ZoneAlarm Free Firewall has been arguably the most popular third-party firewall for Windows. It's a two-way firewall that's designed to help protect your PC from hackers getting in and any malicious programs on your PC from sending data out. However, it doesn't protect against Web-based exploits like some (but not all) other firewall solutions do. It does include anti-phishing to help detect and block dangerous sites, though. Additionally, it includes 2GB of free online storage for backing up your files, also offered separately from ZoneAlarm.
When you install ZoneAlarm Free Firewall 2012 (I tested version 10.1.065), you'll find product registration is required but you can opt-out of providing your email address if you wish, and only have to enter your name.
By default, it will install the ZoneAlarm Security Toolbar for Internet Explorer and make the Bing-powered ZoneAlarm web search site your default home page and search provider. The ZoneAlarm Security Toolbar can be useful for some users, especially if you customise it and add more apps, but can be annoying if you already have similar toolbars. If you're a fan of another search engine - something other than Microsoft's Bing - you'll probably want to forgo changing your home page and search provider. Lucky you can opt-out of each of these by unmarking the appropriate checkboxes within the installation wizard.
Before installing, the installation wizard must download additional files - another 34MB during my evaluation. However if you're installing it on multiple PCs via a network or flash drive they offer a full installer so you don't waste time and bandwidth downloading the additional files for each installation. But keep in mind it's a big (148MB) file.
Once installed, you'll find a simple interface showing the status of the main protection areas: Computer, Internet, and Identity & Data. Each shows their status and changes color accordingly. You can also click on each to see status details and shortcuts for the related components.
Typically no manual configuration is needed. The firewall and anti-phishing will just do its job. You might not even be alerted to allow or deny applications through the firewall since it automatically consults its DefenseNet cloud service for the safety info on the applications. The advantage of this is fewer annoying popups, but offers less control by default and could even lessen your security.
Since potentially safe applications could be used maliciously, it's best to double check the list of all the applications allowed through the firewall, which ZoneAlarm Free Firewall lets you do. For more control you can even disable the automatic application control altogether so you receive all program alerts, but is best for advanced users only.
If you opted in for the ZoneAlarm Security Toolbar, you'll find it in Internet Explorer. You can use the search field to search using Bing. The Site Check button displays the current page's security status, which can help identify phishing and other dangerous sites. You'll also find buttons for shortcuts to other ZoneAlarm services, your email, Facebook, and more. You can even add more buttons by downloading additional apps for the toolbar.
If you're not bothered by this app's lack of protection against Web exploits, and can live with the rough edges of the interface, it's good choice to download. Note: This product is free for individual and not-for-profit charitable use, but excludes governmental and educational organisations.