The Web gives you all kinds of content at your fingertips. But that can be a problem if you're in an environment where you need to monitor or restrict Internet access--if you're in a home with kids, for instance, or a business where you want to cut down on non-work-related browsing. With ContentBarrier X4, you can set up user restrictions for Internet access, block Web sites, limit instant messaging, and maintain activity logs to get an idea of what people are doing.
When installed, ContentBarrier is active for every user account on a single Mac (ContentBarrier works alongside Mac OS X 10.5's Parental Controls). While that might sound problematic in theory, it worked fine in practice. An administrator must log in with the appropriate user name and password to configure the program's settings, which prevents standard user accounts from accessing the software. ContentBarrier's interface is easy to understand; the main window consists of a list of users in a pane on the left, the user profile on top, and the settings listed at the bottom.
Presets and profiles
You can select one of the three presets from the Profile pull-down menu in the user profile window: No Restrictions, Restricted Access, and No Access. No Restrictions deactivates the content filters and sets no limits. Restricted Access uses category filters for the Web and e-mail; blocks media streams, peer-to-peer software clients, and newsgroups; and uses message filters for instant messaging. No Access blocks Internet access and the ability to launch any software. These presets rely completely on Intego's filters--you can't make any tweaks. To update ContentBarrier's filters, you need an Internet connection and Intego's NetUpdate software, which is installed when you install ContentBarrier X4. Intego says that it updates the filters monthly; you can set NetUpdate to automatically check for updates daily, weekly, or monthly.
The Profile pull-down menu has a fourth selection, called Custom, where you can modify settings. This may end up being the setting you use; while ContentBarrier does a very good job overall of blocking Web sites (even blocking access if you try to access a site via search), it may not prevent access to sites you might deem offensive based on your personal criteria, or sites you otherwise want to block access to (social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook, say, or shopping sites). You'll want to manually enter such sites into ContentBarrier using the Custom setting. In addition to blocking Web sites, ContentBarrier, like OS X10.5's Parental Controls, lets you restrict access to a specific list of sites.
ContentBarrier also has the option of filtering Web site categories. These include Sex/Pornography, Violence, Racism, Gambling, Finance, Shopping, Sports, and more. Unfortunately, the software doesn't let you read or edit the keywords and Web sites in each category; updating the keyword list is up to Intego. You can, however, create your own category list.
IM and e-mail
In addition to Web site filtering, ContentBarrier has filters for instant messaging and e-mail. The IM and e-mail filters are different from the Mail & iChat Parental Controls in OS X 10.5; Parental Controls lets you maintain a list of approved addresses, which ContentBarrier does not do, though ContentBarrier doesn't disable Parental Control's list.
The IM filters work only with text chats. I was able to use the IM filters with iChat, Adium, and AIM; Intego says that the IM filters work by blocking the IM protocol itself, so it will work with all the major chat clients. Other clients that Intego says are compatible with ContentBarrier include Yahoo Messenger, Skype, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). The IM filters did not work with Facebook's chat because Facebook uses a different protocol. However, Facebook only allows you to chat with people in your Friends list, so that is a way to track or exclude people. ContentBarrier lets you block IM completely, or you can activate what's called an Anti-Predator filter, which checks incoming IMs for phrases that might be deemed inappropriate, such as, "don't tell mom" or "what are you wearing." If an incoming IM triggers ContentBarrier, an alert appears, the message is blocked, and then, in a somewhat disconcerting manner, your IM client is kicked off the Internet and then logged back on. You can add more phrases to the list, or delete preset phrases, so normal conversations-- kids discussing what they're wearing to a dance, for example--won't be interrupted.
ContentBarrier lets you block e-mail altogether, or you can filter e-mail by keyword category, a feature similar to its Web site keyword category filtering. When you have ContentBarrier set to block all e-mails, you can launch your e-mail program, but ContentBarrier will block any incoming messages. ContentBarrier doesn't bounce the e-mail back to the sender; instead, it leaves the message on the incoming server, where it can be retrieved when the block is lifted. The e-mail blocks worked with my personal POP e-mail account, and Intego says that this feature works with POP, IMAP (but not IMAP over Secure Sockets Layer), and SMTP e-mail.
Another major feature that ContentBarrier has, and Leopard's Parental Controls doesn't, is the ability to block streaming media. When a Web page with embedded media is loaded, a ContentBarrier alert displays, and you can't play the media. It can be helpful to block just a stream instead of an entire Web site; for instance, in a research environment like a library, you may want to allow access to a Web site, but prevent users from clogging up network bandwidth with streaming media from that site. ContentBarrier can also block media streaming from iTunes.
The Schedule feature is similar to Parental Controls' Time Limits, where you can set time zones and limits for computer access. ContentBarrier offers more flexibility by allowing you to set a schedule by the hour; for example, you can set multiple time zones of access and no access within a single day. Parental Controls only allows for a single time zone of blocked access. My only problem with this feature was that sometimes ContentBarrier crashed when I tried to modify a schedule. An Intego representative says this is a known issue and a fix is in the works.
As far as ContentBarrier affecting performance, I didn't notice any slowdowns while the application was active; Web sites loaded as fast as they would without ContentBarrier, and any program I launched and ran seemed unaffected.
A final consideration for ContentBarrier is the annual cost. The up-front price you pay for the software comes with only a year's worth of filter updates. A year after you first use ContentBarrier, you have to pay a subscription fee in order to update the filters. It's US$29 to renew for one year, $44 for a two-year renewal. If you decide not to renew, ContentBarrier will continue to work, but filters can't be updated. If you try to download a filter update on an expired subscription, NetUpdate will remind you that you need to renew.
Macworld's buying advice
For many people, Leopard's Parental Controls offer enough filtering and tools for blocking and restricting access to Web sites and potentially dangerous e-mail and chat. However, ContentBarrier X4 offers several valuable tools that Parental Controls lacks, such as hour-by-hour scheduling, an IM anti-predator filter, media stream blocking, and keyword filtering. If you have a hard time keeping up with your kids and maintaining Parental Controls, or if you have a small business where you want to cut down on non-work-related surfing, ContentBarrier X4 can be a big help.
[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]
This story, "ContentBarrier X4" was originally published by Macworld.