Skydog hands on: Home Wi-Fi routing done right

Summary:The best home networking solution for parental control of technology is also the best home Wi-Fi router, period. Skydog does well what other Wi-Fi routers usually do poorly.

Once the kids get old enough, parents crave control over their use of today's technology. Yet even for the technically competent, it's a difficult thing to do, short of physically taking the devices away.

According to a study by McAfee this past spring, 80 percent of parents don't know how to find out what their kids are doing online. 66 percent of parents of kids ages 10-23 believe their kids are more tech-savvy than they, and that they'll never catch up with their kids.

I recently discussed one approach to this: Mobile Device Management , which would operate at the mobile carrier level for cellular devices. But there's another important point of control: The router or wireless access point. For years, wireless router companies have offered features they call parental control. These features are usually so primitive and difficult to use that almost nobody bothers with them. The few who do use them often find that they make things worse.

The Skydog wireless router from PowerCloud Systems takes a much simpler, more logical and powerful approach. It includes category-based content filtering, time of day management and can manage based on users in addition to devices. It has sophisticated routing functions not generally found in other home products.

Significantly, it also moves device configuration into the cloud, which greatly simplifies administration and opens new opportunities. The techie relative, real consultants and Skydog support can all more easily and effectively support the customer this way.

Skydog user setup
Unlike most wi-fi routers, Skydog allows you to define users and set policies for them.

Setting up a wireless router in a home is not especially tricky for someone who knows networking. But I was amazed at how easy and powerful the setup was for my Skydog. I did nearly all of it before I even plugged the unit in.

In the classic way, the admin user configures the router by connecting from a browser directly to it using a friendly address like http://192.168.0.1. With Skydog, I first created an account on skydog.com (you can also log in with your Google ID) and entered a code from the bottom of the device. Then, before even plugging it in, I could enter my users and some policies. For each user, I entered an email address and mobile phone number because the service can alert the user by email or text message. I also entered all the usual Wi-Fi router stuff like the SSID, password and security configuration, and created a guest network.

Skydog device list for user
You can assign devices to a user and apply policies, or block access for the user or a device.

I have Verizon FiOS, which uses a ridiculous proprietary router that cannot be replaced. Many other Wi-Fi routers fail in this case or require double-NATting, but not Skydog. When I hard-wired the Skydog to my FiOS router, it automatically detected what was up and configured itself for bridge mode, acting only as a wireless access point.

And of course, once the Skydog went online it phoned home to skydog.com with the same device ID I entered in my cloud account and then downloaded all the configuration data that I entered in my account.

Skydog SMS alerts
Skydog can alert the admin and users via SMS or email as appropriate

One of the configurations I made in Skydog before powering it on was to create two zones: TheFamily and Guest. I can set different policies for the different zones. Skydog permits multiple zones; I might want to create one just for business work that had looser rules and guaranteed bandwidth.

As we connected devices to the new SSID, or physically connected them through the 4 switched ports in it, the Skydog detected them and notified me through e-mail and SMS for each. I could then go into the Skydog cloud config, find the section for unassigned devices in that zone, name the device and assign it to a user.  Skydog fingerprints the device, identifying it as Windows, Android, iOS and some other characteristics.

I could set one scheduling policy for all of my daughter's devices: From 9PM to 6AM she has no Wi-Fi access. (Her iPhone still has cellular access; Skydog can't remedy that, but my proposed MDM solution could.)

Between 6AM and 9PM, I could choose to give her unrestricted access to the Internet or to subject her access to one of five sets of policies numbered 1 through 5. These policies block content matching various categories categorized at the top as Security and Privacy, Family Protection, Youth Distractions, Social Networking, Digital Communications, and Other Content Protection (see the image below). Each of these policies subcategorizes, sometimes down many levels, and you can edit the policies to block or unblock specific low-level categories or whole top-level categories.

And in another example of Skydog doing things the right way, I was able to create a new policy specifically for my daughter and checked the right boxes for her (see NadiaPolicy in the image below). If you have multiple kids, you can set multiple policies, and at different times of day. For instance, if certain hours are homework-only, you can block all "Youth Distractions" sites at those hours.

