New ZoneAlarm antivirus-firewall combo competes for free

For years, the firewall has been a feature restricted to paid upgrades in comprehensive security suites. ZoneAlarm just upended that paradigm with its new ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus+Firewall.

ZoneAlarm is making an aggressive move to attract new people to its line of security programs with what may be a first: a free antivirus program pre-packaged with a free firewall.

Available exclusively from today, ZoneAlarm Free Antivirus+Firewall 2013 (download) could very well make big waves in the free security-suite space. It's the same free firewall that ZoneAlarm has produced for years, but with basic antivirus and anti-malware tools included. It's basically ZoneAlarm Pro Antivirus+Firewall from last year, with an updated engine. And did I mention that it's free?

The free security suite market is highly competitive, and people use the free suites on a scale not comparable with any other software besides the browser. Avast, Avira, and AVG combined claim more than 400 million active installations, according to OPSWAT's analysis for the first quarter of 2012. ZoneAlarm is optimistic about getting in on that action. "We know we will be in the tens of millions this year," said Mark Brier, head of freemium marketing for ZoneAlarm.

The new Free edition does have some additional limitations, though. Automatic virus definition file and signature updates, the locally-stored file that helps identify threats, are limited to once every 24 hours. You can always manually update it, but this is a notable limitation. ZoneAlarm Free also lacks the expert rules option available in the paid version of the firewall. The company will continue to maintain its free firewall without antivirus, for people who want it.

The big news is the combination of the two-way firewall and antivirus, although ZoneAlarm has made the suite appealing in other ways, too. Advanced scan options are enabled by default, but provide room for customization; and there are extras like 5GB of free online storage and a free identity and credit monitoring service for U.S.-based customers.

It comes with a toolbar that does enable protection against third-party exploits, but even if you opt-out of having ZoneAlarm change your default search engine or default home page during installation, it still manages to muck some things up.

ZoneAlarm Free is also a bit weak in other security areas. If you're looking for solid privacy protections out of the box, AVG Free offers a site-tracking blocker, while Avast provides a sandboxing feature to keep suspicious programs from doing damage.

CNET Labs found ZoneAlarm Free to be fairly competitive with the past year's suites, with a faster than average impact on startup time, a shutdown impact that was only a few seconds slower than average, and a scan time that was one-third faster than last year's ZoneAlarm Pro. Real-world scan time averaged three minutes, 46 seconds for the quick scan, and more than two hours for the full scan.

It has been a while since ZoneAlarm has been submitted for independent efficacy testing from,, or West Coast Labs, which makes it hard to evaluate how this well-known name holds up against the competition. However, if people flock to it as Mark Brier and others at ZoneAlarm hope, it could cause both free and paid security suite makers to reevaluate what features ought to be made free to all.