Since this review was first posted, Symantec has removed a feature we liked from the final product shipped to customers. For details, please see our corrections page.
Keeping your PC safe--and safely hidden from hackers and Web cranks--is a no-sweat operation with Norton Personal Firewall (NPF) 2003. Enhancements to NPF 2003's basic intrusion detection now allow it to rank with the best at-home firewalls, including ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0. New features include a pop-up-ad blocker and more understandable alerts. But at $50 ($30 after rebate), NPF 2003 is almost as expensive as Norton Internet Security 2003 ($70, $40 after rebate). NIS 2003 is a better bargain, since it includes both NPF 2003 and Norton AntiVirus 2003. Current Norton Personal Firewall users, however, should spring for the upgrade; the $30 you spend will buy stronger intrusion detection and several other worthwhile features. On the other hand, bargain-basement shoppers and beginners should stick with the free ZoneAlarm 3.0.
Installing NPF 2003 and configuring it for the first time is as easy as pie. The Security Assistant wizard walks you through six easy-to-understand screens that set the firewall to protect a home network, configure the firewall to let apps access the Internet, and establish any privacy safeguards that you want to implement. By default, the firewall is up, and security is in place. It's foolproof, even for firewall neophytes.
But like last year, we still ran into one problem: NPF 2003 doesn't migrate custom settings--such as those you've worked on to tweak access for certain applications, or, in our case, to use with our satellite Net connection--forcing us to re-create them. Nasty.
Personal Firewall also integrates well with other Norton utilities--Norton AntiVirus and Norton SystemWorks in particular--and it shares the same green-light/red-light interface, allowing you to see which security provisions are activated and which are not.
There's a price to pay for this simplicity, however. Norton hides its configuration settings several screens deep. For example, the overall firewall security level (Low, Medium, or High)--visible from the top page of the old interface--is now buried, along with advanced features, requiring several clicks of the mouse to uncover.
Unfortunately, the more advanced your needs, the more troublesome NPF 2003 becomes. Want to set it to block ActiveX Controls? That's a six-click process through three dialogs. And unlike some firewalls, Norton doesn't let you disable cookies selectively. In other words, you can't specify which sites' cookies you'll accept; it's an all or nothing deal here.
Nonetheless, NPF 2003's several new features make it an even more effective guardian for the masses. The most important addition: an enhanced intrusion-detection system that not only blocks port scans from malicious users, but also looks at each in- or outbound data packet. If NPF spots suspicious data transfers or transfer methods, it compares these to a "signature" database that it updates when you do a LiveUpdate (Symantec's update feature) of Firewall, and it automatically drops the packets coming from the offending computer. This method catches and halts worms such as Nimda and Code Red.
Also new is the Block Traffic button, which stops all Net activity with one click, much like ZoneAlarm's similar feature. NPF 2003 also blocks banners and pop-up and pop-under ads; it displays a Security Monitor (a miniwindow on the desktop that offers access to all of Firewall's features); and the app now includes a graphical mapper that shows the location of intruding computers and hackers. NPF 2003 has also improved its alerts, providing more information on each alert's meaning and providing hints on how to combat such attacks.