Sleek design. Doesn't require account creation. Monitors network traffic. Endpoint software included in subscription.
Comparably few security features. Difficult to install and use.
- Bottom Line
The F-Secure Sense is a security-first router meant to protect all your devices and even works with your existing Wi-Fi network, but it comes up short on features.
As your gadgets get smarter, so do the threats that can compromise them. The $199.99 F-Secure Sense functions not only as a router, but is meant to keep your devices safe from attacks, hacks, and everything else that goes bump in the night (on the web). It offers basic security features with a one-year subscription, though it lacks the more advanced options you'll find on rival devices like the Norton Core and BitDefender Box.
Design, Hardware, and Setup
The F-Secure Sense is a diamond-shaped white tower with rounded edges. At the top you'll find some venting, while the front has a digital clock. Directly underneath the clock, you'll find the Sense's display, which also doubles as a troubleshooting key.
The Sense measures 8.5 by 4.8 by 3.5 inches (HWD) and is unobtrusive enough to fit on most shelves. You probably won't display it in quite the same way as the chic Norton Core, but it looks a heck of a lot nicer than your typical boxy router.
In the back you'll find a variety of ports. There's a USB 3.0 port, three LAN ports, one WAN port, a power jack, and a reset button. Inside, there's a 1GHz dual-core CPU, 512MB of RAM, and 1GB of flash storage. For connectivity, the Sense has dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Setting up the Sense is relatively simple. Depending on your configuration, you can either use it as a standalone Wi-Fi router or with an existing router in bridge mode. After that, you simply download the Sense app for Android or iOS, which then walks you through the rest of the setup process.
In practice, we experienced some hiccups in the setup process. It took several attempts to pair the Sense to our iPad Pro, and it occasionally rebooted itself. At one point, the Sense lost connectivity while updating firmware, and we were ultimately unable to set up the original device. F-Secure sent over a new unit, which we were able to install without much issue.
Just the Basics
When you first get the Sense online, it immediately performs a firmware update with signed code it downloads from F-Secure. This means that if someone intercepted your shipment and installed malicious firmware, it would be wiped and the new firmware put in its place.
Once set up, the Sense monitors your network for suspicious activity. It does this thanks to F-Secure's extensive blacklist of dangerous URLs associated with malicious activity. If your computer or your smart fridge tries to communicate with a known dangerous URL, F-Secure swoops in to block it. We couldn't find a way to add sites to the Sense's blacklist, but you can whitelist sites that you want to access.
Note that the Sense only examines the URLs of requests. It does not perform deep-packet inspection. A representative for the company pointed out that most traffic on the internet is encrypted and the developers didn't want to risk compromising user security by messing with encrypted data. That's reasonable.
For safety reasons, we don't use live malware when reviewing these devices. Instead, we use a series of tests provided by the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization. This group offers several benign files that security companies have agreed to detect as malicious in order to confirm that the services are working correctly. The Sense blocked manual malware downloads, compressed malware downloads, potentially unwanted program downloads, and the phishing test page. It failed to block a drive-by download, and also failed the cloud-based security test.
This is the base level of security that I would expect from such a device, and it's unfortunately all the Sense has to offer. It doesn't use a custom DNS resolution service. It also doesn't yet have the smarts to recognize unusual traffic patterns for particular devices—a more heuristic approach that could spot new threats not yet recognized by F-Secure's cloud service.
The Sense also blocks dangerous websites. We put it to the test by visiting 10 verified phishing pages from PhishTank. These are all fresh phish, having been recently submitted by PhishTank's volunteers. We compared the number of times the Sense successfully blocked these pages with the number of times a vanilla installation of Chrome blocked the same pages. We found that the Sense blocked only 20 percent of the phishing pages, while Chrome blocked 50 percent. That means you are significantly safer using just a browser than just the Sense.
