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When it comes to computer security, we place a lot of emphasis on antivirus solutions The 10 Best Free Anti-Virus Programs The 10 Best Free Anti-Virus Programs Read More and malware removal The Complete Malware Removal Guide The Complete Malware Removal Guide This malware removal guide outlines not only how to remove malware from your computer but also how to clean up the mess that viruses and malware leave behind. Read More , but there’s one more piece of the pie that we can’t ignore: firewalls.

While you don’t need to know how firewalls work How Does A Firewall Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] How Does A Firewall Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] There are three pieces of software that, in my opinion, make the backbone of a decent security setup on your home PC. These are the anti-virus, the firewall, and the password manager. Of these, the... Read More in order to use them, that knowledge can help you to better understand how to keep yourself secure. Long story short, firewalls are like gatekeepers that control which programs are allowed to receive and send out over the network.

Let’s take a look at the best free firewalls that are available on Windows, comparing them for ease of setup, ease of use, and availability of features.

Windows Firewall

Like Windows Defender Windows Defender: 7 Things You Must Know About Microsoft's Antivirus Solution Windows Defender: 7 Things You Must Know About Microsoft's Antivirus Solution Is Microsoft's built-in security good enough? Microsoft continuously improves its security tools. We'll show you the upsides and downsides of Windows Defender in Windows 8, Read More , Windows Firewall is a built-in security component that Microsoft so generously included in all Windows versions starting with XP. You’ve probably seen the firewall popup from time to time, asking if you want to allow a particular program to run on public and/or private networks.

But is Windows Firewall good enough to suffice as a primary firewall? For most users, the answer is Yes.

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The great thing about Windows Firewall is that you rarely have to interact with it. When a program launches and wants to receive incoming data from the network, the firewall detects it, blocks it, and prompts you to allow access if you want. Windows Firewall remembers this and won’t ask you again for that program.

There’s no need to manually set up firewall settings, which makes it extremely convenient to operate. However, if you ever want to revoke or edit permissions for a program, you can open up Windows Firewall through the Control Panel and fiddle with it there. Again, completely optional.

The downside is that Windows Firewall is a one-way firewall — it only detects programs that want to accept network data. Programs that want to send out network data are free to do so, and the only way to block them is to manually set up outbound rules as shown in our Windows Firewall overview Windows 7 Firewall: How It Compares Against Other Firewalls Windows 7 Firewall: How It Compares Against Other Firewalls Windows 7 contains an unobtrusive, easy-to-use firewall that protects your computer from inbound traffic. If you're looking for more advanced options, such as the ability to control outbound traffic or view the applications using your... Read More .

TinyWall

Like Windows Firewall, TinyWall is a lightweight solution with a single purpose, but the similarities end there. It’s compatible with versions of Windows ranging from Vista to 10, which covers pretty much every Windows computer as Windows XP users continue to dwindle Windows XP: What's Happening To It Now? Windows XP: What's Happening To It Now? Windows XP may be dead, but it's not yet gone. Over 27% of computers connected to the Internet still run Windows XP. Here's exactly what "end of support" means for Windows XP systems. Read More .

Even though you have to install TinyWall like any other program, it’s more of a background process that sits quietly in your system tray. Right click on the icon and you’ll have access to all of TinyWall’s features, include its main feature: the whitelist.

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By default, TinyWall blocks all but the most basic of network communications. If there’s a program that you want to exempt, you’ll need to manually add it to the whitelist. Whitelist additions can be done on a per-executable, per-process, or per-window basis. Fortunately, there’s a detection tool that looks for well-known applications and auto-exempts them in the whitelist.

Overall, TinyWall requires a bit more work and setup on the front end, but once it’s ready to go, you can forget all about it. It’s non-intrusive, doesn’t use many system resources, but keeps you protected all the same.

Comodo Firewall

In terms of sheer strength, there are few firewalls that can match the tenacity and reliability of Comodo Firewall. Comodo is well-known for their security products — up to and including their secure web browser, IceDragon Comodo IceDragon Combines Comodo Internet Security With Firefox Browsing Comodo IceDragon Combines Comodo Internet Security With Firefox Browsing Over the years, I've tried a few modified builds of the Firefox client. Pale Moon is one of my favorites. It's an alternative that really slims down on resources and pulls some weight off the... Read More — and the firewall is one of their better offerings.

