The F-Secure SENSE is a quite an exciting product in the world of routers. It the first hardware product from F-Secure, but it is also a router that has been designed from the ground up to be completely secure (if that’s possible). The router itself is not only secure but uses proprietary threat management software from F-Secure to secure your entire network.
The F-Secure SENSE is strictly just a router, there is no modem inside, so you will need your ADSL modem/router plugged into the WAN port of the SENSE, then all your other devices plugged into the SENSE.
It is built using the OpenWrt open source router software and then the F-Secure proprietary software is put on top of that. Any security issues F-Secure find with OpenWrt are released as part of the open source nature, but their proprietary code is strictly proprietary. One of the ways they keep the router secure is regular updates that are automatically applied. This means F-Secure can push a security update in a matter of hours if needs be. There is a potential issue here, in that how long are F-Secure willing to update the SENSE? If you look at the Android market it is in a shocking state as far as updates go. But F-Secure assured me they intend to keep the device updated for several years, though no specific length of time.
The SENSE only has 3 × RJ45 Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mbps ports which are a little less than competing brands. The WiFi specification is also good but not class leading with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac 2.4GHz, 5GHz, AC 1750.
It also has Bluetooth 4.0 (BLE) which I don’t think is used for anything other than the setup and securing of the router.
The router is an attractive all white design with a built-in clock. The clock part seems pointless but the display is actually fundamental in setting up and securing the router.
Setup is very simple, but you have to use your mobile and set it up through the F-Secure SENSE app, the whole router is then managed through this. This is a deliberate decision to help secure the router further. If you could login via a browser people would use insecure passwords and it would open it up to hacking attempts.
Once you have downloaded the app you need press the blue button on the router then input the code on the router into your phone. Once the devices are paired you can change the WiFi SSID and password. So, you can easily change it to the old details and therefore all your devices would be able to access the WiFi without setting everything up again.
The app is quite simple to navigate and there are not a huge amount of options. The first screen shows the number of devices protected and the threats blocked. If you click on devices you can then see a list of all the devices and the SENSE will try and detect what type of device it is, making it easier to manage.
When you click on the device you can see what threats have been blocked on that device as well as any tracking that has been blocked. It shows you the basic device details including IP etc, and you can block the internet per device.
Under the more option, you have your event log with new devices added and threats detected. You can also manage the protection of the network, you can enable protection for all devices, tracking protection and browser protection.
Under the network option you can change the WiFi details, and more importantly, change the WAN details. This will be very important for some people because you be using two networks, one between the internet router which in my case was 192.168.1.* and then the network the SENSE creates, which in my case was 192.168.71.*. The problem here is if you sue any devices on the network that use static IPs everything is going to break. I personally have a server with a static IP, and in general, I like to keep all my devices using the same IPs which I can force under my old router.
So, with the SENSE you will need to change your old router to a new IP structure, then manually change the SENSE to the old IP structure you are using.
Performance and Features
During use the SENSE works just as you would hope any router works, all my devices function fine, performance on both wired and wireless networks is excellent. I would even go as far as saying that my mobile browsing speed seems to have improved, this is entirely subjective and possibly just in my head. However, it could be that the WiFi is performing better than my FRITZ!Box 7490 or perhaps even all the tracking data that is being blocked is helping speed things up.
The big difference you will notice with this router versus any other router is less advertising. I have AdBlockers on my main PC so it is a bit moot here, but on my mobile, I still (stupidly) use Chrome, and recently I have had issues with intrusive adverts. As a keen cyclist and runner, I obsessively check the weather and I have found that the Met Office website has recently had some serious issues with advertising. The adverts are slow to load, which then cause miss-clicks on the page, and I have even had popups occurring on the site. It has gotten to the point where I use Firefox Focus exclusively for the Met Office. With my mobile connecting to the SENSE, this is not an issue at all, I can go to the Met Office and experience no adverts whatsoever. Just on one device, this is fantastic, but the fact that the SENSE will apply this to every device on the network can be a huge benefit in a multi-device household.
Testing its ability to detect and block malware is a little more difficult without exposing myself to actual malware, but F-Secure has 2 test domains unsafe.fstestdomain.com and gambling.fstestdomain.info. Their URLs are self-explanatory, in the case of the gambling one, the page loads fine, because the SENSE doesn’t block gambling and I have no filters on my AV. With the unsafe URL, the SENSE blocks the URL on all my devices. If you then go into the SENSE app you can see the URL that has been blocked in the event log and the device that triggered it.
While this is an amazing feature, it is also one of the first issues I have encountered with the SENSE. As far as I am aware there is no way to whitelist a blocked URL, you can view all the info in the app but it won’t let you whitelist it. When you browse to the URL on Android there is no way to bypass it as you might when Chrome blocks a URL for example. This should hardly ever be an issue, but it still something I would like to see included.
The other big feature F-Secure are trying to push is the securing of your IoT devices, this functionality isn’t technically working yet, but the router will monitor traffic from IoT devices and if it detects irregularities it will warn you and you can block the internet on it. The reason why it isn’t working yet is that they need all the SENSE routers to gather working data for them to implement it properly, otherwise we would all likely receive a lot of false positive alerts.
While the SENSE is without a doubt the most advanced consumer security router you can buy now, it omits quite a lot of features found on less secure routers. Some of these will be deliberate but many appear to be left out in order to get the product to market ASAP. During the press event, quite a lot of features were asked about and the general response was it is coming soon but there is no specific timeframe. Some of these include:
- The device has a USB port but at the moment no USB host facility like NAS etc.
- You cannot manually assign IPs to devices via the app itself, which is something I relied on a lot with my old router as I could effectively have static IPs without setting it up on each device manually. This is important for my server and CCTV cameras.
- There is no port forwarding options – a pretty big omission as far as routers go
- No bandwidth monitoring
- No ability to manage UPNP, I assume this is on by default otherwise there would be all sorts of network issues, but it is ironic that there is no option to switch it off when one of their own security experts recommended to always switch it off.
- No quality of service settings
- No guest WiFi
- No ability to manage the WiFi channels
- No WPS (This will be a deliberate omission as WPS is a major security risk)
Most of the above features will not affect most users and are generally restricted to advanced users, but it is strange as I assume that it will be the advanced users that are the first to commit to the SENSE.
While I don’t have the cyber security skills to truly test how secure this router is, it does appear to do exactly what F-Secure advertise. It is the first router on the market offering these sorts of features and it does them superbly. Unless you have the tech knowledge to implement something like pfSense then you are not likely to find a more secure router available today.
This security focus is particularly important considering the recent news that many Virgin, BT, Sky and TalkTalk routers have a serious security issue. Then there is the issue with the CIA using Cherry Blossom to hack routers covering 25 devices from 10 manufacturers. Furthermore, in recent months there have been multiple reports of Netgear and Asus routers having unpatched vulnerabilities.
Unfortunately, it is not the perfect router, as stated there is quite a lot of features missing which will make it hard for some advanced users to commit to.
It is also quite expensive, the device itself is £169 which isn’t too bad for a router of this calibre, but after the first year, you will be on the hook for a £102 service subscription if you want to continue getting the threat detection features. In theory, no other security software is needed beyond the SENSE (if you only stay on its network) so £102 isn’t too bad, but F-Secure state that F-Secure Security Cloud should also be installed on your computers, which will presumably cost more money.
That being said, if you live in a household with a lot of devices and security is an issue then you will not find a product on the market as good as this. One possible area where the SENSE would be amazing value is in small businesses, £102 per year is negligable if it protects your office PCs from ransomeware and other malicious attacks.
You can buy the F-Secure SENSE today direct from F-Secure for £169