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Protecting Your Children from the Internet: A Buyer's Guide to PC Monitoring Software

written by: Tony Bradley•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 7/10/2008

On paper, MaxProtect for Kids, CYBERsitter, and Net Nanny seem fairly evenly matched in features and function. Two have more comprehensive filtering, while the third provides more reporting functionality. Still, one stands out as a product to avoid and you may be surprised by the winner.

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    The Internet is a powerful tool and an indispensable resource. The vast amount of information and the ability to communicate instantly around the globe are major benefits of going online, but there is also a down side. The Internet is also a breeding ground for objectionable, inappropriate, or outright offensive material that you want to ensure your children do not have access to.

    To protect your kids, you can install software that will control or restrict the types of information they are allowed to access. Depending on the vendor, these products can also monitor computer activity and a variety of communications such as email or instant messaging, and provide alerts when unacceptable activities are taking place, as well as reports to let you review computer activity to ensure the product is doing what it should.  This guide will compare three of the most popular Internet monitoring and filtering products to give you some idea of what to look for and the pros and cons of each.

    MaxProtect for Kids, CYBERsitter, and Net Nanny are all established, and fairly well known products within this genre. Ranging in price from $39.95 to $49.95, the products are fairly evenly priced. However, the features of each product and the ability of each product to actually filter and block objectionable material varies widely.

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    Installation & Setup

    Installing the software was relatively simple and straightforward for all three products. Simply click on the installation executable, enter your license code or registration key and away you go. There are a few differences worth noting though.

    As of this review, none of these products has a Mac-compatible version, and Net Nanny is the only product of the three which has been updated to be Vista-compatible. Max will soon be rolling out MaxProtect for Kids v4, which will presumably be Vista-compatible. There is nothing available to suggest that CYBERsitter will be developing a Vista-compatible version any time soon.

    While all three of the products installed quickly and without any issues, the CYBERsitter installation was actually too simple in my opinion. While Net Nanny and MaxProtect both allow you to select the drive and folder to install the software to, CYBERsitter does not provide any alternative to the default installation path. For many users, this won’t be a big deal. But, for users that try to segregate or organize their hard drives, the default installation location may not be where you want it.

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    User Interface

    The User Interface is one of the most important aspects of the software, second only to the ability of the product to actually filter or block inappropriate Internet content. The User Interface has to be intuitive so that you can feel comfortable navigating it to customize your filtering options and configure your software. Having a great Internet filter loses some of its value if the User Interface is so complicated that you can’t figure out how to use it.

    The CYBERsitter and Net Nanny interfaces are both fairly simple and intuitive. Even novice users, such as concerned parents who may not be all that computer-savvy, should be able to maneuver through the menus and understand the different functions and how to configure them to meet their needs.

    The main difference between these two is in the details. The Net Nanny user interface is much cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing. The CYBERsitter interface, while simple and intuitive, is also not all that visually appealing. I also found that the most current information under the What’s New tab in CYBERsitter was from 2004, even though the product has obviously had some changes and updates since then.

    On the other end of the spectrum from Net Nanny and CYBERsitter sits MaxProtect. The MaxProtect user interface is unique in that it is web-based. Rather than opening an executable program on your local computer, you must log in over a secure web connection to access the MaxProtect user interface.

    I am not a fan of having to access the user interface via the Web, and I don’t necessarily want my configuration settings stored or maintained on the servers. That issue aside though, the interface itself is also redundant and complex. There are a lot of features and customizations available within MaxProtect, but customers will have to devote some time to understanding the logic of the user interface and how to navigate it to find what they need.

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    When it comes to features, all three products provide the core functions of Web filtering (with editable filter lists), chat monitoring, IM (instant messaging) port blocking, and email blocking. Net Nanny and CYBERsitter also provide newsgroup blocking, which MaxProtect does not.

