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Review: Online Armor Free 5.0

11 April 2011, Mike Williams

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, software firewalls would essentially carry out just a single task: monitoring your network, and blocking any unauthorised connections.

That’s no longer enough to make your product stand out from the crowd, though, and firewalls like Online Armor 5.0 now cram in so many other functions and features – keylogging detection, behaviour monitoring, browsing protection, script blocking and more – that they begin to look more like security suites.

The extra functionality is apparent as soon as you launch the Online Armor installer. This doesn’t simply unpack its files; its Safety Check Wizard first scans your PC for known dangerous processes that might interfere with the program’s operation. This takes a while – 55 minutes on our test PC – but is probably worth it, just to be sure that you’re starting with a clean system (although if you know you’re malware-free then the wizard can be skipped altogether).

The high security levels continued for us after rebooting, when we were hit with a flurry of alerts about the behaviour of our applications. Is it okay if this or that program “gets a list of files”, “wants to load”, “wants to start another process”? This happened even with many well-known applications – SmartFTP generated five alerts all by itself, for instance – and quickly became annoying. However, Online Armor remembered each of our decisions, so after the first few minutes the blizzard of pop-ups began to fade away.

Core firewall

The multiple layers of security here keep you busy, then, at least initially, but fortunately Online Armor’s core firewall is much less demanding.

The program did a good job of detecting our network computers and devices, for instance, automatically configuring itself to ensure that all of these were still accessible after installation.

It also properly concealed our system online, keeping us hidden from potential attackers.

We ran a selection of leak tests, trying to sneak information past the firewall, with no success.

And we tried to shut down the main Online Armor process via a range of sneaky, low-level routes. But not only did the program survive, it bit back, locking up our attack tool so hard that we had to close that down, instead.

Put this all together and you have a firewall that works well, even out of the box – if your needs are simple then you may not have to tweak it at all. But if you do need to make some adjustments, then a powerful rule editor allows you to set up the firewall in whatever way best suits your needs. The interface is a little inconsistent, not as intuitive as we’d like, but once you’ve learned that basics then it’s relatively easy to apply whatever tweaks you might need.

And then, elsewhere, Online Armor’s system tray icon provides quick access to a range of useful options.

Choosing Firewall Status, for instance, displays a list of all open web connections, showing you which programs are gobbling up the most bandwidth.

If you’re not sure about the legitimacy of some of these then you can block all your current connections at a click.

And an interesting password protection feature offers a couple of benefits. The simplest is that it prevents others from changing your settings. But you also get a “Lock GUI” option that hides future alerts, automatically blocking any prompted action. And so if other, less experienced users access your PC, you can give them the protection of Online Armor without any of the pop-up hassles (or the chance that they’ll accidentally allow malware to get online).

Bonus features

There’s already more than enough power here to earn Online Armor a thumbs up from us, however authors Emsisoft are taking no chances, and have crammed in even more bonus features in an attempt to win you over.

You get keylogger detection, for instance. This seems to be a little “sensitive”, identifying SmartFTP, an old copy of Paint Shop Pro and our spam filter as being potential threats, but it did spot a real keylogger in our tests and so could be useful.

The program also monitors your Hosts file, alerting you whenever a process wants to modify it (common malware behaviour).

And particularly interesting are the controls you get over the programs you run on your system.

A “RunSafer” option allows you to launch potentially vulnerable applications, like web browsers, with limited user rights (even if you’re using an Administrator account), reducing the opportunities for malware to infect your system.

You can have Online Armor specifically protect particular apps from termination or suspension, and have them restarted if they do shut down for some reason.

And performance tweaks allow you to restrict applications to particular CPU cores, and restrict their maximum CPU utilisation, handy if you’d like to keep control of some particularly resource-hungry software.

This all makes for an excellent free security tool, which proves to be a solid firewall with a host of useful additional features.

But if, for some reason, it’s not quite powerful enough, then Online Armor is also available in a couple of commercial editions.

Online Armor Premium ($40) adds browsing tools including a phishing filter, banking mode and DNS spoofing protection.

And Online Armor ++ ($60) takes the Premium version, and extends it with a complete antivirus tool and rootkit scanner.

If you’d like to try either of these, then the good news is that they all use the same download – just choose whether you’d like to install the Online Armor 5.0 Free, Premium or ++ versions during installation.

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