Apple’s recent departure from the router business has left a gap for many iPhone and iPad users looking for a reliable and secure router that plays well with iOS, AirPlay, and HomeKit. While Apple’s AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule routers were getting long in the tooth well before Apple discontinued them entirely, for the most part they were easily manageable from an iPhone or iPad and could generally be relied upon to play nice with Apple’s other networking technologies. Of course, with AirPort routers out of the running, other manufacturers have begun to step up to the plate with their own smart routers that are focused more on security than simply providing a basic internet gateway.
F-Secure’s Sense router is one of the more interesting options, providing not only secure internet filtering options, but also iOS-based configuration and a clean aesthetic that strikes us as a slightly more artistic version of Apple’s AirPort Express, featuring a tower design that’s trapezoidal, rather than square. Embedded in the front — basically invisible when off — is an LCD display that’s used to show the time and other relevant status indicators, while around back you’ll find four gigabit Ethernet ports, one for the WAN connection to your existing router or modem and three for connecting other wired devices, along with a USB port, power connection, and reset button. A blue pairing button is also subtly inset into the trim above the base of the unit. The package comes with a quick start guide, typical AC wall adapter, and an Ethernet cable.
One interesting thing about Sense is that it can actually be set up to connect to your existing router via Wi-Fi, eliminating the need for a wired connection, and therefore allowing you to place it anywhere in your home that you would like. This is especially nice considering that some might like the look of it — it wouldn’t be out of place on a bookshelf or side table, for instance, and with the front display acting as a clock when the device is operating normally, we can see the advantage of this. Of course, theoretically you won’t get the same performance in that mode as you would from a direct wired connection to your router, but with full 802.11ac MIMO support and four internal antennas, you’re not going to notice a performance hit on anything less than a full Gigabit Internet connection.
To get up and running, you’ll need to download the iPhone Sense app from the App Store, which will walk you through the process of hooking Sense up and then pressing the blue pairing button on the back to connect it with the app. This is done via a four-digit code displayed on the front of Sense, which you then punch into the app to complete the pairing process. After that you’ll be asked if you want to connect via a Wi-FI or wired connection, after which a new secure network will be created, with a randomly-generated password. Both the network name and password can be left as-is or edited to your own preferences. By default, Sense will create separate networks for 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, simply adding a “_5GHz” suffix to the latter. This can be changed manually later in settings if you want to use a single SSID for both frequencies to allow your devices to roam more freely between them.
Once the networks are configured, the Sense app will take you through connecting your first device — the iPhone or iPad you’re using. Since iOS prevents third-party apps from changing Wi-Fi settings directly, F-Secure has done the best job they can of making this process easy, even going so far as to automatically copy the Wi-Fi password to your clipboard before sending you to the iOS Settings app to join the new network in the usual manner. As an added bonus, the Sense app allows you to access to the network information offline, so even if you’re not connected to Sense’s Wi-Fi network, you can still get into the app to copy the network name and password to your clipboard manually. If you’re connecting Sense to your primary router via Wi-Fi, F-Secure also recommends that you “forget” your main Wi-Fi network to prevent your devices from connecting to that directly and bypassing Sense’s protection features.
After you’ve hopped onto Sense’s network, you’ll be taken to the main screen of the Sense app. Oddly, the app will prompt for location permission for what appears to be purely aesthetic purposes — to display your location on a map in the background. F-Secure doesn’t make it clear if this information is used in any other way, other than to say that it’s not sent anywhere beyond your device. While it’s cute that you can see your location on a map behind Sense, it’s an entirely frivolous feature, so feel free to deny location access (or turn it off), if you’re concerned — it doesn’t seem to affect the operation of Sense otherwise. From the main screen of the Sense app you can get a basic status overview, showing you how many devices are protected, how many threats have been blocked, and whether everything is okay — the screen will show blue for normal status, while it will turn yellow if your attention is required for some reason. The app does not, however, appear to support push notifications.
A “Devices” screen will show you a list of all devices associated with your Sense, both those currently connected and those that have been connected at any point in the past, and you can tap on a device name to get a more detailed view of threats blocked, when the device was last seen on your network, and other technical information such as IP and MAC addresses. A switch on this screen also allows you to arbitrarily block internet access from this device, although it’s a simple on-and-off switch, so this is not designed to be a viable parental control system or a way of setting time limits. The “More” screen provides access to the Sense’s settings, which allow you to toggle the tracking and browsing protection settings on and off, create exceptions for websites that shouldn’t be blocked, as well as configuring port forwarding. You can also change your network names and passwords from here, along with enabling a “guest” network and configuring the other usual settings such as IP addresses and ranges for DHCP. You can also choose to dim the display on the front of Sense, or turn it off entirely if you don’t want to see the clock at all.
The main magic to Sense that differentiates it from most routers, however, is the built-in anti-malware protection. Rather than requiring you to install anti-malware software on all of your connected devices, Sense blocks suspicious internet activity before it even comes into your home network. F-Secure also offers a companion Sense app for Windows PCs and Macs that will defend against malware coming in via other channels, such as on files copied from an external storage device such as a USB drive, but this app isn’t strictly necessary if all you want is protection from online threats. The anti-malware works quite well, and requires no configuration other than simply having it turned on. By default, “Browsing Protection” is enabled, which protects you against visiting malicious or compromised sites, either directly or indirectly, while “Tracking Protection” can be optionally enabled for users who want to prevent their internet activity and surfing habits from being tracked by various advertising and analytics services. Even without these specific features on, however, Sense still acts as a standard firewall and provides packet inspection to block malicious connections, both into your network as well as outbound connections from things like compromised IoT devices.
Sense offers solid protection, and surprisingly good Wi-Fi coverage for a network of its size. The 2.4 GHz signal was strong throughout our 2,000 square foot home, even with Sense located in the basement, although we found that the 5 GHz signal naturally didn’t have the same reach. Sense is definitely a good whole home router for its price, and beats out Apple’s AirPort Extreme on range, but of course it can’t be expected to stand up to some of the more powerful (and more expensive) multi-antenna-array options. Sense also falls a bit short in terms of other advanced networking features, such as assigning static IPs via DHCP, QoS prioritization of traffic, and WPS. However, F-Secure notes that it’s actively working on expanding Sense’s network feature set, and it’s worth noting that the company seems to be fairly aggressive about doing so — the ability to setup a guest network, for example, was a feature that Sense originally shipped without that was added later on. Of course, many of these are features that the typical home user won’t care too much about, and it’s fairly clear to use that Sense is being marketed at the average user who is concerned about a “plug-and-play” solution with advanced security, and Sense should be considered much more of a “network appliance” than a full-fledged advanced router. In that capacity, however, F-Secure’s Sense works very well and is definitely worth a look if you’re looking to replace an aging AirPort Extreme with something more modern that will also protect your network from the wilds of the internet.
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