    MaxProtect has a number of additional features that Net Nanny does not include though. With MaxProtect you can also get pop-up blocking, predator blocking, and personal information blocking. CYBERsitter offers the most comprehensive feature set though.  In addition to the features of both Net Nanny and MaxProtect, CYBERsitter also monitors or filters FTP transfers and provides the ability to block custom TCP ports.

    Another unique facet of MaxProtect is the way it captures screen shots and shuts down offending applications. If a policy is violated, such as using inappropriate language in a chat session or searching for objectionable material in a web browser, MaxProtect will save the screen image of the violation, providing visual proof of the incident so parents can gauge what went on, and then it will automatically shut down the program to ensure the activity is stopped.

    Net Nanny stands out in both a negative and a positive way. On the negative side, it is the only product of the three that does not include the functionality to install or run the software in stealth mode. Some parents may wish to run the software without their children knowing about it, which would require keeping the files and processes hidden. Net Nanny can be configured to not display an icon in the Systray, but it does not offer the ability to run completely hidden.

    On the positive side, Net Nanny has the most comprehensive reporting features of the three products. Net Nanny provides the ability for parents to view the reports remotely, and is the only product of the three to offer graphical reports which can help parents to understand the data easier.

    Arguably the best feature of all though is Net Nanny’s override capabilities. While the other two products filter and block web sites, Net Nanny provides the ability to override the block and visit the site anyway. Users can be granted the ability to override site blocks themselves, or the ability to send an override request to the Administrator (or parents as the case may be). ##br#

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     There are two primary goals for software applications such as these. The first, obviously, is to filter and block access to objectionable content on the Internet. The second is to do so with a minimal or negligible impact to performance.
    The fact that the software is intercepting traffic to and from the computer, analyzing it, and making a determination about whether or not to allow the traffic to pass through, means that there is going to be a time lag. If the software is good, the time lag will be small enough to go unnoticed and not affect the user’s ability to use the computer or access the Internet.

    All three products performed admirably regarding the impact to performance. I did not experience any noticeable delay while using my computer or accessing the Internet with any of them. There was a vast difference in how well they each performed on the primary task of blocking content though.

    With both Net Nanny and CYBERsitter, I ran into situations where the software was overly aggressive. In other words, it blocked sites which I would not consider objectionable such as, or the MSN web portal site.
    I also disagree on the definition of acceptable or objectionable in some areas. For example, the programs tended to block access to things like lingerie while allowing access to sites for tobacco companies. I realize that these types of values are a personal issue, but I would much rather have my kids see underwear than cigarettes. Thankfully, all of the products also allow me the ability to edit the filter and manually block or allow web sites.

    MaxProtect had the most issues in this area. I was able to circumvent the filtering and blocking and access objectionable materials in a number of ways. The MaxProtect filters seem to work fine if you are simply surfing the web. But, if you leave the “beaten path” so to speak, the product seems to lack the intelligence to analyze and block content.
    Performing a Google search for Victoria’s Secret was blocked as “pornographic”, but a search for bras yielded some risqué results. Conducting searches from Google’s Images site produced even bigger holes in the filtering capabilities. Searching for large breasts in the standard Google search is blocked as “pornographic”, but searching for large breasts in Google Images produces a wide variety of photographs and images of large breasts.

    I also found that my access to Google Video was blocked entirely. MaxProtect blocked the entire Google subdomain without regard for whether I might want to search for videos of clowns or sex. However, accessing (which Google owns ironically) worked just fine, and subsequent searches for inappropriate material on yielded some R-rated results.

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    Overall Value

    Comparing the price and performance of each product, MaxProtect is far and away the loser among these three. MaxProtect has the biggest price tag and the most issues. From the web-based administration console, to the gaping holes in its ability to filter or block content, MaxProtect should be avoided. With MaxProtect for Kids v4 coming soon, hopefully most (if not all) of these concerns will be addressed and the product will be a better value.

    CYBERsitter provides the most comprehensive protection in terms of the number of different types of content or traffic it filters, but Net Nanny still emerges as the winner in this comparison. Net Nanny has a simple installation, clean and intuitive interface, and reliable filtering and blocking features.