The Internet is a valuable tool, but it is also a double-edged sword. Users seeking information or entertainment on the Web are just as likely to end up at a website of questionable moral content. You want your children or employees to be able to leverage the value of the Internet and the Web without being exposed to the objectionable material that resides there as well.
A tool like CYBERsitter can help to block or filter access to entire categories of websites, or to specific websites you find objectionable. It monitors and logs activity and lets you control the ability to use the Internet, instant messaging chat programs, and more.
CYBERsitter has been published by the same software vendor, Solid Oak Software, since its inception more than a decade ago. With years of accumulated skills and experience to leverage, Solid Oak has created a solid Internet monitoring and web filtering product.
Solid Oak has received awards and recognition for its CYBERsitter program (including receiving PC Magazine’s Editor’s Choice award five times), but the latest version is starting to show its age. According to the What’s New tab, the most recent improvements were in 2004. However, CYBERsitter does include monitoring and blocking of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook that did not exist in 2004. Apparently, there have been updates, but they did not update the information on the What’s New tab.
Even so, Microsoft has introduced its Vista operating system and this product does not function properly with it. This is the new flagship operating system from Microsoft that many users rely on, so Solid Oak Software should be hard at work on its next release of CYBERsitter.
Product Features (3 out of 5)
CYBERsitter is one of the most comprehensive products when it comes to the types of content it is able to filter or block. It is the only product that provides customizable TCP port blocking and one of a small few that can also filter or block objectionable content from newsgroups or via FTP.It can record both the incoming and outgoing messages of instant messaging chat sessions, and is also one of the few products that protects against child predators or leaking personal information, and it has functionality specifically designed to monitor and filter access to social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace.
CYBERsitter is lacking in two main areas. The first is the lack of a Vista-compatible version of the product. With Windows Vista being the default operating system on almost all personal computers sold today, the product may be obsolete soon without a Vista-compatible version.
The second area is in reporting. CYBERsitter should include the ability to view reports remotely, and to view the report data graphically for easier understanding.
Installation & Setup (4 out of 5)
Installation of CYBERsitter was pretty simple and straightforward. After you double-click the program file to launch installation, CYBERsitter first warns that you should ensure that any other monitoring or filtering products are uninstalled because there could be conflicts that arise from multiple programs trying to block or filter access.
After clicking Next, the End User License Agreement (EULA) is displayed. After reading and agreeing to the terms of the EULA, you click Next again and the product is ready to install. No other options are provided for choosing what drive or folder to install into, or any custom installation features. It simply installs.
When it is done, it recommends that you clear out your temporary Internet files and any cached information so that you are starting from a clean slate. The installation is then complete, and CYBERsitter is off and running to protect against undesirable websites.
The simplicity of the installation is great for novice users, but options should be provided for advanced users who may want more control over how and where the product installs.
User Interface (4 out of 5)
CYBERsitter’s user interface is fairly simple and intuitive. There are buttons down the left side of the management console that you can click to access different functions and configuration settings.
CYBERsitter offers a fair amount of customization to allow you to configure exactly what you do or do not want blocked or filtered. For starters, you can choose to simply block all instant messaging programs, or to block all file-sharing programs, or to use the CYBERsitter search engine rather than other popular search engines like Google or Yahoo.
By clicking each of the buttons on the left side, you can configure a variety of settings. You can define certain times of the day that the Internet is allowed to be used, choose what types or categories of content to block, and add specific websites to the allowed or blocked list if the broad categories are not controlling access the way you would like.
The user interface also allows you to view log files to review Internet activity and monitor the success of the program, and also allows you to have email reports sent directly to you so that you can keep an eye on things.
Overall, the user interface is relatively clean and simple to use. Most users will be able to understand and navigate the options. There may be some learning curve to get the configuration exactly as you want it, but that is a function of the program itself and not a comment on the user interface.
My main complaint with the user interface is that there is a What’s New tab that hasn’t been updated since 2004. The fact that the program blocks access to social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, and includes functionality to work with newer web browsers such as Firefox, means it has obviously been updated since 2004. The What’s New tab should either be updated to include all of what’s new (hence the name) or it should be removed.
The interface could also use a little personality. Some different colors or a more snazzy look would be nice, but those are bells and whistles that do not add to the functionality of the product.
Performance (3 out of 5)
CYBERsitter performed admirably. I did not notice any degradation of speed on the computer itself or any impact on the speed of my connection to the Internet. The program operates in the background, mostly unnoticed. It also provides the ability to run in stealth mode, hiding the program so that children or employees cannot see it and do not even realize it is there.
I ran the program on a Windows XP SP2 system using the Internet Explorer 6 web browser. I tried to visit some sites of known moral and ethical values. Those sites were blocked as they should be. I was able to do a Google search on terms that would lead to undesirable sites and the search results were displayed. However, subsequent attempts to click on the links and actually visit the sites were blocked.
The logging features worked as described and I was able to receive email reports of the Internet and Web activity. The ability to restrict access to only pre-defined allowable usage times also functioned as expected.
As soon as I opened my web browser, I ran into a problem. My home page was set for the Internet Explorer default, which is the MSN portal. CYBERsitter blocked access to the MSN portal site, giving me an Internet Explorer error page instead.
I don’t know if CYBERsitter was blocking based on specific objectionable or undesirable content being displayed on the MSN portal at that time, or if it simply blocks access to MSN by default. In either event, I have faith that MSN will not be showing any pornographic images or displaying any truly objectionable material, so I went into the CYBERsitter user interface and added msn.com to the allowed sites. In theory, this should override the CYBERsitter filtering and allow the site through.
CYBERsitter performed on par with competing products in most ways. Judging by the What’s New tab, though, the program has not had any significant updates or changes since 2004. A lot has changed since then. Here are two key features that need to be included in CYBERsitter’s next release:
- Support for the Windows Vista operating system
- Improved ability to control and manage individual user accounts with custom configurations
For the majority of home computer users–those who rely on Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer–CYBERsitter can be an effective tool for filtering questionable content and protecting children from objectionable websites. Unfortunately, in some ways it is overly aggressive, blocking access to sites that seem perfectly fine, and the lack of support for the Windows Vista is a handicap. CYBERsitter is a solid product, but it is in need of an overhaul to catch up with the competition and provide the features and functionality that users need today.
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