Circle Go (for iPhone)

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There's a growing trend in parental control toward whole-network solutions, tools for managing all devices on the network from a single, central control point. The huge benefit is that you don't have to install a parental control app on every device. However, these systems generally break down as soon as your kids leave the house. Circle Go aims to solve that problem, at least for mobile devices. Available now for iPhone and soon for Android, Circle Go extends the reach of the hardware-based Circle with Disney beyond the home network. In testing, I found the experience of roaming with Circle Go indistinguishable from the hardware-based in-network experience.

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A Circle Go subscription costs $9.95 per month and lets you protect up to 10 iOS devices. If you decide you don't like it before 30 days have elapsed, you can get your money back. It's not an independent product; you can't even sign up for a subscription if the Circle website doesn't detect the Circle with Disney device on your network. And you don't just go sign up. Instead, you enter your email address and wait for an invitation, which, according to the site, might come right away or might take a week or more. For me, it took one day.

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The Circle with Disney device goes for a one-time price of $99. Over time, that makes it a good deal compared with subscription-based products. For example, you pay $79.99 each year for a 10-license subscription to ContentWatch Net Nanny 7. Symantec Norton Family Premier is just $49.99 per year, with no limits on the number of kids or devices, but, even so, after two years it costs more than Circle.

Unfortunately, that price advantage goes out the window when you subscribe to Circle Go. At almost $120 per year, it's among the most expensive parental control products I've reviewed. While I don't imagine many families have more than 10 iOS devices, Circle Go does impose that limit, while the basic Circle device has no limits. I'm no expert on pricing, but I would've expected an add-on service like this to sell for more like $9.95 per year.

Circle With Disney
Before saying more about Circle Go, I'll recap my review of Circle with Disney. Of course, you can read the full review for a more in-depth exploration.

Circle with Disney is a small, white, nearly featureless cube. As soon as you plug it in to a power supply, it's ready to go. It has an internal battery, so once it's charged up it can even work without being plugged in.

To manage the device, you must use the Circle Home iOS app—sorry, Android-only households, at present you're out of luck, but the company promises an Android version soon. The Circle app walks you through all the steps necessary to pair the device with your network and set up profiles for your family members. For each family member, you specify a filter level (Pre-K, Kid, Teen, Adult, or None). Depending on the filter level, the device blocks access to certain popular Internet-connected apps and to specific categories of online content. Once again, this device is a separate purchase, but Circle Go won't work without it.

As part of the setup process, you need to add each family member's devices to the corresponding profile. You get a list of every single device on the network, some with helpful names like Neil's iPad and others with useless names like The Device or android-6f0f0ee8bd2. If you're not sure about an item in the list, you can dig in to see its MAC address and match that to the actual device, or log in to Circle on the device itself and check the displayed device name. Once you've matched the actual device to its name in Circle's list, you can give the device a friendly name.

The Peace Wireless Router parental control device also lets you add a friendly name to devices you've identified. With Clean Router, it's easy; just log in from the device in question and click a button to name it.

It's very important to identify any Internet of Things devices in your network and put them on Circle with Disney's list of unmanaged devices. You don't want the device interfering with your Internet-aware refrigerator, doorbell, or garage door opener! Any devices other than the unmanaged ones and those assigned to a family member get controlled by the Home profile. This includes any new device that shows up in the network.

For each profile, you can set a daily time limit on Internet access overall, or on any managed application or content category. You can also set it to cut off all Internet access during the child's bedtime. And if the kids aren't behaving, a single tap on the parental app's Pause button suspends Internet access for every managed device. That will get their attention!

When your child tries to visit a site that matches a blocked category, the browser instead displays a laconic message, "Looks like you've been filtered." This notification page also contains an endlessly scrolling collection of age-appropriate content from Disney. Yes, that's where the "with Disney" comes from.

In testing, the device proved effective. I did find that when it tried to block a secure (HTTPS) website, the browser displayed a scary warning about a possible attack. That's because it uses ARP spoofing (sometimes more ominously called ARP Poisoning) to manage devices on the network. I observed similar warnings when testing the Peace Wireless Router and XOnet.

Whole-network parental control systems have one weakness. If the child connects with a different network, or turns off Wi-Fi to connect via the cellular network, parental control is stymied. The same is true of DNS-based systems like OpenDNS Home VIP and SafeDNS. At its initial release, Circle with Disney suffered this same limitation, but the introduction of Circle Go extends its reach.

