Review of Circle With Disney

I spent a little over 10 years building a parental control software company, and we built the best stuff available at the time. Four years ago I left the industry. Ever since I've been waiting and hoping for someone to build something even better. I'm talking a colossal leap better, not just a small step better. Something disruptive and awesome. Something that tackles the challenges of today's mobile and app-based world. Something that blows my mind. Could the new Circle device be it? I've had it installed for about 2 months and here's what I found:

The Good

The installation is fairly easy and all done through an app on your phone. There is a little bit of cumbersome back and forth connecting and disconnecting from wifi networks, but I didn't get stuck along the way. While it's good, I'm hopeful this is something I think they can improve further in future versions.

Covers All Your Devices
Since Circle joins your wifi network it can automatically protect all of your devices in the house. It will start detecting devices that are on the network and alert you when new ones join the network (side note: this is a nice additional security feature to know if someone hacks your wifi password). It detected things like my Nest thermostat and Sonos speakers and it was easy to put them into a group called "Unmanaged Devices". This is important since often web filtering at the network level can inadvertently interrupt the proper functioning of smart-home devices.

Battery Backup & Circumvention Protection
You would think that one easy way to bypass Circle is to unplug it form the the power outlet so that it isn't connected to the network and filtering. But they cleverly included a battery to keep it connected to the network when the device is unplugged. In my test the battery lasted over night. I also received two push notifications to my phone: one telling me the device had been unplugged, and a second one telling me the device went off line when the battery finally died.

The Bad

Easy to Work Around
Circle is built to protect your wifi network. This means if your child connects their device to another wifi network or the cellular network they won't be filtered. There are several pretty simple ways around the protection Circle offers. I won't go into the details here, but the bypass methods are actually simpler than they are with traditional parental control software. Sure, I know the in's and out's of the technology, but my teenage nephew figured them out quickly too. My experience has been that when a child reaches the point that they have a desire to bypass Internet controls there isn't much you can do to stop them anyway...they will find a way. It's time to switch to a different strategy at that point.

Device Level Filtering & Reporting
The Circle applies filtering rules to devices, not to people. This is OK and even desirable in a home where each person tends to have their own devices. I think this happens a lot in homes with older children. In my home, with younger children, the devices tend to shared amongst the kids and the parents. This means I can't ever get a set of filtering rules that is really right for either group. The same thing is true for devices like the Apple TV. I can't distinguished between the time spent by the parents vs. the kids watching Netflix for instance. In the end our iPads ended up being assigned to the parents profile, which means they are basically unfiltered. Not really what I was shooting for.

Over Blocking
I've never seen a good Internet filter that didn't have an over-blocking problem, and I've had it happen to me several times with the Circle. I had a reading app for the iPad that my daughter uses for school that was blocked on the default Kids filtering profile on Circle. The app sends reports of her progress to her teacher and like many apps it does that using web traffic that for some reason the Circle is trying to filter. I was able to find the site in the reporting and allow it, but the reporting didn't show me why it was blocked in the first place. Here's the thing, I knew what to look for, most parents don't and can't easily solve this type of problem. This is one of the hardest problems to tackle in Internet filtering industry, Circle is basically doing the same thing everyone else it doing. I had hoped it would somehow be smarter.

The Surprise

No Subscription
I'm a little surprised to find that the device didn't require an ongoing subscription. This is how parental controls has traditionally been sold, and there is a real reason. The Internet changes constantly and the amount of engineering effort required to keep the filtering working is high, really really high. This adds pretty substantial ongoing product development costs for Circle. While Circle costs the equivalent of about 2 years of traditional software-based parental control solutions I'm afraid it won't be enough long term. I tried a non-subscription model in the early years with Safe Eyes, it wasn't sustainable and we converted to a subscription model. Maye the same thing will happen here.

The Bottom Line

I think this is a solid device. Like every solution I've ever seen it comes with it's own list of pro's and con's. You have to decide how these mesh with your family. It's a very good version one product and I hope it continues to improve over the coming months and years. It's not the colossal leap forward I had hoped for. My mind isn't blown. "Internet. Reimagined." seems lost in the reality of using the device. I'm still convinced there is a better way to tackle the problem of keeping kids safe online, until that exists Circle is a good choice.

P.S. Why did they make the device a cube instead of a circle?