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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Norton Online Family

Those of you that follow this blog have read my reviews of products like K9 Web and McAfee Family Protection.  Symantec (Norton) also has a product in this space and I thought I'd take a moment to give you some info about it.

I have known about this product since it was introduced in February of 2009 but haven't had the time to really dive into it until now.  Two weeks ago I installed it on one of my test machines and began banging away on it.  For a free product, I'm pretty happy with the results.

Norton describes the primary function of this tool as providing insight to parents on their childrens' online activity and actionable tools to control that activity once they understand it.  That's a good foundation to build on.  One of the big problems with many of the big parental control software packages is that there are literally hundreds of  different settings you could configure but the question is always, "how do I set this up to work best for my family?"  Every family is different, every child uses the Internet differently, so a tool that first figures out your kids' online habits is off to a good start.

Norton Online Family provides the following:
  • Web monitoring and blocking
  • Configurable time limits for Internet access
  • Social network monitoring
  • Chat monitoring
  • Search monitoring
  • Customizable alerts that can be set up to contact you via e-mail or on your mobile device
The software is a "cloud" product (as in "cloud computing"), meaning the bulk of the application is handled by Norton's servers not your machine.  In fact, the installation onto your machine is very small.  It was very easy to install and setup (took me about 6 minutes, end-to-end).  Once installed, it asks you to set up accounts for each of your children, specifying their ages and genders as you do.  After you have the accounts set up, you can select from a generic/default configuration for filtering/monitoring, or you are free to customize the settings for each child.  The default filter levels were very comprehensive and I couldn't get much past them.  And in the rare case that I could get around them, the breech was recorded in the log and I could easily add the offending site to the block list.

Feature by feature the product worked as I hoped it would.  It has the same strengths that you see in K9 Web and many of the same weaknesses that McAfee Family Protection struggles with.  The monitoring tools work well, the default filter levels are comprehensive, the customizable alerts were a little slow (I got a message about my attempted access to about 15 minutes after I tried it) but worked as expected.  Like McAfee Family, it filtered some of the major chat and IM sites but not all (though, like McAfee Family, you could add the sites it can't handle to the blocked list), it doesn't control messaging in online gaming, It is limited to the major browsers (IE and Firefox - though it did work with Safari to my surprise) and it makes no attempt to block webcam access (in fact, you have no program by program access control like McAfee Family offers). 

Given these limitations, you may be wondering why I didn't give it as rough of a review as I did McAfee Family...because Norton Online Family is FREE.  If I am going to pay for something (like McAfee Family) then it better live up to my expectations.  Norton Online Family exceeded my expectations for a free product.

Overall, I would definitely recommend it to parents.  It's a great tool with great features and for the cost, you can't beat it.  On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a solid 7.

Here is the link to the site:

And in the interest of heading off the questions before they come in, no, you do not need to be running Norton's antivirus software to use this and yes, it will work with any antivirus software product.

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