How Circle Go Works
During setup, Circle Go installs a Mobile Device Management (MDM) profile on the device and also configures a Virtual Private Network (VPN). With these modifications in place, Circle Go has complete control over Internet traffic into and out of the device, whether via Wi-Fi or the cellular data network. Familoop Safeguard (for iPhone) uses a similar MDM and VPN combination. The iOS edition of Qustodio Parental Control 2015 offers VPN-based filtering as an option, but it's not nearly as easy to set up.

The VPN routes network traffic through Circle's servers, which apply the same tracking and filtering rules that you defined on your home network. It's not directly connected to the Circle device in your home, but the servers forward captured data to your home Circle frequently, and don't retain any data after forwarding it, not even aggregate or anonymized data. The Circle device itself does all its work within the local network; it doesn't send anything to the cloud.

Hands On With Circle Go
For testing, I used an Apple iPhone 6 for configuration and installed Circle Go on an Apple iPad Air. Confusingly, the app you install is not called Circle Go; its name is MyCircle. Once you've installed MyCircle on the child's device, you tap a button to set up Circle Go.

The MyCircle app first searches your network to find the Circle device; the app and the device communicate with each other automatically. Next, the installer displays the Circle Go MDM profile and waits for you to accept its installation. You'll have to enter your passcode at this point. As with Familoop, you get a warning that installing this profile allows the Circle Go cloud server to control your device. When this step is finished, Circle Go is in charge!

I found that the Circle Go experience was indistinguishable from using the device within my own network. Blocked websites triggered the same warning page, with its endless list of Disney content. During the defined bedtime hours, any attempt at Internet access just displayed the message, "Looks like its past your bedtime." The Circle Web page showed my Internet usage, broken down by category. And from the parental app, I saw the same brief activity report.

There was one very tiny difference. When you create a new profile, the Circle Home app represents it by a circle containing the child's initial. You can replace that initial with the child's photo. The same circle appears on the webpage that appears when filtering kicks in. During my remote testing, I noticed that the picture didn't appear, just the initial.

When Circle Go's VPN is active, a VPN icon appears at the top of the screen. A clever child might take that as a clue and turn off the VPN's Connect on Demand feature. According to the FAQ, this should trigger a parental notification, but when I tried it, nothing happened. Uninstalling the MDM profile did get me a cryptic notification saying, "78FD94196DD5 is no longer Circle Go enabled." That's not terribly informative.

Continuing, I swapped roles, setting the iPad to control the Circle device and the iPhone to represent the child's device. I turned off the phone's Wi-Fi, forcing it to use cellular data. I could tell Circle Go kicked in, because the VPN icon appeared. And as before, the experience was precisely the same as when connecting through the local network.

Still a Few Limitations
Circle Go works on any device that supports iOS 9 or later. For example, it's fine on any iPhone since the 4S, and any iPad since the iPad 2. Some parents give devices to children on a hand-me-down basis; if your kids are using really old iPods, phones, or tablets, Circle Go can't help you.

Circle Go keeps control even if the kids mooch a neighbor's Wi-Fi, or switch off Wi-Fi and use cellular data. However, a tech-savvy teen could simply uninstall the MDM profile and turn off the VPN. In testing, I found that disabling the VPN didn't trigger a notification, meaning that the child could surf freely, outside Circle's control. Uninstalling the MDM profile did cause a notification, but as noted, it didn't clearly identify which device was involved.

The product's FAQ page points out that Hulu and Netflix don't allow access through the VPN. They'll work when the child is at home, because the VPN automatically shuts off at home. In addition, some school networks block the use of VPNs in general. If that's the case, your child won't have Internet access at school except through the cellular network.

A Pricey Enhancement
Keeping control when the kids aren't home has always been a bugaboo for whole-network parental control solutions like Circle with Disney. The addition of Circle Go is a big step toward solving that problem, at least for iOS devices. However, at the current price, this simple add-on costs more per year than almost all of the full-scale parental control tools I've reviewed.

For your kid's other devices, I'd still suggest installing a traditional parental control tool alongside Circle with Disney. Our top picks are ContentWatch Net Nanny 7 (up to 10 children, no limit on devices), Qustodio Parental Control 2015 (five children, five devices), and Symantec Norton Family Premier (no limits).

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