Thursday, September 22, 2016

Clean Router Review: Keeping Your Home Network Safe With Hardware and Access Monitoring

The internet can be a dark and scary place, and keeping your kids (husbands, roommates or employees) safe from those dark recesses can be a daunting task. While there are plenty of options out there, it is often best to take a multi-pronged approach when it comes to security and monitoring your internet usage. This generally means using both software and hardware based solutions. This past few days we've been testing one of the newer options available on the market, the Clean Router.

The Clean Router offers users a multi-dimensional approach to internet filtering. It uses traditional networking hardware, coupled with customized firmware and back-boned with live support, frequent updates and real time monitoring. All this is setup with to allow users/parents to filter and manage everything connected to their home WiFi.

Hardware and Services
The unit we have for testing is a customized version of the Western Digital My Net N750 which is currently listed as a free option on the Clean Router website. The N750 is a few years old now so it won't be the latest greatest when it comes to networking. In fact it only supports 802.11 a/b/g/n, but not the newer 802.11ac standard. This means you will see theoretical wireless speeds up to 300Mbps on the 2.4Ghz band and 450Mbps on the 5GHz band, for combined theoretical wireless speeds of up to 750Mbps. Not bad, but you may want to opt for the Clean Router Pro version if you are a high bandwidth user!

 Clean Router

The router itself is only one link in the chain. Once you have your customized Clean Router you have to select a subscription service with prices from $12.99 to $19.99 per month. The basic subscription offers you frequent updates to your Clean Router’s filtering software so it is always on top of blocking new threats, along with free technical support via phone, email and live chat, regular updates to black, white and grey lists, Emailed Reports, Time Restrictions, new features, and several of their ongoing performance improvements. The updated subscription offers you access to Smartphone apps and monitoring, YouTube filtering and a few more options.

Ideally we'd like to see a third option added for just the customized router itself, but part of the biggest incentive to using Clean Router is the added benefit of having frequent updates to your firmware and blacklists. For most geeks we could do this all on our own, just keep in mind the market they are tackling is the typical home user that likely can't/won't bother with those updates. This in and of itself makes the subscription worthwhile.

Content Filtering and Safe Search
In order to "keep you safe" while searching the web Clean Router uses customized firmware that has built in blocking. These "blacklists" filter out most sites and search terms which would contain "questionable material". Blacklisted sites are filtered by a number of variables  all of which are categorized into 10 different channels. Art Nudes, Naturism, Malicious Software, Porn and Bitorrent sites are blocked by default, as are Ads and Image Sites. Users may also choose to block Drugs, Gambling, and a catch-all category of Guns, Violence, and Weapons.

In addition to blacklisting several sites and search terms out of the box, the Clean Router will also blacklist multiple search engines. Bing, Yahoo, AOL and several other top names are all blocked by default. This allows Clean Router to force your system to run searches through Google, (which it does without encryption). This allows the router to capture search terms and enforce Safe Search further blocking more material.

Advanced Features and Time Scheduling
For those that want a bit more control and are willing to get into some of the more advanced features the control panel offers several other options beyond the basics. Here you can add or remove specific URLs from Clean Router's whitelist, either manually or by clicking a button in the list of blocked sites. Likewise, you can blacklist URLs manually or by clicking a button in the list of sites visited. You can also add to the list of keywords that will trigger a blocking action. There's also an option to block entire top-level domains—maybe you don't want your kids connecting to any .cn or .ru sites, you can exclude all of those with a click of the mouse!

You'll also see the option for one of the more useful features, and one of the more challenging for home users to setup, time scheduling.

Time restrictions are device-specific, and in order to configure a schedule you must identify the correct device by its Media Access Control (MAC) address. Finding this can be a bit of a challenge but there is a quick easy way to make it easier. First, you can try logging in to the router setup page from the specific device you want to set schedules for then select Time Restrictions, and click the link titled This Computer. In the same way, you can exclude your own computer from filtering by clicking This Computer on the Exclude from Filter page, rather than trying to figure out its MAC address.

If you can't log in through each specific device you'll need to find the devices you want to block in the DHCP Clients list in the Router Info section. Here you'll have a full list of all of the devices connected through the router, along with the IP address, MAC address, and device name. Reviewing each name should give you a good idea of which devices you'll want to add. 

Activity Reports
You can view a list of all sites visited or all sites blocked, though the reports have some limitations. The basic list just shows the domains in question, with a button to blacklist (for visited sites) or whitelist (for blocked sites). Clicking an item in the list exposes more details, specifically the computer that was used, the precise URL within the domain, and the date/time of the visit.

This doesn't tell you who tried to view naughty photos, just which computer or other device was used. That's logical; a product that filters at the router or DNS level is never going to be able to identify individual users. However, you still may have trouble identifying the device involved, given only its IP address. I sure wish there were some internal mechanism to identify each device by a friendly name rather than an IP address or MAC address.

You can view activity for any particular day, but not cumulative activity over a longer time period. You can also have Clean Router email you an attractively formatted activity report at the end of each day.

Final Thoughts and Conclusion
For someone looking for a great parental control option that adds a couple layers of security and convenience the Clean Router definitely works well and definitely does what it promises. Just about anyone can setup it in just a few clicks, and since most things that most people want to block are set by default, you'll be up and running in no time.And since your subscription service does most all of the work for you, you can pretty much set it and forget it.

This doesn't mean it isn't without issues, and it won't catch absolutely everything, but for the most part you won't be disappointed.

I will say this though, if you are one of those people that has to rely on your kids  to keep your tech going then you likely won't get the  most out what the router and service offer as both can be easily bypassed by even the most novice of users. That being said however, what it does give you, is a little piece of mind that you are doing the best you can to keep everyone in the household safe.

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