as well, but the new version has been set to be quieter without changing the level of protection. If you prefer, this can be changed in the program settings.

ZoneAlarm Firewall Free (screenshots)

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During a half-day of testing the default ZoneAlarm Firewall settings, the only pop-ups encountered were those blocking new software installations. The pop-ups for the three programs tested went away and allowed the installation to proceed with one click. More than just a low rate of interference, only encountering pop-ups for program installations is precisely the kind of warning that keeps you aware of what's occurring on your computer without distracting you simply for surfing the Web.

The benefits of an outbound firewall might not be readily apparent. An inbound firewall blocks threats coming in from the outside, but an outbound firewall does more than prevent your computer from spreading viruses and malware to others. If your computer has been compromised by a botnet, for example, outbound protection will stop it from sending your data back to its host servers. It can also stop program spoofing, which is when a malicious program pretends to be a good one, and IP spoofing, which is when harmful network transmissions dress up as safe ones.

This update includes DefenseNet, ZoneAlarm's behavioral detection system of anonymously contributed data that's used to verify and block threats. Previously, it had only been present in ZoneAlarm's antivirus programs. You can opt out from it when you install, but contributing doesn't negatively affect your system's performance.

The main window of ZoneAlarm Firewall Free.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The ZoneAlarm toolbar has also been given more than a simple spit-shine. You can opt out of installing it when you run the main installer, and install it later if you wish, but ZoneAlarm was quick to point out that it without it key security features are not activated. Hiding the toolbar after it's been installed won't disable its protections, which include the aforementioned signature and heuristic-based antiphishing protections.

It also adds a site check option that can be used to reveal the date founded and physical location of the site and has customizable safe site buttons for launching regularly visited sites such as Facebook or your banking site. The e-mail checker built into the toolbar is compatible with Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo, RR, Univision, and POP3 accounts. Unfortunately, there's no IMAP support. Finally, the toolbar links to ZoneAlarm's free 2GB of online backup space, courtesy IDrive, and six months free identity theft protection from IdentityGuard.

One of the more annoying limitations of the toolbar is that it only works with Firefox and Internet Explorer, even though Chrome has supported extensions for a year. Given the instability that toolbars contribute to IE, and the clutter that they add to the browser interface, ZoneAlarm would probably get more mileage out of the feature if it was reduced to a single button that opened a new window or expanded a set of buttons.

ZoneAlarm's toolbar revamp includes new, useful features, but it's still a toolbar.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The Help link in the bottom left of the interface only links to the program's Help file. The only in-program access to the online help Web site, in the form of the free knowledge base and forums or paid telephone support during business hours, comes as a link under the Product Info sub-option under Overview on the left nav.

Performance

ZoneAlarm's performance was notable simply for how unnoticeable it was. Shutdown time did not appear to be affected at all, and neither did starting up cold nor rebooting. Changing the antivirus program that it was partnered with didn't affect the firewall's behavior, either. These are big changes from previous versions of ZoneAlarm, and obviously, they're welcome ones, too.

Conclusion

This update of ZoneAlarm Firewall Free should make people do a double-take because of the features and low interference level from the program. It also should do wonders for ZoneAlarm's reputation, but that has more to do with whether years of substandard updates can be erased by a firewall that is the strong, silent type that users need.

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