ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0

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  • Editors' rating
    8.7 Outstanding

Pros

  • Includes an ad-blocking tool and cookie management
  • hides PC ports from hackers
  • new interface is easier to use.

Cons

  • Free ZoneAlarm 3.0 will be available in April
  • doesn't include anti-virus functionality
  • no phone support
  • no Mac version.

Until recently, digital burglars didn't bother with home computers. But since many home PCs are now hooked up to always-on DSL and cable connections, the data they contain is a tempting target. That's why you need a firewall -- software that protects your information. Fortunately, ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0 defends your system from hackers, eradicates ads and sniffs email for possible Trojan horses. It's easy enough for anyone to set up and use, and it offers sufficient options and flexibility to keep power users happy. For total protection against Internet maladies, we still recommend Norton AntiVirus 2002 as a worthy companion. But Windows users who need only a firewall can't go wrong with ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0.

If the £28 (ex. VAT) ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0 is outside your budget, wait until the end of April when the still-free ZoneAlarm 3.0 should be available. The free version doesn't include many of Pro's better features (including ad blocking, cookie management and the extra information that Alert Advisor provides), but its firewall heart beats just as strongly.

Download the 3.5MB ZoneAlarm Pro (you can test-drive it free for 30 days), install it, and you'll have ZoneAlarm working within five minutes -- the setup couldn't be easier. Unless you want to delve into its configuration details, ZoneAlarm provides wizards that will walk you through the setup. Keep clicking the Next button, and ZoneAlarm automatically chooses the strongest possible defensive modes for your PC.

ZoneAlarm Pro gets a total interface redesign in version 3.0, and now looks somewhat like Norton Internet Security. The new Control Center displays the current status of all your safeguards, including any programs currently accessing the Internet, and it provides one-click entrées to all configuration settings. Links along the left-hand side -- to Firewall, Program Control and Privacy -- lead to detailed settings, security logs and options. Across the top, twin gauges monitor both upstream (outgoing) and downstream (incoming) Net activity. A holdover from the old interface, a large Stop button, lets you disengage protection at any time. We love the new look: it's easier on the eyes and easier to navigate, too.

Depending on how you set up ZoneAlarm Pro, each time a program or a program component on your PC wants to access the Internet, the firewall displays an alert to let you know whether the activity is authorised. A useful Internet Lock feature freezes your Internet connection so that no activity -- incoming or outgoing -- occurs when you step away from your PC. You can configure the Lock to engage automatically after a specified amount of time or whenever your screensaver activates.

But the enhanced Alert Advisor feature goes a step further. When a malicious user attempts to break into your PC, a click of the Alert Advisor button displays the geographical location of the hacker. Not even Norton Internet Security currently does this.

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But there's more. ZoneAlarm Pro includes a new cookie manager that prevents third-party sites from transmitting personal info but allows full rein to cookies from trusted sites. And the new ad-blocking component eradicates all sorts of ads, including pop-up, pop-under, banner and animated ones. Finally, ZoneAlarm Pro monitors more than 30 types of email file attachments that potentially carry Trojan horses or worms, and it quarantines these files so that you can examine them later with a good virus killer, such as Norton's.

The snappiest interface and the best features won't do you any good, however, if your firewall leaks like a punctured rubber raft. Fortunately, ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0 passed our performance tests with flying colours: It locked up and hid ports on our PC from hackers. In additional informal tests, both the online ShieldsUp exam and the Port Detective utility confirmed that ZoneAlarm Pro always worked.

Online help and email remain your only tech-support options. Fortunately, ZoneAlarm's support site is first-rate, with FAQ files, a list of known problems and reference documents. If you still need help, you'll have to email the help desk, using a complicated online form. Although ZoneAlarm promises to respond to messages from Pro customers in one to two business days, its tech support answered our test query in less than two hours.

From its interface overhaul to its superb graphical information about hack attacks, ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0 gets a big thumbs-up.

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