We were disappointed to learn that the sense does not monitor LAN-to-LAN traffic. This would allow the device to notice that your smart light bulb is talking to your network printer, which should never happen, and suggests an attack at the worst or a misconfiguration at best. We were impressed that the Norton Core can detect this activity. Nor does the Sense look for known vulnerabilities in the configuration of devices on your network, which both the Bitdefender Box and the forthcoming Box 2 can detect.
The bulk of the protection F-Secure offers with the Sense actually comes in the form of end-point software. This is based on the F-Secure Safe antivirus application, which normally costs $49.99 per year for a single device. When you purchase the Sense, you get a year of protection for free. That's quite a bargain, but it's worth noting that we only gave it three stars in our most recent review. We prefer Editors' Choice winners Symantec Norton Security Premium and Bitdefender Total Security.
A F-Secure representative told us that we should have been prompted to install the endpoint software on devices as we added them to the network. But even several days after adding our MacBook Pro, we've received no such prompting. The Bitdefender Box was much better at prompting us to install client software.
While other security devices offer network-level parental controls—including content blocking and time limits for devices—the F-Secure Sense does not. A representative informed us that the endpoint software (which, remember, we saw no evidence of) does include parental controls, but there is no single dashboard where you can enforce restrictions across all your devices.
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Th F-Secure representative we spoke with took pains to characterize the Sense as a platform. Improvements and new features, he said, are being added all the time. That's great news, and we look forward to what the Sense becomes. But it's still surprising that a company as well regarded as F-Secure didn't launch a fully realized product several years after its initial announcement.
Smart Home Integration
Your smart light bulb might seem innocuous enough. Until it participates in a DDoS attack without your consent, which is exactly what happened with the recent Mirai botnet attack. If you have a lot of smart home devices, security boxes like the Sense are supposed to give you some peace of mind.
To test it out, we connected the Eufy Lumos Smart Bulb White to the Sense's Wi-Fi network. You are able to see its IP address, Mac address, MDNS, and manufacturer information. While it was able to recognize the bulb as a device, it showed up as an unwieldy string of letters and numbers in the Sense app. That's annoying, since one advantage of these security boxes is managing the devices on your network, which is hard to do when you're not sure which one is your fridge and which is your laptop. You can also see the number of threats blocked from web browsing or intrusive tracking from hackers, advertisers, and data collection companies.
That said, the Sense can't do anything other than notify you of blocked threats. It's better than nothing, but it's not exactly a "set it and forget it" solution.
We have not yet completed our evaluation of the F-Secure Sense's network performance. We will update this review with that information once our testing is complete.
However, we were surprised to find that the Sense lacks basic network segmentation options. You cannot, for example, create a guest network that keeps untrusted devices sequestered from your trusted ones. The Norton Core can go even further, and dynamically quarantine devices that are acting suspiciously on a sequestered network. That way, you can apply patches or even repair the device via your network connection without risking the rest of your network.
Does It Make Sense for You?
At $200, the F-Secure Sense isn't the most expensive router out there, but it is an investment. And while it includes a one-year subscription to F-Secure's security software, it's a little too basic to justify the overall cost. For $80 more, you can get the more aesthetically pleasing Symantec Norton Core, which has a better app, smoother setup, and a wide range of security features. The Bitdefender Box, which has been on the market for over a year, also offers a more comprehensive collection of security tools.
We can't deliver a final verdict before testing how it performs as a router. But no matter how well it performs in those tests, it's unlikely to eclipse competitors' offerings.
By Max Eddy Software Analyst
Max Eddy is a Software Analyst, taking a critical eye to Android apps and security services. He's also PCMag's foremost authority on weather stations and digital scrapbooking software. When not polishing his tinfoil hat or plumbing the depths of the Dark Web, he can be found working to discern the 100 Best Android Apps. Prior to PCMag, Max wrote for the International Digital Times, The International Science Times, and The Mary Sue. He has also been known to write for Geek.com. You can follow him on… More »
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