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Every Smart Home Needs One – Review Geek

Rating:
9/10
?

  • 1 – Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 – Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 – Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 – Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 – Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 – Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 – Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 – Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 – Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 – Absolute Design Nirvana

Price: $499

Josh Hendrickson

I have over 100 devices connected to my home network, and that grows all the time as I expand my smart home’s capabilities. What I didn’t know was how to protect my smart home from any vulnerabilities those devices introduced. And that’s what the Firewalla Gold promises to do.

Here’s What We Like

  • As easy to set up as a firewall can be
  • No subscriptions
  • App is well laid out
  • VPN Server is so fast

And What We Don’t

  • Firewalls can still be complicated
  • Expensive up front cost

The Firewalla devices come in several flavors and pricing tiers, Red ($149), Blue ($199), Blue+ ($229) and Gold ($499). What you get depends on how much you pay, though the firewall features are essentially the same. The more expensive options do house better hardware, however, and can support faster network speeds. The Gold model I’m testing is the only one that can keep up with my home’s 750 Mbps download speeds.

After testing the Gold model for months, I’m convinced that every smart home should have a Firewalla router. And beyond the smart home protections, I’ve come to appreciate the quality of life improvements that come with the firewall. But only after I got past the setup stage.

Setup Is as Easy as Possible—Which Can Still Be Difficult

The front of a Firewalla device, with a USB dongle in a port.
Don’t take the dongle out, the device won’t work without it. Josh Hendrickson

Typically, a firewall goes between the internet at wide and all your devices. You can accomplish that a number of different ways, from building the firewall into a router to installing software on devices (like the Windows firewall). Because Firewalla is something you add onto the system, however, things get a bit complicated.

But Firewalla should be commended for striving to make the process as easy as possible. With a lot of firewalls, you’d practically need a network engineer to get up and running. Thankfully, Firewalla has tons of guides and a few options on how to connect it to the system.

Simple mode is just what it sounds like. Go to your router and connect an Ethernet cord from it to the Firewalla device. The Firewalla device will use spoofing to trick all your devices on the network to connect to it instead of your router. The downside to Simple mode is that it doesn’t work with every router or Wi-Fi setup. Firewalla maintains a list of devices it will work with, so it’s worth checking to see if you can go the “Simple” route.

My Wi-Fi 6 Orbi Mesh system isn’t compatible with Simple mode though. So, in my case, that means setting up Firewalla to act as my main router and putting the mesh system into a more passive “AP mode.” Normally that’d involve a hassle of Googling exactly how to do that because no two routers are the same, but Firewalla did all the work and had guides or links to guides already in place.

With that taken care of and all Ethernet cord wiring run, I just paired to the Firewalla app (for iOS and Android), created an account, and the information started flowing—-like a waterfall.

So. Much. Data.

You probably don’t realize how noisy your home is. I don’t mean audio from your speakers, of course. I mean how often every single device in your home reaches out to servers in the great nethers of the intarwebs. Well, I do now.

Even when I’m not actively playing my Xbox, my Firewalla app notifies me that it’s connecting to Microsoft’s servers (presumably for updates). My Google speakers, Amazon displays, smart lights, and more are constantly pinging me about random connections to their respective manufacturers. Thanks to Firewalla I can see the IP addresses of those servers, and which countries they send data to.

According to Firewalla, in the past 24 hours, my 100 odd internet-connected devices have accumulated 116,731 “network flows.” A network flow is anytime a device connects to a server to download or upload data. In the process, Firewalla blocked 20,226 flows it deemed suspicious or dangerous. I wish it would tell me more about why, but I haven’t noticed any issues with my internet in the process, so if my internet-crazy home can live without sending out all that data, all the better.

One issue I did run into is an overwhelming number of notifications. It’s a bit like the tale of nurses in a hospital hearing alarms so often they stopped noticing them. Every few minutes my phone pinged me because a console or PC is “gaming” or a streaming device (Roku, etc.) is streaming video. If something is using lots of data (usually streaming or actual gaming), I’d get a notification about that, too, in addition to the previous notifications.