Skydog also has a feature which will, unfortunately, be handy the next time my daughter refuses to do chores: I or my wife can easily log into the cloud account and block all her Wi-Fi access. Once again, it can't block her cellular access, but I can log into the AT&T site and do that.

Skydog content filtering policies
Skydog content filtering allows multiple custom policies for each user.

Lest you read too much into my enthusiasm, it's not like the average non-technical parent can set this device up and configure it properly. But they can physically set it up; that's just plugging in a few cables. If they don't want to do the cloud setup, someone else can do it and it doesn't matter where that person is. They could be on the moon as long as they have Internet access.

For this review I re-familiarized myself with the configuration software for the major competition: Linksys (Cisco), Netgear, D-Link and Apple. Of all of them, Apple AirPort Extreme is actually the most restrictive and inflexible, mostly because it has no web interface. You have to use a program which you install on iOS, Mac OS or Windows. The others use a web interface, but the software just can't compare to Skydog's. Some of the competition, especially D-Link, have some cloud services for configuration, but even D-Link falls far short of Skydog's cloud capabilities. Skydog has no mobile apps for cloud access, but they do have a very usable mobile web site.

How good is Skydog's cloud setup? Imagine your router has a hardware failure for some reason. With Skydog, they send you a new one, you plug it in, go into the cloud interface to the Replace Router function, enter the code of the new router and you're done. The new router pulls the configuration down and sets itself up. That's how good it is.

Skydog user schedule policies
You can schedule different access levels for users at different times of day. Thos kid can't access fun sites when he's supposed to be studying.

Like a lot of other routers, Skydog has a USB port, but it is inactive for now. At some point they can create a firmware update to add support. Speaking of firmware updates many of them in routers are for functions which are performed in the cloud for Skydog, so Skydog users can expect many fewer firmware updates.

I asked about range extenders, since they are important in many houses. Another router configured in a true bridge mode (i.e. no NAT or MACs) will function as a range extender. If the other router is on the same network as the Skydog, all devices connected through it will appear as wired devices on the Skydog. One zone will be extended to these devices, connected to the switch port through which the other router connects, so in this configuration you do lose some flexibility.

PowerCloud is working on a firmware update for the Skydog which will allow it to function as a wired range extender and support all the Skydog features seamlessly. I asked about wireless range extending, and this was the company's response:

Initially the Skydogs in Extender mode will connect via Ethernet (wired) to the Skydog in Gateway mode. At a later time we are planning to introduce mesh-based wireless connection between the gateway and the extenders.

I tested, and the screen captures were taken, with the version 1.1 Skydog software, which is released today. In many ways, it's much better, especially in content filtering.

The Skydog device costs $149 and is available today at www.skydog.com and Amazon. The cloud service, including the web ratings, is substantial enough that there is a subscription fee of $30 per year. One year of subscription to the cloud service is included with the device, and for a limited time two years are included.

The subscription fee will turn some people off, but it really shouldn't. You're not continually paying for the product, you're paying for a continually improving service. It's in the nature of security products now that they have to be constantly updated, and if you want that done well you'll have to pay something.

More of a concern — in fact, really the only concern — is the range extender delay. It should be just a temporary one, but there are many homes that need wireless range extenders, and for whom therefore Skydog may not be an option. Truth be told, it may be that some range extenders will work with it, but there are no standards for this yet and nobody, especially PowerCloud, will tell you that they will work.

Other than the lack of a range extender solution for now, Skydog is a really impressive product. I'll be wholeheartedly recommending it to friends and family, so it's good enough for you too.

Related Coverage:

06-Skydog

Topics: Reviews

About

Larry Seltzer has long been a recognized expert in technology, with a focus on mobile technology and security in recent years. He was most recently Editorial Director of BYTE, Dark Reading and Network Computing at UBM Tech. Prior to that he spent over a decade consulting and writing on technology subjects, primarily in the area of sec... Full Bio

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