Thursday, March 08, 2012

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 Internet connection, you’ll want a third-party firewall instead.
The Windows 7 firewall has many of the powerful options you’ll find in other firewalls, but its advanced settings interface is much more complicated to use than other firewalls. The Windows firewall’s advanced interface is designed for system administrators, while other firewalls are designed for users.

What Firewalls Do

There are multiple types of firewalls, as we’ve discussed in the past. The Windows 7 firewall, like other third-party firewall programs, is a software firewall that controls how applications on your system access the Internet. Firewalls can block both incoming and outgoing traffic.

Inbound Traffic

Windows 7’s default firewall is designed to run with little user input. Aside from specifying whether a network is a home, work or public network when you connect – a feature common in third-party firewalls – it only prompts you when a program is acting as a server. If a program wants to receive incoming connections from the Internet, the Windows firewall will block incoming connections and ask you whether you want to allow them.

You can control the firewall from the Windows Firewall control panel, located under System and Security in the Control Panel. To control the programs that are allowed to access the Internet, click the “Allow a program or feature through Windows Firewall” link at the left side of the window.

Click the “Change Settings” button and use the check boxes to control which programs can receive connections on private or public networks. You can also use the “Allow another program” button to allow a specific program, although Windows should prompt you if one tries to access the Internet.

Outbound Traffic

The Windows 7 firewall allows all programs to establish outgoing connections to the Internet with no user confirmation. Third-party firewalls, such as Comodo, can also prompt you when a program wants to access the Internet. Some firewalls even have databases of known safe applications, which they can automatically allow. By default, Comodo and some other firewalls only ask you if an unknown application wants to access the Internet.

You can actually control outbound traffic in the Windows 7 firewall, although you can’t have it prompt you when a program wants to access the Internet. First, click the “Advanced Settings” link at the left side of the firewall control panel window.

In the Advanced Settings window, select “Outbound Rules” and click the “New Rule” link.

Use the wizard to specify a specific program’s .exe file and select the “Block this connection” option.

This is much more difficult and involved than the way you’d block a program in a third-party firewall. You could block a program from the prompt that appears when it tries to access the Internet, or by clicking the Block Application option in your firewall.

Advanced Settings

Go beyond the basic settings by clicking the “Advanced Settings” link and you’ll find a surprisingly powerful interface for configuring the Windows 7 firewall.

You can create rules that can filter traffic based on ports, IP addresses and associated programs.

While system administrators will no doubt appreciate the options here, this is an unnecessarily confusing interface for most users. If you want to dig deep into your firewall’s options, you’ll find that third-party firewalls offer an easier-to-use interface.

Viewing Network Activity

Third-party firewalls also have features that show you what applications are accessing the Internet and how much traffic they’re using. The Windows 7 firewall doesn’t provide this information.

The Verdict

If you’re looking for a firewall that keeps your computer safe from inbound traffic and lets you control which applications function as servers with little fuss, the Windows 7 firewall is an easy-to-use option that’s already on your computer.
If you want to control which applications can access the Internet and use other advanced options, you’ll be better off with a third-party firewall. Third-party firewalls present advanced options in easy-to-understand interfaces.
Do you use a third-party firewall, or is the Windows 7 firewall good enough? If you use a third-party firewall, which one do you use? Leave a comment and let us know.
Image Credit: Firewall Graphic via Shutterstock

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