Thankfully, Firewalla made it easy to mute notifications, and you have a lot of choices on how to mute those notifications. You can make Firewalla stop pinging you about a particular device, something I did for my and my wife’s smartphones and computers. You can also mute notifications of a particular type, like gaming, or to particular IP addresses. I don’t care when my son’s Windows PC downloads from Microsoft’s update servers, so I muted that.

And if you’re worried about someone getting onto your network without permission, Firewalla has you covered there. You can turn on quarantining, which will prevent any device from getting a full internet connection until you approve it. It works well in practice, too, but you’ll need to pay attention. Occasionally, I’d have a guest over and forget about having the feature enabled. Firewalla should notify you when a new device tries to connect, but notifications just aren’t always reliable. Still, I’d remember the issue and approve the device. It’s a nice control measure that’s easy to use. So are a lot of the extra features you get.

All the Extra Features Add Up

The back of a Firewalla device with a console port, three LAN ports, one Wan port, and a power port.
Plenty of ports to work with. Josh Hendrickson

Do you want parental controls for your home? A lot of services require monthly subscription fees and really add up. Firewalla has parental controls built right in, and there are no subscriptions. It’s not perfect mind you—no parental control is. You can enable the controls network-wide or enforce it on just the devices of your choice. In my quick testing, it caught the obvious sites you wouldn’t want your little ones to access. But enterprising young minds could get around it by heading to sites that host mature content but aren’t solely known for it—like Reddit.

That’s true of most parental controls, and unless you mute them, you’ll still get notifications about Reddit use. Firewalla also offers adblocking that you can enable for individual devices or network-wide. I didn’t test this feature because I don’t generally support adblocking, but if you want it, it’s there. Firewalla does admit it’s not perfect, and that it won’t block YouTube ads. That’s because Firewalla’s solution doesn’t work like most adblockers—it doesn’t examine your data to better block ads. That makes it “worse” at blocking ads but less invasive.

My favorite quality of life “extra” feature the Firewalla Gold (and only the Gold model) brings is VPN. You can turn your home network into a VPN to use while you are traveling. You have two options, OpenVPN and Wireguard. I went with Wireguard, and Firewalla made setup easy. Just turn it on, add a client, and generate passcode information. From there, you’ll install the Wireguard app on your device and import the passcode—one for each device.

Impressively, Wireguard through Firewalla is quick. I have very fast internet at home, as does most of my area. When I used VPN at public Wi-Fi areas, I never noticed a slowdown unless I tried to do something truly intensive—like cloud gaming. But for all my realistic internet usage, I couldn’t tell the difference between using public Wi-Fi in the open or connecting to my Firewalla VPN.

And if you prefer to subscribe to VPN and use it full time, Firewalla can help with that, too. You can enable a VPN client network-wide and send all your device traffic to your VPN: even devices that normally can’t connect to VPN, like smart home gadgets.

Every Smart Home and Busy Network Should Own One

If you look around your home and can count dozens (or more than a hundred) of network-connected devices, you should absolutely add Firewalla to your home. It does a good job of protecting your home without disrupting your network. I had no idea how noisy my home was until this eye-opening experience. Thanks to Firewalla, I determined I easily download and upload well over a terabyte of data a month in my home: Good thing I don’t have data caps!

Add in the extra features that don’t require a subscription, and it easily justifies its price. How much you spend primarily depends on your internet speeds. But even at the top end, the Firewalla Gold easily earned its price in my near-Gigabyte speed home.

Here’s What We Like

  • As easy to set up as a firewall can be
  • No subscriptions
  • App is well laid out
  • VPN Server is so fast

And What We Don’t

  • Firewalls can still be complicated
  • Expensive up front cost

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