Networking Reviews & Buying Guides
Summary: Circle provided us with a review unit for one of our writers to test. Read on for the full take.
As kids of all ages use the internet more often for everything from school to entertainment to social interaction, parental control devices have become increasingly important. As a parent of two teens, I found the pandemic created even more challenges in the screen time department, as kids have been attending school online and using the web to remain in touch with friends during times of quarantine.
I recently tested the Circle Home Plus, a parental control device that connects directly to the home network. The $129 device comes with a small cube that connects to your router and works with a companion app, along with a one-year subscription to access premium features. Read on to check out my full review of the Circle Home Plus.
The Circle Home Plus is a glossy white cube-shaped device that measures 3.25 inches tall and 3.25 inches wide. It’s quite small—not much bigger than a Rubik’s cube—and its monotone design means it goes relatively unnoticed when it sits next to your router.
On the back face of the Circle Home Plus, there’s a USB-C connection for power surrounded by a rubberized circle that contains a power button. When you lift the opposite side of the rubberized circle, you’ll find an Ethernet port for connecting the device to your router. It’s nice that the port is covered for protection, but the way the half-circle lifts to reveal the Ethernet port makes for an awkward connection, as the port cover places pressure on the connected Ethernet cord.
The package doesn’t provide a mounting solution (no keyhole mount, etc.), which is disappointing given there’s so much wasted space on the unit. The lack of a mounting solution also means you have to place the unit on a table or use some sort of adhesive to mount it on a wall. Because my router is mounted on a wall, I attempted to use a double-sided foam adhesive to mount the Circle Home Plus on the wall nearby. but the unit’s half-pound weight was too heavy for the adhesive, and it wouldn’t remain on the wall.
Installing the Circle Home Plus is simple: download the Circle app, set up a parent account, and follow the instructions in the app. To connect the Circle Plus to your network, you just connect the USB charging/power cable, plug in the unit, and then connect the Circle Plus to your router using an Ethernet cable.
The Circle app will also provide you with the option to pair the Circle device to your wireless network. This way, the device will still work if the Ethernet cable becomes unplugged. It only pairs with 2.4GHz networks though, and you must be connected to the same network you want to pair with.
Setting up parental controls can be an involved process, especially if your children have a lot of devices. For a mobile device, you’ll need to download the Circle app on your child’s device to get the most out of the features. This adds a VPN to your child’s device, where you can do things like track their location, manage usage, track history, set time limits, track history, and give rewards (in the form of more screen time or loosened restrictions).
There are preset filters —none, kid, teen, and adult—you can use to block or allow certain apps, websites, and content categories. You can also block custom sites. The Circle Home Plus comes with a year of premium subscription, so I had access to the full features.
I ended up needing to set up very specific criteria for different devices. For instance, I allowed my teen’s computer during the day for school, but I had to block gaming and all gaming-related chat and activities. Fortunately, Circle offers a beta focus-time feature that allows only certain types of activity like Zoom, email, and school-related internet activity. Even with the focus-time feature, it took about three hours to set up how and when each of my teens could get on their consoles, computers, and phones.
And, I still found myself adding additional or adjusting restrictions later on based on feedback from my kids. Services like YouTube and Zoom have been a bit complicated during the pandemic, as my children will occasionally be assigned a video to watch during virtual school.
The Circle Home Plus works seamlessly with most routers, but it doesn’t always play as well with mesh networks and Wi-Fi extenders during setup. However, there are workarounds, and Circle recommends some solutions to issues people may experience when using the Circle Home Plus with mesh networks and extenders (like using compatibility mode and setting network devices to “unmanaged”).
I have a Wi-Fi 6 router and a Wi-Fi 6 extender and was able to connect and successfully pair the Circle Plus with my main 2.4GHz network. The Circle Home Plus had no problem pausing, setting time limits, or managing usage on any of the networks in my home. Still, other users have experienced issues, so it’s best to check for compatibility with your home router before deciding on the Circle Plus.
The unit connects to your wall outlet using a USB-C charging cable. It also has a battery backup, so your kids can’t just unplug it in an effort to try and get around the parental controls. If the Circle Home Plus is unplugged, you’ll get a notification in the app.
The Circle Home Plus uses a gigabit Ethernet port and a wireless card that maxes out at 2.4GHz speeds. I did notice some minor network slowdown, but when I removed all of the non-essential devices from the unit, the speed improved.
With only my children’s devices connected, I didn’t notice too much of a difference between my network speeds with or without the Circle Home Plus, except on mobile devices, where the speeds are drastically different.
When I added the Circle VPN to my child’s mobile device, it noticeably slowed down internet speeds. Some websites would take as long as ten seconds to load, especially when I had certain features enabled (like focus time).
The setup process is lengthy, but once I completed the parent and kid profiles on the Circle app, I found the app useful. I really enjoyed the reward feature, as I could provide my teens with additional online privileges. I also really like the history feature, which puts all of my teens’ online activity in one easy-to-access location, and the focus time beta feature, which grants them access to certain online activity, but blocks others.
The blocking feature works, and it works consistently. If you say no YouTube, your child will not be able to access YouTube. If you set your child’s filter to kid or teen, they will not be able to access the content in those categories. The filtering system works more reliably than any other filter I’ve encountered.
The time limits, bedtime, and location features I didn’t find as useful, as I can just use Apple’s features or my router’s parental controls to achieve the same thing. The app experienced a few hiccups with the time limits and bedtime, where it would say conflicts existed even though I had disabled the conflict.
For instance, I’d have bedtime disabled, but it wouldn’t allow me to save an off-time schedule during scheduled bedtime, even though I had completely turned off bedtime. I also wish the app had a geofencing feature and the ability to monitor texts, as other parental control applications offer that ability. Circle is somewhat limited in terms of its mobile device monitoring, as it’s more focused on internet usage than mobile usage.
I am happy with the application overall though. It tells me when a new device or guest joins my home network, and it keeps me in the know on all of the internet happenings in my home.
The Circle Home Plus comes in a few different package options. You can purchase the device with a three-month subscription ($69), a 12-month subscription ($129), or a lifetime subscription ($299). If your subscription expires and you want to continue it, it costs $10 per month.
Without the subscription, you only have access to filters, usage, and history. The premium subscription adds in extras like location, bed time, off time, pause, rewards, and time limits. However, you can access similar features using a router’s parental controls, Apple’s screen time, a basic parental control app, or even an antivirus program like Trend-Micro.
The main difference between the Circle Home Plus and a mesh system like the Netgear Orbi is that the Circle Home Plus isn’t a standalone router. The Circle Home Plus has one function: parental controls. However, the Netgear Orbi is a mesh system first, providing wireless internet access throughout a large space.
The Orbi and some other Netgear routers actually have Circle parental controls built in as a secondary function. You can use Circle’s basic features on a Netgear Orbi mesh system for free without adding any additional equipment. For $5 per month, it gives you access Circle’s premium features. For those who want to keep their existing router, the Circle Home Plus is a good option. If you want to upgrade to a mesh system and get Circle parental controls, the Netgear Orbi is the way to go.