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Internet security is generally something that requires men in sharp suits or pointy hats to manage. It is also expensive, with subscriptions for firewalls, antivirus and parental controls all sucking at your bank balance.
With smart homes the risks are so much greater, and with younger users around, the rules just go out the window. Circle started out as a Kickstarted product that parents could use easily, and it impressed Disney so much, they put their name on it, note it is not a Disney product!
So, Circle with Disney lets the parents choose which children can access certain services on any device within particular times, and for certain time lengths. All that for $99 (For the latest prices and discounts, check here) makes it sound like a clever way to monitor who’s doing what, and encouraging them to do other things beyond the screen.
The Circle with Disney device is a stylish white curved box, it pairs wirelessly with your existing router, so there’s minimal changes to make. It then monitors which devices can access what services online, with parents able to choose when children are allowed online across those devices.
That means they can do their homework after school on a PC, watch some Netflix on a tablet in the evening and maybe stream some Spotify music before bed to their phone.
Whatever your child’s age, they can be given boundaries for the online usage and screen time,and at bedtime, everything shuts down for them, while the grown ups can still play.
Ideally parents can then reward them for doing other things to add positive reinforcement to the Circle with Disney concept.
The Disney tie-in also adds some extra content that kids might enjoy, and the iOS app can help see what people, including parents, are doing online so families can hopefully arrange their time better together.
For the technically minded, Circle uses ARP spoofing to intercept and inspect data network packets from devices in the home trying to connect to the network, and denying or granting access based on the user settings.
Pros of the Circle with Disney
The Circle with Disney is a 3.25-inch cube that’s an easy device to configure. The only physical button is a pause one that will stop Internet access until pressed again, an ideal button if no one shows when the owner calls for dinner.
The owner will see devices connecting to the network via the app, there is no need for software on each device. The owner assigns them to particular categories; adult, children or home.
When a guest arrives their device goes in the Home category, and the owner gets an alert and can assign it some age-appropriate settings for consistency.
Using the iOS app, they can control the total amount of time each child can use the internet across all devices. Then they limit their time on particular sites or services, and shut down Internet access for each child just before their bedtime.
That makes it ideal for kicking the kids off Snapchat before it ruins their life, or just stopping from binging on Spongebob.
Filter levels can be set for pre-school, kid, teen, adult or none, with common apps like Facebook Instagram or Netflix being able to be blocked directly or time limited. The same goes for gaming services and media.
The Circle doesn’t require a subscription and any of the data gathered is kept private and not shared with Disney or other companies.
At this point, smarthome owners might be worried about their Nest or Hue lighting, but the device is clever enough to recognize IoT style devices and let their data pass.
Cons of the Circle with Disney
An Android app is promised soon, but still hasn’t arrived, so you can only control this through an iPhone or iPad device, which limits many families. Also, the product is only available in the US, with no sign of international distribution.
Other than that there is little to worry about with the Circle, when setup correctly, it does its job quietly and efficiently. One major complaint might be that it can’t distinguish between homework or online schooling and playtime, and there’s no easy way to change settings just for one evening.
However, there are a few quirks, beyond the well known services and apps, users do have to assign a category to other services.
So, if a new streaming service comes along, it gets tagged as video, and has the same limits as the kid’s Netflix allowance, which isn’t particularly fine-grained, but app updates might fix that.
Obviously children with smartphones can work around this via their data connections, in which case you might want to revisit their data plans to limit their usage that way, but for smaller children this is a pretty ideal solution.
Also, older children might be frustrated at being marketed the Disney content which appears on their screen when other content is being blocked, usually if they are trying to look for more grown-up stuff.
Older or sneakier children will instantly figure out ways around the Circle with Disney, they might borrow a neighbors WiFi, or set up their own hotspots, perhaps even get their own cheap router, wire that into the main hub and hide it out of sight.
The company does plan a Circle Go product, but that’s not on the market yet.
But generally, this is a smart idea that can help limit young people’s access to screens and inappropriate content. It will also help parents see what type of content their children like most and learn about how to better manage their needs.
As for your children throwing a tantrum when their time runs out five minutes before a movie or show ends, well, hopefully there will be an app update that sorts that out.
However, with real risk of device or online gaming addiction, the Circle could well help head off many serious problems that make it worth putting up with a few minor moans.
Patrick Sinclair is a geek; make no mistake about that. He runs All Home Robotics in his spare time so he doesn’t have to think about his depressing cubicle and it gives him an excuse to buy expensive gadgets to review!