The Skydog router from PowerCloud Systems is an example of how you can turn an old piece of hardware into something exciting...and then charge a lot for it.
For some home users, namely parents with online safety concerns, it offers exactly what they've been looking for: the ability to manage and control their home network in way they have never been able to. For others, namely most of us, it's an overpriced, overrated home networking product that's not only slow and limited but also one that carries certain privacy risks. This is because the router uses a Wi-Fi standard that was cutting-edge five or six years ago, but also uses innovative vendor-assisted, cloud-connected firmware that offers comprehensive Web filtering and robust home-networking management features.
At the street price of about $150, the Skydog is significantly more expensive than many similarly configured, better-performing routers. To add to the insult, after the third year of ownership, you'll need to pay another $30 per year if you want to continue to use the above-mentioned features, which are the only reason why you'd buy it in the first place. In return, it gives you the feeling of being in control. If this is what you're looking for, you'll be happy with it. Otherwise, any of the similarly-priced routers on one of these lists would make a much better alternative.
Near-obsolete specs, incomplete feature set
The Skydog router is the first router I've reviewed in a long time that supports just the dual-stream (2 x 2) setup of the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard. With each of the streams capable of delivering 150Mbps, the router can offers up to 300Mbps of Wi-Fi speed. Since it's true dual-band router, one that works on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands at the same time, it has the combined Wi-Fi speed of 600Mbps, hence is designated as an N600 router. To put this in perspective, N600 routers were first introduced back in 2009. Currently, most routers support at least a three-stream setup of the standard (N900) and many of them now also support the much faster 802.11ac standard. (Read more about Wi-Fi standards here.)
To be fair, in many cases you don't need more than an N600 router. However, since the residential broadband connections have been getting faster and faster, oftentimes N600 doesn't deliver fast enough of a Wi-Fi connection to bring the top Internet speed that you pay for to your device. Generally, if your an Internet plan offers around 30Mbps or more for download, an N600 router won't really cut it. This is because, despite the very high ceiling speed of 300Mbps, the actual speed, after all the overhead, of an N600 router is just somewhere between 30Mbps to 70Mbps at close range and much lower when you increase the range. In the case of the Skydog, it wasn't the fastest N600 router I've seen; you can see more in the Performance section below.
The only thing the Skydog has going for it, specs-wise, is the support for Gigabit Ethernet, which allows for a fast wired network, should you choose to use cable to connect your computers. In all, with the current specs, the Skydog is good only for mild wireless Internet sharing and media streaming, and it's definitely not future-proof.
The Skydog comes with a USB port that is, for now, not working; its Wi-Fi Protected Feature is not available either (though the WPS button is there). It seems PowerCloud Systems originally had a bigger plan for this router but changed its mind midway, making the router seem incomplete. Maybe more features will be added via future firmware updates.
Well-designed and robust home-networking management features
As mentioned above, the selling point of the Skydog is cloud-connected firmware, which requires an account with PowerCloud System that you can create at skydog.com. Note that you can use the router without this account, but then most of its features won't be available. The account can be utilized for free for the first three years; after that it costs $30 per year to use. This is why the full name of the router is Skydog Web App and Smart Family Wi-Fi Router w/Cloud Service Subscription. After an account has been created, you can access the router's Web interface from any Internet-connected computer by logging in from skydog.com.
Cloud-connected firmware is not new at all; D-Link and Linksys (formerly Cisco) have done that with its Smart Wi-Fi router, such as the
The Skydog offers three virtual networks: Home, Work, and Guest. These are very similar to main networks and guest networks in other Wi-Fi routers. The difference is with the Skydog, you can actually assign individual LAN ports (the router has four LAN ports) to either the Home or the Work zone. The idea is devices connected to one zone are completely isolated from those connected to another, though they all share the Internet connection. In other words, a computer connected to the Home zone will not see one that's connected to Work zone and so on. On top of that devices connected to the Guest zone will not even see one another. The names of the zones can be changed without affecting their nature.
Using zones for a virtual network is a good idea for first-time home users, but for those familiar to networking, this is actually a little confusing. Especially considering the fact that the Skydog doesn't allow you to pick which Wi-Fi frequency a zone works on. By default, all zones work on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands; you can't change this.
Powerful user-based Web filtering; potential security/privacy risk
The Skydog offers by far the most comprehensive content filtering feature I've seen, though it's not perfect. For one, it's user-based. You need to assign a specific user to a device (or devices) before you can effectively manage his or her activities online. In other words, you can't manage online activities based on the device itself. Devices that don't have users assigned to them will be rolled into one group called "Unassigned Devices" that shares the same content filtering policy.
The Skydog comes with preset levels of filtering and protection that you can quickly apply to a connected user, including Basic, Standard, Medium, Advanced, and Extreme with the level of filtering increasing accordingly. There are also six categories of filtering, including Security and Privacy, Family Protection, Youth Distractions, Social Networking, Digital Communications, and Others. Each of these categories includes many subcategories. Using these, you can build your own customized levels of filtering instead of using the preset ones.
The router is very versatile in terms of applying the level of filtering to a specific connected user. For example, you can apply the Basic level to John during daytime but the Advanced level during nighttime. You can also add specific Web sites to the blacklist (blocked) or whitelist (never blocked).
Judging the effectiveness of the content filtering feature is hard; I couldn't try every scenario. This is because it depends on how properly Web sites are categorized. For the most part it worked well in my trial, but there was at least one thing that didn't work: the search result. No matter which level of filtering was in effect, I could still use Google to search for anything and the search results, especially when they were images, were displayed, including content that's supposed to be blocked.