Four months with Circle guarding my Internet connection

IMG_1075Several months ago, I posted the unboxing photos and an overview of Circle, an Internet safety device that I ordered to protect my family at home.   I fully expected to be able to post a full review in just a few weeks, but I found that it took a bit longer to really test Circle with my family.  We have had the device in and running on our network for about 4 months, as of this review.  That has given me time to really collect a list of the great points and a few drawback of running Circle.

The Problem

I think every parent is concerned about limiting the access of Internet to their children.  There aren’t many easy solutions to the problem. In fact, most solutions available on the market take a lot of configuration.  Most parents are baffled with how to even begin restricting the Internet in a meaningful way.  And many of our kids are far more creative and find ways around the controls that we setup.

Enter Circle.   From the reviews that I read on Wired and TechCrunch, this seemed like a new take on an old problem and it was a new take that could potentially take into account mobile devices.  Previously, software-based Internet filters for the PC were required to have any level of control on your child’s Internet access.  For mobile, the best I could do was to remove Safari from my daughter’s iPod and replace it with a filtered browser.  Things like Netflix and YouTube were completely unmanageable from mobile devices and PC’s alike.  Not to mention set-top boxes – like Roku or Apple TV – and then we have all the new Internet of Things devices that can do varying different tasks from new form factors.   I wanted a device that was cross platform, had no monthly charges associated with it, and that allowed me more than just filtering as a parental control device.

The Setup

Installing Circle is simple.  You connect power to the device and once it starts up, you may pair it with the Circle mobile app.  All management occurs from the mobile app – so this is where you set the rules and get your reports.

When you launch the Circle app, it prompts you to pair your Circle with the app and create an account.  Once you have connected Circle to your network, it discovers all of your devices automatically.  The next step is creating profiles in the app and associated devices and rules to a profile.  Profiles can represent members of your family or can a simple grouping category.

Profiles setup with a simple wizard – you add a name, then choose a filter level from a list of pre-defined settings, you set time limits (if you want those, or skip), you set a bedtime and wake-up time (or skip it), and finally, you assign a set of devices to the profile from the list of devices Circle has discovered on your home network.  By default, all devices and any new devices are automatically to the Home category with a default filtering level that you choose.

The pre-defined filtering levels are Pre-K, Kid, Teen, Adult and None.  Each level comes with a set or pre-defined platforms (think Facebook, Netflix and other major outlets),  categories for all websites sites and privacy settings (like Ad Block & Safe Search).  You can manually change the defaults on the profile to suit your needs.

The gallery of screenshots below shows some of the options within the app.  For adults, you can easily setup access from their computers with unrestricted and unlogged access – or with logged access and no restrictions.  I also setup a couple profiles for other connected devices – like switches, routers, access points, and printers – set to the None filtering level with no restrictions and no logging to avoid any problems with their operation.

My biggest problem with this model is shared devices.  This is where the Circle model breaks down.  If a device is dedicated to a single user then it makes it easy to categorize and control.  The one saving grace is the ability to move a device between user profiles on the fly and it changes the access restrictions.  So for my family’s shared iPad, I can move it between my kids profiles to enforce access for my son, age 3, and my daughter, age 9, who have completely different rules and restrictions.

Where it Shines

Circle shines in a number of ways.  First, is bedtime and time limits.  This is a foolproof feature.  It works and can help a parent to enforce good limits for a child.  It also allows all Internet access to be disabled for punishment or other reasons.  Each profile has a simple pause button that enables you to stop all Internet access as long as the parent wants.  The time limits allows you to set time limits on activities online and it accumulates the time across all devices for a user and more importantly, it gives great feedback to the parent to know how much time the child is spending online.

The categorization of Circle is probably the best that I have seen of any filter to date.  This works well and in the event that a particular site is misclassified or you need to enable access, you can take a one-off and add it to a list.  This works great to allow the parent to police and approve certain sites that the child might need or find from a search engine for a school project or other reason.  When you need to allow an entire site, it is really simple to do within the Circle app.

In the same vein, the reports, or Insights as Circle calls them, are very good.  You get feedback on the amount of time, a list of the exact sites visited and these Insights are collected for today, this week and this month.  All of the data is kept on the Circle device and the corporate sponsors, including Disney, never get access to your data.  Under the History section in Insights, you can see a list of sites that have been Filtered for your user – so you can see any attempts that were blocked easily.

Teens can be hard to control.  They’re creative and resourceful and often find a way around the traditional filters that parents put in place.  Circle raises the bar.  Since it is wireless, it sits as part of your network and it is difficult to get it off the network – there is nothing to physically disconnect and allow your teen to bypass the filter.  Circle also has an internal battery which lets it run for hours if your teen tries to simply unplug power.  Add a built-in alert feature that sends an alert to the parent’s Circle app when power goes out, the parent will also know that the child is trying to bypass the Circle security.

