Firewalls are an important piece of security software, and someone is always trying to sell you a new one. However, Windows has come with its own solid firewall since Windows XP SP2, and it’s more than good enough.
You also don’t need a full Internet security suite. All you really need to install on Windows 7 is an antivirus — and Windows 8 finally comes with an antivirus.
Why You Need a Firewall
The primary function of a firewall is to block unrequested incoming connections. Firewalls can block different types of connections intelligently — for example, they can allow access to network file shares and other services when your laptop is connected to your home network, but not when it’s connected to a public Wi-Fi network in a coffee shop.
A firewall helps block connections to potentially vulnerable services and controls access to network services — particularly file shares, but also other types of services — that should only be accessible on trusted networks.
Before Windows XP SP2, when the Windows Firewall was upgraded and enabled by default, Windows XP systems connected directly to the Internet became infected after four minutes on average. Worms like the Blaster worm tried to connect directly to everyone. Because it didn’t have a firewall, Windows let the Blaster worm right in.
A firewall would have protected against this, even if the underlying Windows software as vulnerable. Even if a modern version of Windows is vulnerable to such a worm, it will be extremely difficult to infect the computer because the firewall blocks all such incoming traffic.
Why the Windows Firewall is Good Enough
The Windows Firewall does the exact same job of blocking incoming connections as a third-party firewall. Third-party firewalls like the one included with Norton may pop up more often, informing you that they’re working and asking for your input, but the Windows firewall is constantly doing its thankless job in the background.
It’s enabled by default and should still enabled unless you’ve disabled it manually or installed a third-party firewall. You can find its interface under Windows Firewall in the Control Panel.
When a program wants to receive incoming connections, it must create a firewall rule or pop up a dialog and prompt you for permission.
When You Would Want a Third-Party Firewall
By default, the Windows firewall only does what’s really important: block incoming connections. It has some more advanced features, but they’re in a hidden, harder-to-use interface.
For example, most third-party firewalls allow you to easily control which applications on your computer can connect to the Internet. They’ll pop up a box when an application first initiates an outgoing connection. This allows you to control which applications on your computer can access the Internet, blocking certain applications from connecting.
Power users may love this feature, but it’s probably not a good feature for the average user. They’ll be charged with identifying applications that should be allowed to connect and may block background-updater processes from connecting, preventing their software from updating and leaving it vulnerable. It’s also a very noisy task, as you’ll have to confirm a prompt box every time a new application wants to connect. If you really don’t trust a program to connect to the Internet, perhaps you shouldn’t be running the program on your computer in the first place.
Nevertheless, if you want outgoing-connection management, you’ll probably want a third-party firewall. They also offer an interface where you can more easily view statistics, firewall logs, and other information.
For most users, using a third-party firewall just introduces unnecessary complexity.
Advanced Windows Firewall Features
The Windows firewall actually has more features than you might expect, though its interface isn’t as friendly:
- Windows offers an advanced firewall configuration interface where you can create advanced firewall rules. You can create rules that block certain programs from connecting to the Internet or only allow a program to communicate with specific addresses.
- You can use a third-party tool to extend the Windows firewall, forcing it to prompt you for permission each time a new program wants to connect to the Internet.
A third-party firewall is a power-user tool — not an essential piece of security software. The Windows firewall is solid and trustworthy. While people can quibble about the Microsoft Security Essentials/Windows Defender virus detection rate, the Windows firewall does just as good a job of blocking incoming connections as other firewalls.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 06/11/13