- A Windows Live account i.e. a Hotmail address for each child and one for yourself to administer the controls.
- A computer running Windows XP (SP3), Vista* (SP2) or Windows 7**
- Windows Live Essentials suite - Install it from here and ensure that Family Safety is checked: Windows Live Essentials 2011 - Download free Microsoft programs.
- User accounts for each child you intend to apply restrictions to on the PC.
*Windows XP and Vista operate differntly from Windows 7. Please read the Windows XP/Vista notes at the bottom of the article.**
Please also note that all screen grabs are from the Windows 7 Parental Controls client. Once you've installed Live Essentials go to control panel and open the 'Parental Controls' application you will now find in there, or in the case of Windows XP and Vista you can access it via the Start-Programs-Windows Live-Windows Live Family Safety link. You should also note that with the Windows 7 client the control panel application has a drop-down box labelled 'Select a provider' in the additional controls section at the bottom. This part is designed to integrate third party applications into the parental controls suite, but as of yet I have not found any! Apparently if you have one installed then they will appear in the drop down box and you can select that over the Microsoft controls.Once you have selected the account you wish to manage it will then ask you to login with your Hotmail (Live) account details, once you have done this you will be taken to the account settings page via your default browser as all the config pages are web based. Now I won't bore you with details because it is so well laid out and simple to use it is obvious a lot of time, effort and thought had gone into the design. Almost all the controls are based on easy to understand check boxes and drop-down menus. Essentially from the account page you can set the following items accessed via a menu on the left hand side:
- Web filtering - Where you can set a filtering level for all the internet your child might access.
- Web filtering lists - You can block individual sites and domains here.
- Activity Reporting- Shows what sites have been visited and when.
- Contact management - This part allows you to restrict what messaging and email contacts can be used. This only works with Hotmail and Messenger BTW. What is really neat about this is that Hotmail and Messenger will be restricted regardless of where your child logs on and on what computer.
- Requests - When your child encounters a blocked website they can request its unblocking here.
- Time limits - Restrict the times your child can use the computer.
- Game restrictions - Block access to games by their age rating. Nice feature.
- Program restrictions - Be able to block access to individual applications and games on the computer.Each of these modules can be turned on or off and are off by default.I've included below a some screen grabs of each page just so you can get an overview of just how easy it is to use.
Web filtering allows you to set a filtering level for your child.
Be careful though, set it too strict and you may be limiting the sites they can access as the screen grab below shows when I set the filtering to 'Child Friendly'.
Safe, but limited. However, you can manually add sites if you wish.
Any attempt to to access a blocked site will result in this page being displayed with an easy to use system for requesting the unblocking of web pages.
The 'Ask in person' will connect you via Messenger to speed up the process.
Web filtering lists allow you to manually block or allow sites.
Activity reporting gives you a good overview of what sites and programs your child has been using.
This even works for in-private sessions in both Firefox and Chrome.
Internet Explorer did not allow the user account in-private privileges.
And here is a list of programs used by the protected account.
Requests to unblock sites can be accessed via the 'Requests' menu.
Preventing unauthorised computer use is easy from the 'Time limits' menu and any attempt to logon will result in an access denied because of time restrictions message.
Setting restrictions on games has never been easier now that games have age ratings. You can also block older games in the program restriction menu.
Program restrictions allow you to block access to programs or groups of programs from an easy check-box menu.
Be careful how you use this though as it may have unexpected consequeces with inter-related programs.
The message a user recieves when trying to use an unauthorised program.
All-in-all, I'm really, really impressed by this little used and even littler publicised suite of controls. If I were Microsoft I would ensure that any Windows 7 promotional campagn aimed at home users had these promoted at at the forefront of each advert, but sadly they are hidden away in the basement of the control panel. Well, at least you guys now know about them and can spread the word. The few gripes I do have are more concerned with features I would have liked to have seen, but given it's ever evolving nature there is a chance these could be introduced at a later date. These include:
- The ability to remotely store and view chat logs, although some may view this as an invasion of privacy, and there will be some debate as to at what age it would be suitable to allow your kids to either have access to Messenger, and at what age to let them have unsupervised use of it.
- The possibility of setting time restrictions to games or applications (no fragging until your homeworks done!) .
- The reporting of control violations (or attempted violations to be more accurate)
But negatives aside there is a great deal to like, and not just about how easy and thorough the controls are. I also have to give credit also goes to these features.
- Roaming administration - I orginally did the configuartion in the EduGeek office on a desktop PC. When I neeed to test some features out at home I set up my laptop and found to my utter joy that I could administer the controls from anywhere as they are web based. Also requests for sites/programs to be unblocked come direct to the admin console and not to an email address, so you can see at once any that need addressing, no matter where you are, even to a Windows XP virtual machine.
- Easy transfer of settings - The web based admin tools give you the option to easily move computers settings applied to one computer or user to other computers/users as well.
- Security - There is no opportunity for children to attempt to circumvent the controls you put in place when logged on and as you use your live account details, not your desktop login to administer the restrictions. This makes it harder for children to guess or access the management console.
After spending quite some time over the past few days playing with these tools it occurs to me that at primary school level, Microsoft really have an application that, with a little modification and AD integration, could provide a very, very valuble and easy to use method of low end classroom management, but for home users with children this feature has been so overlooked and that it is almost criminal. It is an amazing suite of controls that is, best of all, totally free. If you have children who use a computer at home (or even roam with a laptop) then you should aquaint yourself with these tools as a matter of priority.
*Notes on Windows XP - It became apparent during testing that with Microsoft winding down support for XP the Microsoft Family Saftey tools had their main focus on Windows 7 and Vista. The Windows XP client has not been updated to the current 2011 standard and some functionality was missing. This included:
- Time limits
- Program restrictions
- Game restrictions
However web filtering, activity reporting, Messenger and Hotmail restrictions still worked perfectly. So if your children have access to XP based computers or laptops don't expect the kind of control you can apply to Vista or Windows 7.
*Notes on Windows Vista - After installing the Vista client I opened the Parental Controls in control panel only to be given a limited set of option, and no access to the online controls. I later found out that the new client has to be accessed via the Start-All Programs-Windows Live link, so please disregard the control panel item when using parental controls as you will not get the full feature set.