Shortfalls

I have honestly found very few shortfalls with Circle.  The main drawback is one that Circle is working to address as a company.  Circle works great for the home network, but many children are not always on the home network.  Their devices are with them on cellular networks, at friend’s homes and school – among other places.  Circle is working on an app-based solution for mobile and cellular-enabled devices to be delivered in the future.

The other major drawback is with video platforms.  Unfortunately, Circle is like many other filtering solutions – it is binary choices – either on or off and restricted or unrestricted – for video platforms.  Circle doesn’t do a great job when you have a large library of content that needs to be categorized and blocked. With Circle, it is easy to block all YouTube or Netflix, but harder to control selected access to the content.  Circle, like so many others, is as the disposal of the platform’s built-in tools to control content and these controls are weak, at best.  Sure, you can do keyword filtering on text content, but this becomes a huge challenge with video content.

So My Gripes are really with the Platforms

My gripes with Circle are basically the same as with any other solution on the market and it is not Circle’s fault – it is the landscape of the video services currently available.  Circle does no better or worse than any other filtering software.  But filtering video is difficult when the vendor themselves does not have a granular rating system.  iTunes/Apple TV is the only library that seems to have strong and granular ratings, but this forces you to buy all video content from iTunes to be able to enforce those ratings – and there is no streaming subscription from Apple – so for most families, that is not viable.   In general, parental control is still very limited for video libraries.

Netflix

Ratings are my biggest complaint with Netflix.  Everything in the Netflix library has a rating.  The entire library is comprised of TV shows and Movies – all of which have ratings associated with them, yet as a parent, the most frustrating thing about Netflix is not being able to enforce a ban on certain types of content.  Sure, Netflix has the profiles feature but all my child needs to do is click on my profile (no password or pin available for a profile) and then they can watch anything they want in the library.

Video players like Apple TV offer the ability to filter and limit content based on ratings, but this only applies to the iTunes library of content on Apple TV.  How hard would it be to take those settings and make them apply within the Netflix app?  This metadata is fully available for every piece of media in their library.  This is a solvable problem, but Netflix seems unwilling or unmotivated to do so.

Circle also offers no enhanced way to police content from Netflix.  You are left with the same anemic profiles that do little to solve a parent’s ability to police the content their child can access.  If they could figure out a way to access the Netflix metadata and actually enforce TV and Movie ratings with the limits set for the child’s profile, it would be a wonderful combination.

YouTube

YouTube is a different animal when it comes to parental controls (and even workplace Internet proxies).  Since the media on YouTube is user produced, it relies on the user to categorize and mark content appropriately.  So much new content is created every day, it is unrealistic that YouTube can do the correct policing of new content.

In this case, Circle depends on YouTube’s Restricted Mode feature, which will drive you crazy as a parent.  With Restricted Mode enabled, certain YouTube videos will be off-limits to your child.  But, my child brought me more than a few examples where videos were restricted but I could not find any objectionable content – and I’m fairly conservative with what I allow for my child.  One was a taste-test challenge for jelly beans that was labeled as restricted.

There is no one-off bypass for videos and content with Circle.  There is no way to approve a particular video and this is a feature that would greatly help enhance the YouTube experience.   While Circle makes it easy to add a particular website – top-level domain name – to a specially allowed list for a user, there isn’t a similar feature for a particular video on YouTube or another video site.

For the life of me, I was unable to find a way to flag content that was mis-labeled and restricted.  I could find ways to report things that weren’t restricted that should be but not the other way around.  So, some series on YouTube that my daughter loves to watch, had missing episodes due to mislabeling them as restricted.

The Verdict

Taking it all into account, Circle is a great filtering platform for parents.  While it is not perfect and while it doesn’t address some major problems with video platforms, it is a strong parental control tool and one that I think parents should take a look at seriously.  I have not seen anything similar or close on the market.  The good clearly outweighs the bad and I’m happy with the purchase.

Disclosure:  I purchased Circle with my own money and this is my unbiased review. 

 

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Author Information

Philip is a IT solutions engineer working for AmWINS Group, Inc., an insurance brokerage firm in Charlotte, NC. With a focus on data center technologies, he has built a career helping his customers and his employers deploy better IT solutions to solve their problems. Philip holds certifications in VMware and Microsoft technologies and he is a technical jack of all trades that is passionate about IT infrastructure and all things Apple. He's a part-time blogger and author here at Techazine.com.

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