Sereniti Smart Home Networking Service

By Joseph Moran

October 31, 2005

What this combination 802.11g router and subscription security service lacks in flexibility, it makes up for in simplicity.

Price: $99.95, plus $9.95 monthly subscription fee
Pros: Excellent technical support.
Cons: Extremely limited configuration options, particularly for hardware firewall and parental control features; lacks advanced wireless security (WPA).

While setting up a home network has gotten easier and less expensive over the years, that doesn't mean that doing so properly is always simple and inexpensive. In reality, making a home network functional and secure usually requires buying and installing hardware and software from multiple vendors, which can get pricey and often leads to finger-pointing when the inevitable support issue arises.

Sereniti believes it has the solution to this dilemma in its Smart Home Networking Service, a subscription-based offering whose cornerstone is a remotely-managed 802.11g wireless broadband router with parental control features, plus security software for up to four PCs on your home network. The SHNS includes comprehensive assistance by technical support personnel with the means to remotely access your network to diagnose and resolve problems.

Installation

Since the SHNS is targeted specifically at non-technical households, Sereniti takes great pains to make setup as simple as possible. One example: an installation wizard illustrating each step of the physical process. The company goes so far as to color code the router's WAN and LAN ports to match the blue and red Ethernet cables included in the box. (The only oversight was the lack of prompting to reboot the cable modem/DSL router after installation, which is almost always required to get the ISP-issued device to issue an IP address to the new hardware.)

As you proceed through the setup process, the extent to which Sereniti tries to insulate you from the technical stuff quickly becomes evident. This limits the opportunities for a user to unintentionally cause mayhem, but it can sometimes backfire. For example, setting up the wireless network consists of nothing more than selecting a passphrase for a 128-bit WEP key, but because Windows XP only accepts actual keys and not passphrases, you need to hunt down the router status page to look up the key derived from your passphrase.

A status page is the main way to interact with the router; direct access to the router settings isn't provided. There's no provision to use another form of encryption (i.e. WPA), or to change the SSID or other configuration options, for example.

User Accounts and Parental Controls

Before you can access the Internet, you must first log in to the router, either via Sereniti's PC Client utility or by entering your user credentials directly into the browser the first time you attempt to access the Web. The PC Client offers wizards to share folders and printers, as well as a link to Sereniti's online library where you can download software utilities and documentation. The PC Client can also serve as a launching point for contacting support personnel via e-mail or live chat, and provides access to the Command Center, where you can view the status of the network as well as manage users and devices.

When you sign up for the Sereniti service, your first user account is designated as a "privileged" account that has the ability to modify system settings and create other user accounts. New accounts can be assigned to one of several broad parental control levels — Child, Young Teen, and Mature Teen — which govern the types of content the account can view and what times of day Internet access will be available. You can subsequently customize a user's default schedule to allow access at only specific days and times, but your ability to customize the content filter itself is very limited.

Unlike many parental control services, Sereniti lacks the option to add or remove content categories to be filtered for a particular account. Your only options are to change the user's access level or to enter specific URLs to be allowed (or blocked), which isn't the most comprehensive or efficient means of protection.

Device Configuration

Via the Sereniti Command Center, you can view the status of all the devices that have been discovered on your network. This can include non-PC devices like digital video recorders and game consoles (both my networked TiVo and Xbox were recognized, though neither was identified by name). You can re-label and choose unique icons for each device that's discovered.

Each device on the network can be assigned specific firewall rules to accommodate the nature of the device or particular applications (the Sereniti router also supports UPnP for automatic firewall configuration). But as with the parental controls, configuration options are fairly limited. For example, it's not possible to define rules using explicit port numbers. Granted, many non-technical users wouldn't care to attempt this, but some might, especially as they become more comfortably with their networks. As it stands, you can only pick from the predefined application- and service-specific rules provided, and if there is no rule provided for your particular program (and UPnP isn't supported or doesn't work correctly), your only option is to contact Sereniti technical support for assistance.

The Sereniti device management interface also had some difficulty when a system that had previously been detected re-entered the network with a new IP address from DHCP. In these cases, the system's existing entry was not updated to reflect the new address, and instead, the device got an entirely new entry, so any previously defined firewall rules for that system ceased to apply.

To augment the protection provided by the Sereniti router, you can download and install the Sereniti Security Suite on your PCs. This software provides a fairly comprehensive feature set that's roughly analogous to that of a Norton or McAfee product. It includes firewall, anti-virus and spyware detection components, as well as pop-up and banner ad suppression, all of which work well. If you have more than one PC on your network, the inclusion of this software can be a real money saver (compared to having to shell out $40-$50 for each system).

Pricing and Support

Pricing for the Sereniti Smart Home Networking Service starts with the $99.95 cost of the router, plus an ongoing service fee of $9.95 per month. (A one-year service commitment is required.) Another option is to ante up $199.95 up front to buy the hardware plus a year of prepaid service, which effectively reduces the monthly fee to $8.33 (at least for the first year).

For that ongoing fee, Sereniti does indeed provide a reasonable degree of technical support. Sereniti says its support personnel will help customers with any issue that's network-related, like device connectivity, resource sharing, or getting an application or game online (for non-networking issues, you're on your own). The techs have the option, with the customer's permission, of remotely viewing or controlling systems. Technical support is offered via toll-free phone, e-mail and online chat on a 24/7/365 basis, and according to the company, it's always staffed by humans. (Too often nowadays, technical support means wading through labyrinthine IVR systems, especially during off-hours). My experience in a chat support session found the representative to be both cordial and capable.

Conclusion

Sereniti Smart Home Networking Service is a good example of how simplicity and flexibility often occupy opposite ends of a continuum. It won't give you nearly the features and control of even a $50 store-bought WLAN router, but for some users, that's not necessarily a bad thing. For them, the high level and single source of support will justify Sereniti's purchase price and ongoing costs.

Remember, though, that the Sereniti hardware is good only as long as you remain a subscriber, so if you're the type that outgrows technology or you like to retain a degree of control over your network, you'll likely find the Sereniti Smart Home Networking Service a bit too rigid to be useful.



Comment and Contribute
(Maximum characters: 1200). You have
characters left.