Q: My question is how do you pick a firewall? I have a Norton firewall and the firewall that comes with Windows XP. Now AOL is offering...

Share story

Q: My question is how do you pick a firewall? I have a Norton firewall and the firewall that comes with Windows XP. Now AOL is offering a free one. Are any of these better than the others?

— Jim Gee

A: Some firewalls are definitely “better” than others. A better firewall offers more control to the user over the ports into and out of your computer. Norton’s firewall is definitely better in that sense than the firewall that comes with Windows XP.

Of course, the flip side of having more control is that the user has to know more. If your firewall allows you to control traffic over individual ports, you have to know what kinds of traffic to allow over which ports. The “best” firewalls — that is, the most secure firewalls — block all traffic except that which is specifically allowed by the user.

You can run two firewalls together, but there is a debate over whether you get any real advantages. And you may run into problems getting the two to work together. I would not recommend running Windows’ built-in firewall if you have installed a more-robust software firewall such as Norton’s and you’re experiencing any conflicts.

Q: I’ve been having problems “forwarding” and “replying” to messages. Some will go, many will not; they just sit in the outbox. I’ve tried different formats of e-mail and asking contacts to change theirs, to no avail. Any ideas? I’m using Windows XP on a Dell 5100 laptop; I use Microsoft Outlook and have Norton AntiVirus and Internet Security. I’ve called Comcast and they don’t have any ideas. I have not called Microsoft, though I’ve searched through the knowledge base without finding any clues.

— Don Morosic

A: I see you’re using a laptop. Are you connecting to the Internet from different locations?

Here’s a guess as to what’s going on. When I use my laptop computer at the office or at home, I have no problem sending e-mail out. But when I use it over the wireless connection on the ferry, the e-mail just stays in the outbox. If I check my e-mail log, I can see that the connection to the SMTP server — that’s the server your Internet service provider uses to handle outgoing mail — failed.

I haven’t been able to track down exactly what is going on, but I suspect the firewall being used by the ferry system’s wireless service is not allowing the SMTP connection to be made successfully. (If any readers have any specific information about this, please let me know.)

Q: Over the past several months, I’ve had problems connecting with AOL addresses. Whenever I send an e-mail to someone with an AOL address, off and on it will bounce and be returned to me with a “failure of delivery” notice even though the address is valid and AOL is the only one I’ve had this problem with, no other domain. I’ve addressed this concern to Hotmail several times, and it keeps reassuring me the problem’s fixed, but it isn’t — it keeps happening. So what is the problem with MSN Hotmail and AOL, any ideas?

— Kirk Nelson

A: The problem could be a server being down at AOL, especially if the problem is intermittent.

When the problem is constant with a particular ISP, a more likely explanation is that somehow the mail server your mail is being sent from has been “blacklisted” by the recipient server. ISPs, in an effort to block spam, block mail from servers they determine have been the source of spam attacks. And, especially since humans are involved, mistakes can be made in maintaining these blacklists.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by e-mail to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.