A couple of months ago I spotted a Google ad at SurfSafely.com from a new product vendor for a computer appliance that was being promoted to users interested in online safety. That’s what I call useful ad targeting. What caught my attention were some unique features that I had not seen offered before. I wrote the maker and asked for a sample to review for you, my readers. They replied through their publicist and were eager to have my review. Little did they know of my reputation for really putting products to the test and then telling it exactly like it is.
The device is the PrismIQ (pronounced prizm-ik) Commander, a wireless 802.11G network router with many of the same features offered by other makers of such devices. Its primary use is to share an Internet connection from a DSL or cable modem. It can also be used as the hub for connecting computers within the home or office together for file, printer and application sharing. It has four RJ-45 network ports for wired connection and can also be accessed wirelessly.
The unit is packaged in an unassuming cardboard box. No fancy artwork here, just some black lettering on plain cardboard. Opening the box one finds a paper egg crate tray cradling the components: The main unit, power supply, antenna, RJ-45 network cable, software CD and a quick start guide. The router itself is deceptively small. Inside this little package, though, is a real powerhouse.
Missing is a bulky printed manual. When I asked PrismIQ about this they said they were being “environmentally friendly”. Fair enough. I mean who reads the darn things cover to cover anyway? The full user manual is on the CD as a pdf. Finding answers to questions in an electronic document is much easier than printed because one can search for any keyword anywhere in that document, not relying solely on an index that might not even have the topic you’re looking for. Be this as it may, I did find that relying on the quick start guide alone to get up and running was not adequate because I ran into problems not covered there. But that may be just me. My home network is by no means configured using default settings. I take some special measures to prevent intrusion and hacking. In so doing I may have revealed some bugs for PrismIQ that most users would never run into.
More advanced users will be delighted with the clean and intuitive menus for editing default settings within the router. One advanced feature I particularly liked was the distinction made between application port range openings and true port forwarding. This router does both. SSID broadcast disable is another feature not found on some. Access point bridging, NAT Firewall, 128 bit WEP and WPA encryption, MAC address filtering, Dynamic DNS support and others are also among the many advanced features one would expect, also found on many others.
My only complaint with the router setup screens is the total absence of any help menus. Context sensitive help would be best. Any help at all would be better than what’s there now. The developers told me they had trouble finding room for it in the onboard memory. More about this later.
Now for what sets PrismIQ apart from the competition: Internet Warning and Control Software – or IWACS™ – which resides in the PRISMIQ Commander router, centrally protecting your entire network. Through a simple PC interface, an authorized network administrator can monitor who your computers have been talking to, when they’ve been talking, and what they’ve been saying. With a few mouse clicks one can block access to specific websites, prevent spyware from sending data from your computer, or block attempts to instant message your children.
This one device provides extensive online activity monitoring and blocking for all computers connected to the network without having to install software on each computer, eliminating the need to purchase multiple licenses to install software on more than one computer. Monitoring and control of all computers on the network is performed from one computer on the network to which only the administrator or parent has access.
After the initial router setup is complete one must then install the PrismIQ Commander software on the administrative computer. Here again I ran into trouble. My network settings somehow prevented me from installing the software because it could not connect to the router. Nothing I did worked which made me quite frustrated. Fortunately, the firmware upgrade I mentioned earlier corrected this bug also. All routers should now be shipping with the new firmware and users should not see the problems I ran into.
The proprietary IWACS™ software resident on the router together with the user interface installed on the administrative computer combine to form a powerful tool found nowhere else even close to the ridiculously low price this unit is being sold for. The user interface is very well laid out and easy to understand. It can record and store all chat activity from AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger. While it cannot disable the use of these IM applications entirely, it CAN do something I’ve seen nowhere else – Selectively block incoming IM’s from specific screen names. (Added 11/27/05) With this unique ability, it also records chat sessions by screen name making it very easy to follow conversation threads. Most other key loggers simply record everything typed regardless of who they’re being typed to. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a kid chatting online but it’s not uncommon for them to be carrying on three or more conversations simultaneously. Trying to follow a thread that’s split between three or more other users with conventional key loggers is virtually impossible. PrismIQ makes it very simple. My only gripe here is there’s no convenient way to save threads. One must copy and paste to a word document in order to save them.
[Commander] also monitors web sites visited, records the plain text of email sent and received and can easily control incoming and outbound network traffic which can be used to inhibit spyware. Traffic data is stored in a small buffer on the router then to the administrative computer. The software must be running on the administrative computer at all times in order for information to be collected. (Added 11/27/05) Unfortunately, Commander will not (at present) record HTML within email sent or received. Email containing HTML only becomes invisible to the Commander software.
Another very unique feature of this router is a USB port. In its present form the only useful purpose for it is to backup and restore the router configuration settings to file on a USB flash drive. I tested SanDisk and Lexar flash drives. Both worked just fine. There are all sorts of other things a USB port might be useful for. PrismIQ is still trying to decide which direction to take. My suggestion to them would be to allow data storage to a USB drive so that all activity could be stored even if the administrative computer was turned off or disconnected for extended periods of time. Another possibility is add-on features applied to the router stored permanently on the USB drive. They told me there simply isn’t enough room in the internal memory to hold all of the features many are asking for. No problem. Store them externally! The possibilities are endless. I can’t wait to see what they do with this port. It’s one of the greatest innovations on a router I’ve seen in a long time.
The wireless range is about average but not spectacular. (Added 11/27/05) Subjective throughput comparisons were made against a Belkin F5D7230-4 v3000 as a reference. Measurements showed about 20% shorter range with the PrismIQ for equivalent throughput. Belkin uses dual external dipole antennas to PrismIQ’s one. Be this as it may, the PrismIQ easily covered my entire home with adequate signal from the closet located near the center. There is, after all, a limit to how far beyond one’s walls one might want their wireless network signal to travel. If absolutely necessary, remote areas of a home or office can also be covered by adding more routers configured as repeaters at strategic locations to extend the range where needed.
Commander is priced so competitively that one might even consider it for a network of only one computer. The only problem would be that Commander displays a splash screen every time the computer is booted OR when different users log on to the administrative computer. This means that if a parent has only one computer shared by all within the household, while access to the program is password protected, it is impossible to conceal that monitoring is taking place. Whereas many small businesses already have more than one computer connected to a network, one of which already belonging to the administrator, not every parent in a single computer household is going to want to purchase another computer just to hide the fact that they’re watching.
While I do encourage a completely open policy with children anyway, I also acknowledge that it may not be appropriate for every situation. This is one area where PrismIQ Commander could stand some improvement.
Another area in need of improvement is the built-in firewall. A really good firewall not only blocks unwanted traffic from the outside but it also conceals itself, becoming completely invisible to other computers, otherwise known as stealth mode. One quick visit to grc.com for their Shields-UP test reveals that the PrismIQ router is anything but stealth. While it may do a very good job of blocking unwanted traffic, it also shouts to the world “Here I am! Hack me if you can!” PrismIQ can do better, and I’m sure they will.
The president of the company assures me they have taken my criticisms very seriously. I would imagine total concealment and stealth firewall to become standard in the near future as well as upgradeable through new downloadable firmware.
Overall I give the PrismIQ Commander four out of five possible lifebuoys. With a price of only $99 retail or $79 with trade-in of your old router, even with its minor shortcomings, considering all that it does the PrismIQ Commander is an outstanding value. It may be ordered directly from the manufacturer at their web site or by calling their sales department toll free, 1-866-PRISMIQ (1-866-774-7647).
Please tell them SurfSafely sent you.