Editors' Note: This article, originally published on January 3, has been updated with hands-on impressions of the Norton Core.
Well-known antivirus maker Symantec unveiled a security-minded home Wi-Fi router designed to protect children and smart-home devices from the evils of the internet.
The Norton Core router ($200 on pre-order) looks like a Dungeons and Dragons die, or maybe a geodesic sphere, although Symantec says the funky design is meant to maximize range and throughput. As the Core doesn't have mesh networking capabilities (at least, not at the moment), the improved range may be a necessity for larger homes.
Like many newer Wi-Fi routers, there's no desktop-based interface for the Norton Core; instead, you have to install an iOS or Android app on a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)-enabled smartphone or tablet to set up the router. The app also includes robust parental controls and a feature that scans your entire home network for security vulnerabilities and offers tips on how to fix them.
MORE: Best Home Wi-Fi Routers
The Core's security capabilities are mostly under the hood. It performs deep-packet inspection of all unencrypted traffic flowing through the router to screen out malware or network intrusions, and inspects packet headers and connections of encrypted traffic. It connects to Symantec's own DNS service, preventing DNS hijacks. Perhaps best of all, the Norton Core automatically updates its own software, a feature we wish all home Wi-Fi routers would have.
Buyers also get a free year's subscription to Norton Core Security Plus, a modified version of Symantec's Norton Security Premium home antivirus suite, covering up to 20 PCs, Macs, or Android or iOS devices.
Norton Core Security Plus includes Norton Security Premium's backup software and 25GB of cloud storage, but doesn't include a subscription to the separate Norton Family Premier parental-control service. It does include the Norton Virus Protection Promise, which refunds your subscription costs if Symantec can't remove malware from one of your devices.
The catch is that after the first year, the Norton Core Security Plus subscription will cost $10 per month. Without it, the Core will function just fine as a router, but the security capabilities, including the parental controls, will be gone. Also, sorry Canadians and overseas brethren: For the time being, the Norton Core is available only in the U.S.
Rival antivirus maker Bitdefender beat Symantec to the punch two years ago with the Bitdefender Box, a network security appliance that was a bit rough around the edges at first, but has steadily improved. However, the Box has never worked well as a stand-alone router, and we're looking forward to finding out how the Norton Core performs in that regard.
Hands On with Norton Core
After Norton announced the Core, we had a chance to see the router in person at this week's CES conference in Las Vegas. The first thing we noticed about the Core's app-driven controls is how they simplify the set-up process. Brian Yee, a general manager of software product for Norton, walked us through set-up, estimating that you can be up and running in less than 10 minutes. At setup, the Core updates its own firmware, and it will automatically grab updates as they become available, taking the process out of your hands. (Updates happen late at night to cause as little disruption to your network as possible.)
The centerpiece of the app that controls Norton's Core is a dashboard that prominently displays what Norton calls your security score. It works much the same way as a credit score, and it's meant to give you an at-a-glance view of your Wi-Fi network's security. The security score is based on your network's settings (turning on port forwarding, for example, will knock points off your score), whether Norton Security is installed on your devices and your online activities. Visit a web site or download something that Norton warns you is a high risk, and you can expect your score to take a hit. Helpfully, the dashboard will tell you why your security score is where it is, in case you'd care to adjust your online habits.
Other features in the Core app include the ability to run a speed test for your network, set a priority device, monitor your bandwidth consumption and set up a guest network.
The parental controls will likely be Core's most appealing feature. They draw on Norton Family for setting up filters based on category and age, and you can assign those filters to individual devices. Core's parental controls also let you set time limits on how long a device can be used or a bedtime for a device — helpful when you want the kids focusing on homework and not playing Minecraft.
Should one of your kids visit a blocked site, you'll get a notification via the Core app. Kids can also request permission via the app to view a site that's been blocked. Since these are features you'd expect from good parental control software, it seems at first glance that Norton has really implemented some solid parental controls into its router.
A Las Vegas hotel suite is a poor setting for figuring out just how far a router can reach, and Norton isn't including a range for the Core. But the company did test the router in a 3,000 square foot home and managed to push out Wi-Fi to all corners of the house.
While Norton Core isn't a mesh networking product initially, Yee pointed out that it's mesh-ready. That raises the possibility of adding on satellite devices to extend the network in the future, though for now, Norton looks to be concentrating on just selling this router as a standalone option.
Starting Price: $199.99 for pre-orders, $279.99 when available (includes a one-year subscription to Norton Security for up to 20 devices)
Available: Spring 2017
Key Specs: Dual-band 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz 802.11ac signals with Wave 2 technology; 4x4 AC2600 MU-MIMO; 1.7 GHz dual-core processor; 1GB RAM; 4GB flash storage; 3 LAN Ethernet ports; 1 WAN port for a cable or DSL modem; 2 USB 3.0 ports. The Core measures 6 x 6 x 5 inches and comes in two colors: Titanium Gold or Granite Gray.
What's New: Everything, really. To our knowledge, neither Symantec nor Norton when it was a stand-alone company has ever before made a physical device.
Why You Should Care: With internet-connected devices invading ordinary people's homes, millions of Americans home networks are silently under attack. The Core defends the network in a way few other routers can.
Outlook: Excellent, except perhaps for the relatively high price. It might be hard convincing an ordinary home owner that a $280 non-mesh router is worth much more than a $50 router from a store shelf.