Once installed, Comodo will generate several popups as it detects various applications running on your computer. You’ll need to allow each one, which adds that application to Comodo’s list of trusted programs. Fortunately, there’s a cloud-based option that auto-allows applications from trusted sources.

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If you’re a gamer, there’s a useful feature called Game Mode that temporarily disables blocking so that you aren’t inundated with alerts or networking issues while immersed in play.

This firewall comes with a few advanced features — like zero-day malware detection What Is a Zero Day Vulnerability? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is a Zero Day Vulnerability? [MakeUseOf Explains] Read More and a virtual sandbox environment Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine Testing A New Operating System? Stay Secure With A Virtual Machine Read More — so it’s not quite as lightweight as some of the aforementioned alternatives. This may not be a dealbreaker, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

ZoneAlarm Free Firewall

Like Online Armor and Comodo, ZoneAlarm Free Firewall has a central dashboard that makes it easy to manage your firewall settings. One click is all it takes to turn on or shut off the entire firewall, in case you ever need to.

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ZoneAlarm comes with a scanning option that looks over your system and automatically sets itself up according to the programs it finds. You get the usual popups when a program requests permission, and you can fiddle with rules from right inside the dashboard.

The problem with ZoneAlarm is that there isn’t much to differentiate it from Windows Firewall. For most people, the few extra bells and whistles won’t be enough to justify the hassle of installing a third-party solution when the default firewall one already does most of the same.

Which One Is For You?

I’m quite happy with Windows Firewall. When combined with smart security habits Change Your Bad Habits & Your Data Will Be More Secure Change Your Bad Habits & Your Data Will Be More Secure Read More , it’s protective enough for most of the circumstances a home user might encounter. Automated permission popups plus the ability to manually edit rules is certainly sufficient.

For more control while staying lightweight, you can’t beat TinyWall. If you want as many security features in your firewall as possible, go with Comodo. Otherwise, stick with what Windows already provides.

So, which one do you like the best? Are you sticking with Windows Firewall or switching to a third-party alternative? Did I miss any good free firewalls? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Image Credits: shield protection via Shutterstock

  1. Al Mitch
    October 19, 2015 at 4:08 am

    Naw all these suck. Best free set up I've been using for years. Had no Virus problems aside from the occasional site hacker which are a bit hard to avoid anyway considering the social networking I do. Private Firewall with Pand Cloud AV, Comodo Memory (Temp Files) Firewall. combined with Windows Worms Cleaner to shut down Dcom (Only works with XP properly) with Spyware Blaster, Spybot Immunizer and when on social nets I add Sterjo for remort blocking. I still here in 2015 run XP and I have all the best virus scanners on the freeware market including SuperASW and Ma,warebytes and viruses have not been a problem. Actual hacker intrusions from DDoS attacks and firewall crackers have also been near to none. But it's still handy to keep a couple rootkit scanners. I also just learned about a new toy I never heard of before just a few minutes ago I'm trying called Arovax Shield that hasn't had an update since 2007 but it's not designed to worry about Virus tracking as instead it monitors your registry for changes.

    You will never be 100% un-hackable and if the Government wants into your computer you're as good as screwed no matter what you do and with Google cars driving by using WIFI to go straight to your CPU (Even desktops have them) to ignore your Firewall altogether you can forget about being safe against that tyranny but if you just want to raise a little hell on Facebook it's only 25% about what security system you have and 75% of what combination you use, how you chose multiple firewalls made to work along side each other and how well you know your virus scanners (Just in case) and making sure as well that you quit worrying about how pretty your browser is and worry more about securing it as well.

    Remember to keep your registry defragged and cleaned and to make use of your scanners. Any social nets you do, throw every Purpose built wall you have at it and monitor your activity and if you do get a hack scan immediately.

  2. Elad Hod
    June 23, 2015 at 12:09 am

    Well with that mentality you don't need to install any firewall as an OS backdoor will circumvent any firewall. I would venture to say none of the products above will protect you from either microsoft or the NSA. If you don't trust your OS you can use a different one or build your own but none of this changes the argument that in the specific case of choosing Windows Firewall or a third party vendor, the microsoft firewall will have been the most rigorously tested not to cause system instabilities and doesn't introduce yet another program you have to worry about patching. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, this is mine. If you believe the other firewalls would provide you with more security then I respectfully disagree but no one is stopping you from voting for your own favourite choice.

    • Joel Lee
      July 11, 2015 at 2:58 pm

      Thanks Elad, you made a good point. Application-level firewalls can be rendered ineffective if there are security holes deeper down, such as at the system-level.

  3. Read and Share
    June 22, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    My interest is on using the lightest and cheapest tool that will do the job. If Window's built-in firewall and MSE antimalware will keep "baddies" away -- then I really don't care if other heavier and more expensive options provide a thousand more bells and whistles. Or what "testers" say, for that matter.

    I have been using the above for years now. And I have gone to "naughty sites" (for testing purpose). I also do periodic manual malware scans using Malwarebytes for "second opinion". Again, all these years -- nothing, nada, zilch.

    So, am I saying Windows is best? No, but that it is the lightest, cheapest option that will do the job for me -- without fuss.

    • Elad Hod
      June 23, 2015 at 12:10 am

      Agreed

    • Joel Lee
      July 11, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      Exactly, Read and Share. Just because there are better alternatives out there doesn't mean that the lesser alternatives aren't worth using. Sometimes bloat outweighs the marginal utility gained. Sometimes it's just about preference.

  4. Elad Hod
    June 22, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Windows firewall is the lightest of these and the best solution for a windows desktop behind a home router. Home routers use NAT and most have firewall capabilities built into them. They should be your main line of defense for the security of your network. Additionally, it is a great benefit to change the DNS hostnames to OpenDNS on your router. OpenDNS lets you monitor for free any connections to known malicious URLs and will block many of them by default, it also enables you to add great filtering capabilities.
    I wouldn't install third party firewall solutions on my desktop for several reasons. The first being that any new software you install on your machine increases your risk as you have to trust an additional vendor. The second reason being that no matter how good the software vendor is it is highly doubtful that what they produce will be more integrated with the OS and utilize less resources than Microsoft's free offering. It is not worth the tradeoff for some extra bells and whistles to install a new firewall today. Back when Microsoft's firewall was extremely weak I used to use Zonealarm but it has become insanely bloated over time. Since Vista the Microsoft firewall does everything you would need a host based firewall to do.

    • fcd76218
      June 22, 2015 at 6:33 pm

      I suppose then that you have not upgraded the door locks in your house or apartment because that would mean having to trust another vendor. Also any new locks would not be as well integrated as the old ones. I guess enhanced security is not worth all the bells and whistles incorporated into newer locks.

      • Elad Hod
        June 22, 2015 at 6:59 pm

        Not a valid analogy. There is no additional security being provided by using a different vendor for a windows host based firewall. However, additional software requires additional maintenance and making sure that the new firewall is patched up whereas the windows updates would take care of the windows firewall. If someone gave you a titanium lock on your door which perfectly secure but you decided to replace it with a software lock from china which though does not increase your security does contain cool new features (like being able to give temporary access codes to the maid). You have no knowledge of whether the vendor's lock is actually secure because the software is closed source and so you don't know if there are vulnerabilities in the software or whether the there are malicious "backdoor" codes that have been put in place. You have gained additional features at the expense of increasing your risk profile. What I've said above does not apply to all software, for example, antivirus software should be chosen based on detection rates. However, firewall software exists to perform a very simple job, control network traffic going to and from the host. You want that to be as integrated as possible with the OS as no one understands Microsoft's network stack better than Microsoft. There is no additional functionality you need to gain from your firewall suite. For sandboxing you should use a dedicated solution like VMWare or Sandboxie etc...

        • fcd76218
          June 22, 2015 at 11:09 pm

          So far it is Microsoft that is building backdoors into their security software, not the third party vendors. What you think is titanium is actually brittle cast iron. One hard hit and it will crack.

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