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Skydog Web App and Smart Family Wi-Fi Router w/Cloud Service Subscription review: Innovative firmware stunted by dated hardware

The Skydog might give you both comfort and unease thanks to its powerful monitoring features and the potential privacy risk, respectively. One thing is for sure, it's not cheap. Here's CNET's full review of this exciting yet somewhat outdated home Wi-FI router.

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Dong Ngo
Dong_Ngo.jpg
Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

9 min read

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.

SkyDog_(2).jpg
6.8

Skydog Web App and Smart Family Wi-Fi Router w/Cloud Service Subscription

The Good

The <b>Skydog</b> router is an advanced and comprehensive way to manage your home network, locally or remotely, with robust monitoring, reporting, and content filtering features.

The Bad

The router uses outdated hardware and is slow and expensive. Its Web filtering feature isn't always effective, especially for search engine results, and the cloud-connected firmware might pose privacy risks.

The Bottom Line

Though feature-rich, the Skydog's hardware is too slow and limited to justify its high cost and ongoing subscription pricing.

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.

The Skydog router comes with a USB port that, for now, is just a placeholder.
The Skydog router comes with a USB port that, for now, is just a placeholder. Dong Ngo/CNET

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.)

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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.

The Skydog router comes with a vendor-assisted Web interface that offers lots of monitoring and reporting tools for your home network.
The Skydog router comes with a vendor-assisted Web interface that offers lots of monitoring and reporting tools for your home network. Dong Ngo/CNET

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 Linksys EA4500, the D-Link DIR-605L Cloud Router. PowerCloud Systems, however, turns this up a notch by offering a very comprehensive visual network-management features. You can easily view connected devices, assign certain users to them, and so on. You can control what an user can do on the network, can control the Internet bandwidth for each Wi-Fi network (called a "zone"), and even do so down to a specific user within a zone. You also have the options to have the router send you notifications via e-mail to report any changes in the network at all. In my trial I needed to turn this off since I began receiving too many notifications in a short amount of time.

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.

The Skydog includes a powerful user-based Web-filtering feature.
The Skydog includes a powerful user-based Web-filtering feature. Dong Ngo/CNET

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.

The fact that the Skydog offers a lot of tools to monitor users' activity but you can only access this information by logging in from skydog.com makes me a little concerned about privacy, to say the least. It's quite clear that the router allows PowerCloud Systems to have the same access to the users' Internet usage. How this information is being used is another question; I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people were concerned about their privacy and security.

The router's interface comes with a lot of context-based help, including video tutorials.
The router's interface comes with a lot of context-based help, including video tutorials. Dong Ngo/CNET

Simple design, handy context-based help
Novice users won't have any problem figuring out the Skydog, including its advanced features. The router's Web interface comes with great context-based help that includes both text and video tutorials. You can also find all of the support information in a separate sections called Support & Tutorials within the router's interface.

As far as the hardware is concerned, the Skydog has a simple squarish design with internal antennae. There's an array of LEDs on top near the front of the router that shows the status of the Wi-Fi network, the Internet connections, and the LAN ports. Near these lights is a Wi-Fi Protect Setup button that, as I mentioned, is not currently working.

On the back the router comes with the usual four Gigabit LAN ports and one LAN port. There's also the USB port I mentioned earlier that's not working for now.

The router is designed to be placed on a flat surface, but it can also be mounted on a wall.

The Skydog comes in a simple design to be placed either on a surface or mounted on a wall.
The Skydog comes in a simple design to be placed either on a surface or mounted on a wall. Dong Ngo/CNET
Subpar performance

The Skydog's performance is the deal-breaker for many users. I tested the router on both 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands and it wasn't impressive on either. On the 5GHz band, it scored some 64Mbps at close range (10 feet). When I increased the distance to 75 feet, it registered just 27Mbps.

All similarly priced routers on the market offer much faster speeds.

CNET Labs 5GHz Wireless-N performance score (in megabits per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

On the 2.4GHz band, the router offers 45Mbps at close range and just 12.3Mbps from 75 feet away. These are the worst numbers I've seen among Wi-Fi routers in years. But then again, this is the first time in a long time that I've reviewed an N600 router.

CNET Labs 2.4GHz Wireless-N performance score (in megabits per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Note that most of the routers on the charts support faster Wi-Fi standards, but they cost just about as much as the Skydog does. Also I tested the Skydog at CNET's offices, where there are walls and many Wi-Fi devices that are out of my control. Generally, walls shorten the reach of a Wi-Fi signal, and other Wi-Fi devices create interference. As with all Wi-Fi routers, your results may vary depending on where you live.

The router offered a stable Wi-Fi signal, passing my 24-hour stress test -- where it was set to transfer data nonstop between clients -- without disconnecting once.

The Skydog also offered short range, just about 150 feet at most. Effectively, it should be used within no less than 75 feet if you want to have a decent wireless connection. And this means it might be OK for a small home or apartment if it's placed in the middle of it.

Conclusion
The Skydog is an exciting router that has a lot of potential. The privacy concern aside, its cloud-connected firmware and the way it was structured might be the best I've seen. Unfortunately, for home networking, data rates are a very important factor; after all, you want your information to flow fast, and the router doesn't deliver at all in this department.

The fact that its Web filtering feature, though advanced, can't block Google's search results (something that might be impossible because of the way Google works) means it's not exactly an ideal router for parents who want to strictly keep their children from inappropriate content, either. Note that since there might not be an ideal router for this particular function, the Skydog is still one of the best as far as Web filtering is concerned.

PowerCloud Systems has a lot of plans for the future, including using more updated hardware. Maybe then its state-of-the-art firmware will get to shine. For now, all things considered, the Skydog is very much an experiment that you don't really want to be part of.

SkyDog_(2).jpg
6.8

Skydog Web App and Smart Family Wi-Fi Router w/Cloud Service Subscription

Score Breakdown

Setup 7Features 8Performance 5Support 8
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