Firewalla hands-on: Easy to set up with plenty of features to help protect your home network

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With a large number of people working from home, and kids now thrown into transitioning to remote learning, our home networks are being flooded with private and important information. And with the influx comes the need to secure our home networks. 

Firewalla is a small plug and play device that does just that. You can go from unboxing to securing your network in under 10 minutes, and with minimal technical skills required. 

Firewalla currently has two versions: Red and Blue. The $109 Red can handle 100 Mbps network speeds, has 512MB of memory, and a 32bit ARM processor. The $179 Blue can handle up to 500 Mbps network speeds, has 1,024MB of memory, and a 64bit ARM processor. 

So, what's it like to live with this consumer version of a hardware firewall? Let's take a closer look. 

Firewall

Firewalla

Initial setup was a breeze

If you've ever plugged an ethernet cable into a streaming box or computer, you'll have no issues installing Firewalla. You need access to your home's modem and router and a power outlet. Use the included Ethernet cable to connect Firewalla to your modem or router (exact placement is covered in the installation guide) and plug it into power. 

It will take a few minutes for Firewalla to completely power up and install any pending updates. The process took about four minutes for me, after which the box showed up in the Firewalla app as ready to be paired to my account. 

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If you have a single modem and router, the setup process for you is essentially over. Firewalla will immediately begin monitoring network traffic, blocking ads, and tracking usage. 

However, if you're like me and have a mesh Wi-Fi setup, things can get more complicated. With the default settings, Firewalla would work fine for a few hours and then all traffic on my network would come to a crawl. Some devices would sporadically stream or refresh a website or stream a few minutes of a video, but overall, my network would crash until I rebooted Firewalla. A few hours later, the process would repeat. 

Firewalla is aware of issues caused by connecting its box to mesh Wi-Fi systems, and has a few different workarounds. I slowly worked my way through the options, and for me, the only one that worked was to put Firewalla into DHCP mode, point my Nest Wi-Fi DNS to Firewalla, and let it control the internal IP addresses on my network. 

Once I made the switch, all of my connectivity issues disappeared. 

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Firewalla

Adblocking

Prior to using Firewalla, I had tinkered with a Raspberry Pi and AdGuard or PiHole installed on my home network but hadn't fully committed to either solution. After using Firewalla for a few weeks, and seeing some ads get through, while others were completely blocked, I decided to give PiHole a shot and compare it to Firewalla. 

I don't have the exact stats, simply because both products use different calculations and it wouldn't be a fair comparison.

Overall, PiHole does a better job of blocking ads. Often times with Firewalla I would still see a placeholder for ads or was routinely being prompted by websites asking me to disable my ad blocker in order to read an article. But disabling the adblocking functionality of Firewalla isn't a quick click of a button on a computer. 

To be fair, Firewalla's support page makes it clear that some ads are going to get through and it's not a perfect solution. Still, it does a good enough job that you'll notice the majority of ads are no longer present, both in apps and in your favorite browser. 

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Firewalla's controls and monthly, daily, hourly breakdown of bandwidth usage. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

It's more than an ad blocker, though

Unlike PiHole, Firewalla is about a lot more than just blocking ads and trackers. It monitors bandwidth usage, by device, and makes it possible to turn off access to specific types of content on a specific device. For example, I can block adult websites from all of my kids' devices, or just block gaming and their Nintendo Switches, but leave the ability for them to watch YouTube still active through Firewalla. 

I have to admit, I have some fun with this feature by turning off video streaming on our set-top boxes at random. The setting change was nearly instant once the buffered video was played through, and it was enough to drive my kids nuts. 

You can even block social network access with the tap of a button -- something that I'm sure will come in handy as my kids get older. 

Scheduling the content filters is also possible, meaning I can block gaming at night, or limit video streaming to just a few hours a day in the afternoon after remote learning is done. 

There's also a log of every server and address each device on your network communicates with and where it's located. 

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Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

It's alert overload at first

In addition to the local controls and settings, Firewalla will alert you when a new device connects to your network, if a phishing or malware link is opened on your network, and look for suspicious uploads or downloads in smart home devices. 

All of these things are a great way to keep an eye on your network, but until you tell Firewalla which activities to ignore and tailor the alerts to your own preference, Firewalla will be one of the noisiest apps you have installed on your phone.

Every time my Ring cameras or Nest doorbell uploaded a video clip, I received an alert. Every time my Xbox checked in with its home servers for an update, I would receive an alert. The problem is made worse because at first you're not sure what's normal and what's not. 

It's a learning process for you and Firewalla. 

I'm undecided on whether I'm going to stick with PiHole or switch back to Firewalla. I like the peace of mind and insight that Firewalla adds, but the overall ease of use and effectiveness of PiHole is hard to beat. 

That said, I've missed Firewalla's alerts keeping me up to date with who is doing what on my network. And Firewalla's capabilities extend far beyond PiHole, bringing security, insights, and control in an affordable package you don't have to worry about building or putting together. I didn't even touch on the advanced networking features like built-in VPN, DDNS, and the open port directory, simply because it's nothing I need right now. But, I imagine when things start to get back to normal and I start to travel again, the VPN feature will be something I set up and use quite a bit. I cannot wait for things to get back to normal. 

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