In a Hurry?
|Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide|
|Go straight to the Change Log to see what's new since the previous update in December 2010|
Parental control software makes it harder to find inappropriate material on the Internet or to do things that "parents" don't want. The criteria I've used includes these four main components of parental control plus compatibility with browsers and operating systems:
Block addresses – to avoid specific Internet addresses (URLs or IP addresses)
Filter content – to identify inappropriate material
Manage usage – to limit Internet access by setting time limits and time quotas
Monitor activities – to see what has happened with alerts and reporting
Most of the products and services I've reviewed provide similar levels of blocking. They do very little, if any, online filtering for other content. This is because the block lists are created offline from content filtering done on the providers' servers.
I'm separating the discussion into two groups to clarify a key difference based on the breadth of activities that can be managed. OpenDNS, the previous first choice, is a great DNS server that focuses on web blocking and does that very well. But there is a broader range of controls that parents want which can only be provided by installing software on the desktop. Examples are limiting game usage, limiting computer time; and preventing avoidance.
1. Gateway or proxy servers only need simple configuration changes on your PC or router. They don't manage usage nor a wider range of desktop activities. They also have a major weakness which makes the controls easy to sidestep: the DNS configuration can be changed just as simply as it was setup.
2. Desktop software is installed on your PC to provide a wider range of parental controls. Time limits and quotas are usual. Some can filter or monitor much more than just web surfing: email, instant messaging, internet chat, and games. Plus there are a few more features to deter users who want to avoid the controls. For example, passwords are usually required to alter the configuration or uninstall the product.
Discussion - Gateways
OpenDNS is a web-based service that replaces your ISP’s DNS servers. You will usually have no software to install but you will have to register with OpenDNS and change the DNS settings for your router or PC. The online instructions are clear and easy to follow: select the router or PC & operating system, configure the settings, and test the new setup. If you are not confident about this then walk through the instructions without signing up.
OpenDNS works very simply. Its main task is to find web pages for you. It also checks its database to find out if the web page needs to be blocked. It blocks web pages by redirecting your browser to the OpenDNS block page instead of going to the requested web page. I find it is the fastest of the products reviewed here.
In order to enable content protection you will need to register for a free account with OpenDNS. There are two free options (as well as two paid options with more features):
OpenDNS Family Shield is the easiest to setup as it is designed to be real simple. It only filters a limited set of sites (adult sites, proxy and anonymizer sites, phishing sites, some virus-spreading malware sites) but you don't have to customize the filtering.
OpenDNS Basic is more work to setup but that is because it is more customizable: you can block or unblock any of 54 categories of sites; block and unblock individual sites; produce reports on sites visited which can then be downloaded or printed; customize the block page; and create URL shortcuts, such as "tsa" for TechSupportAlert. Once you have registered to use OpenDNS, you will use the OpenDNS Dashboard to configure and report on activity. It is a password-protected control panel where you can use one of 5 pre-set categories designed or customise your own setting with selected categories. By default OpenDNS only blocks phishing sites. You can also designate OpenDNS to restrict or permit individual sites. Reports on sites visited and usage charts are more useful in OpenDNS than in most of the desktop products. With OpenDNS you can view total requests, total unique domains, total unique IP's and total blocked domains in a far more readable and useful format. Plus you can print reports or download stats in a CSV file.
There are further benefits from using OpenDNS:
– You may notice a speed advantage if your ISP has slower or less reliable DNS servers. Each OpenDNS server has a massive cache so it is less likely to have to go to other DNS servers for the site you want. OpenDNS has several regional servers through North America and one in Europe. I found the speed very good even from New Zealand and OpenDNS was faster than any of the desktop solutions.
OpenDNS is not perfect. It is easy to bypass because you only have to reconfigure the DNS server settings to point at another DNS server. It doesn’t yet allow the blocking of unrated (not categorised) sites. Also, if you have a dynamic IP address (one that changes each time you connect) then you will need to install additional desktop software (the OpenDNS Updater, 256KB).
At the moment, OpenDNS has no competitors providing free blocking but there is at least one contender lining up. I've provided the links for your information:
DNS Advantage supports some well-known Internet businesses with servers spread through more continents than OpenDNS. At present blocking is limited to malware protection but more comprehensive filtering is under development. It should be a strong challenger to OpenDNS.
Clearcloud also provides malware protection but has no plans for broader filtering and blocking.
Discussion - Desktop software
The first choice in this category is Norton Safety Minder by Symantec. It is a part of Norton Online Family which also includes Norton Account, which you will need, and free site-rating with Norton Safe Web.
Norton Safety Minder is a pleasure to use. For a start, it is the most comprehensive of the free programs. It has filtering and monitoring for web surfing, social networks, email, instant messaging, and contacts. It also handles multiple user accounts which is good for one PC with many users but does increase the work to setup. If you need all these features then you should also have a look at the paid version which adds videos, daily usage quotas, and makes reporting useful by reporting on all activity increasing the report period from 7 days to 90 days.
