Personal firewall software goes a step beyond the basic precautions. Like expensive and complex corporate-level firewalls, these affordable and simple products promise to repel intruders by monitoring incoming and outgoing Internet traffic and alerting you to possible dangers. We looked at personal firewalls that sell for around $100 or less and chose the six strongest contenders for more detailed testing. This is a new kind of software product, and it shows. The firewalls' performance, usability, and interface quality run the gamut from effective and accessible to weak and incomprehensible.
The perfect personal firewall would be inexpensive and easy to install and use, would offer clearly explained configuration options, would hide all ports to make your PC invisible to scans, would protect your system from all attacks, track all potential and actual threats, immediately alert you to serious attacks, and ensure nothing unauthorised entered or left your PC. Only two products come reasonably close to meeting that ideal: Network ICE's BlackICE Defender 1.9 ($US40) and Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm 2.1, which is free for home users and nonprofit organisations. Though neither package is perfect, each has strengths that will make it attractive to particular users. Ultimately, we decided that these two products should share the title of Best Buy.
McAfee.com's Personal Firewall ($54) and Symantec's Norton Personal Firewall 2000 version 2 ($98) fall into the second tier of products. Sybergen Networks' Secure Desktop 2.1 (free for personal use at www.sybergen.com/free/ssd/ssduser.htm) performed unimpressively in our tests and didn't provide sufficient feedback (or even an indication that it was running). And Aladdin's free ESafe Desktop 2.2 (free download at www.aks.com) fared poorly because it is essentially an antivirus product with what our tests showed to be a clunky, leaky firewall tacked on.
We assessed the six contending products on three criteria: user-friendliness, ability to work with common programs that access the Internet, and prowess at repelling hacking attempts. In each case we independently installed the firewall on an otherwise unprotected Pentium II-350 machine equipped with 64MB of RAM and running Windows 98 SE.
The best configuration process should be comfortable for a neophyte while giving an advanced PC user the opportunity to tweak the settings. Most of the products we tested offer only three security settings: block all traffic, allow some traffic, and provide no security at all. This scheme works fine if you just surf the Web and check e-mail, but it's too limiting for many users. BlackICE Defender and McAfee.com Personal Firewall have the best configuration options and default settings. BlackICE has the simplest, best-explained security options, and it offers four levels of security for finer adjustment by the user. McAfee.com defaults to a middle "filter" security level that is an excellent starting point for most users. ZoneAlarm ranks near the top, too, but we thought it would have benefited from offering a fourth level of security between its high and medium settings.
Even the best docu-mentation for the fire-walls we tested is scarcely adequate, especially since hacking remains a mysterious aspect of com-puting for most PC users. In particular, none of the products we looked at fully explains its advanced configuration features. If you take into account its reasonably clear and organised online help, BlackICE Defender scores highest in the documentation category. But in this case that's a small honour.