Some of the useful features that were not common to other programs:
– Email alerts if your child crosses any monitoring threshold. Plus children can request that a site be unblocked. You can whether you receive the requests immediately or once a day.
I only had one issue. Unblocking pages is too time consuming because you don’t get the option to unblock at the block page. Instead you have to change go to the web setup pages to specify a site to allow.
Norton Safety Minder installs browser add-ons which worked fine for me. It does have problems running with other security software such as Avast! - you will need to disable the Avast! Web Shield if it is enabled. See Norton's list of known problems Using Norton Safety Minder with other security products. While testing I had no problems with Avira Antivir Personal or Microsoft Security Essentials.
K9 Web Protection by Blue Coat Systems is the second choice for the dektop. If your primary requirement is for web filtering with safe searching then I would use this because it is simple and effective.
K9 requires a license key that you can obtain before or after you install the software. It can be reused if you reinstall K9 so you will be sent an email with the license key whenever you uninstall K9.
Blue Coat's approach is different to the other providers because K9 is most accessible when a page has been blocked. This means that I don't get frustrated if I want to see the page or realize that my settings are wrong. The block page provides access (with the correct password) to all that I need: the site URL and why it is blocked; unblock the site or the category either temporarily or permanently; request that the site be reviewed; enter supervisor mode, i.e. no filtering; or change the main settings. Of course, if I just want a block page with no options I can set that in the 'Blocking Effects'.
All other changes are made through the web interface: a password-protected menu with three options:
– View Internet Activity. K9 logs every site you’ve accessed and the activity view highlights those that have been blocked.
What are potential issues? There is not the breadth of controls of products like Norton Safety Minder. Settings apply to all users on the computer as it does not have settings for each account - but that is what I normally want. The barking sound when blocking is helpful until you realize it barks on blocked ads too. Blocking an allowed site is done through the main menu as there is no system tray icon or button for this. There is no printing of activity reports. On occasions, web surfing has been slow or intermittent but, given that I’m half a world away from the K9 servers, that is not unexpected.
K9 also has a couple of useful and unique features. A timeout period can be set if there are too many blocks in a period up to an hour. URLs containing a specified keyword will all be blocked. Activity logs can be kept a long time and cleared whenever you like.
The third option in this category is Windows Live Family Safety by Microsoft. This is good program but its strength is its weakness: it is best as an extension of Windows parental controls and Windows Live. If you don't use either or are using Windows XP then I don't recommend Windows Live Family Safety because you can choose better products in Norton Safety Minder and K9 Web Protection.
I use Live Mail so I liked not having to remember another password. The interface was familiar to me yet it should be easy to use for most people. Each user profile is setup separately in a similar way to Windows parental controls, which it actually sits above. Be careful because some changes to the blocking setup did not take effect immediately.
The site blocking works very well in all versions of Windows and web surfing seemed more responsive than with K9 and Norton. But I wasn't able to choose from a list of categories to filter. Instead, Family Safety provides five levels of configuration related to the age of your children. Also, safe search is not as good because I could still view image files in the search engine image cache even though the sites were blocked. It can be uninstalled without a password.
KidZui has two browsers versions which cannot be run together. The older Classic version is available for those who have Classic accounts and either want to continue using it or are users of the paid Plus features (blocking sites, unlimited history, adding sites to kids favorites). All other users are recommended to use the newer and much simpler K2 version which I am reviewing here.
KidZui K2 provides a safe environment for young children. Every link is whitelisted which means they are all positively vetted. The downside is that there are many things that cannot be done in KidZui. But young children should be fine with this.
Sign up to get a password so you can set four options: launch at start-up; parental password to exit; full-screen mode; and toggle the welcome screen. If you want to, you can set it to run automatically at full-screen without your child being able to exit. But it is quite simple to circumvent and would not stop older children from avoiding it.
Other Parental Filters
This is the extent of current programs I tested:
I don't recommend using browser add-ons for parental control because they are so easily bypassed. They do not work with all browsers and don't have enough features.
I also looked at the following free child-safe browsers. I cannot recommend any of them for their parental controls.
Related Products and Links
Norton Safety Minder
K9 Web Protection
Windows Live Family Safety
|Oct 2011||No change to content. Convert the Quick Selection Guide to the new database.||Remah|
Add a change log. Change headings. Add KidZui K2.
|Dec. 2010||Review updated with Norton Safety Minder, Windows Live Family Safety, SafeSquid, FortiClient.||
|Dec. 2009||Review created.|
|Parental control, parental filter, web filter, best parental control, best parental filter, top parental control, top parental filter|
Please rate this article: