Test Drive: Intel Wireless Gateway

Monday Jun 3rd 2002 by SmallBusinessComputing Staff

Choices for home and small business WLAN gateways are plentiful, but simplicity, easy setup, and design may yet distinguish Intel's otherwise unremarkable wireless gateway.

By Roy Santos

You may have seen the common router: a small rectangular box with port holes and lights. Or you may have seen the more "modern" upright design, distinctive sometimes in their performance, but mostly in their space-saving configuration. The Intel Wireless Gateway can be called an in-between. Neither fully rectangular nor upright, this white 802.11b box can free your house from network wire strangulation in just a few minutes.

The Intel Wireless Gateway is part of the next generation of Intel's wireless home and small office networking products (the PRO/Wireless line). Intel promises that it will work with its existing AnyPoint devices. The gateway can act as your main router, letting PCs with wireless adapters access the Internet and access other machines on the network. It can be a simple wireless access point for those who already have existing Ethernet networks.

The off-white unit sports a design (rectangular, but with rounded edges) that sets it apart from most gateway or router boxes. It is about 1.5 inches thick. Five green lights in the shape of thin, half-inch obelisks sit on top of the box, indicating power and network status. The back of the unit houses the WAN and LAN ports, a hole for securing the unit with a Kensington-type locking devices, and two stubby antennas that rotate on hinges. The gateway can lay flat, best on top of a tower desktop or shelf. The unit also has holes at the bottom that allow you to mount it on a wall. That means that you need a desktop close to a wall; otherwise, you'll have a long wire running from the wall to the PC. In either layout, you can rotate the antennas so that they're fully vertical, maximizing reception.

Although many gateways can be easy to set up, configuring this product in Wireless Gateway Mode was frictionless, almost ridiculously easy. With a cable modem (like I used) or DSL modem, all you need to do is connect the gateway's WAN port to the modem with the network cable that normally goes to the Ethernet adapter. You then connect any PC's Ethernet adapter to the LAN port in the back of the gateway via the included crossover cable.

You don't need to install software to configure it. Like many gateways or routers in the market, setup is Web browser-based. Insert the included setup CD and click on the Configure the Gateway menu item. A few more clicks and the gateway is up and running. Of course, this quick setup doesn't allow for detailed configuration, but you can always go back and use the Advanced menu to modify the gateway's settings to your needs. For even more advanced users, a serial port in the back of the unit lets you connect with a null modem cable to manage gateway settings without using Intel's software (e.g., via Telnet). You have to buy the cable separately.

During the setup, you can configure encryption options. For extra security, you can turn on Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP). With 40 to 64-bit encryption, you can use a password that generates an encryption code. You will have to manually enter a long hexadecimal code if you want the highest encryption, 128-bit. Of course, turning this on usually affects performance, as you will see when the gateway is subjected to testing.

The Intel Wireless Gateway can act as an access point in a pre-existing network. Configuring it as such isn't as easy as the gateway setup. I connected it to a Linksys hub. Once again, you need to connect the WAN port to the modem, but the LAN port now goes to the Uplink port of the hub. You configure the gateway by going to the Setup Wizard or by merely typing the gateway's IP address in a browser, which by default is Next, click on the Setup Wizard again and from the resulting menu, choose Device Settings. After you select Access Point Mode, you will need to restart some PCs connected to the hub, including perhaps the one you used to configure the gateway.

You will also need to remove the gateway Ethernet cable from the Uplink port, place it in a regular port, and reinsert the Ethernet cable connected to the modem back to the Uplink port. If you find these last few steps confusing, the help files will offer no aid. The documentation curiously omits any steps after you check the Access Point Mode option, and trying to figure this out on my own added an extra hour in the setup. Intel touts this product as a combo gateway/access point, but it needs to document the access point functionality better. It may be easy to configure for those already familiar with how networks are set up, but average users may get frustrated.

I tested the performance of the newly created wireless network with NetIQ's Qcheck. The test measures, among other things, the speed of file transfer between two PCs, also known as throughput. Without encryption, Intel's Wireless Gateway produced respectable numbers, averaging over 4.6 Mbps when a client is close to the gateway, about 4.4 Mbps even when I tested on the floor above it. This makes it ideal for multi-floor setups. Throughput began to drop noticeably when I moved to a different room, transferring less than 3.4 Mbps. It eventually dropped to less than half by the time I moved to the opposite end of the house.

When I turned on 128-bit encryption throughput slid over 50% less than the previous numbers. Same-room throughput, for example, averaged less than 2.2 Mbps. If you want to protect your wireless network from unwanted intrusion, but still want maximum performance, these numbers should give you pause. Even with encryption, however, the performance is satisfactory for most purposes, e.g., transferring large files, messaging, and collaboration. Users who will play graphics-intensive games, such as Quake III, should look elsewhere, most likely to a standalone wireless access point, which doesn't have the extra burden of processing router functions.

In addition to the WEP encryption already discussed, the Intel Wireless Gateway provides extra wireless user restriction with its access control feature. You can turn this on and create what Intel calls an access list, which is made up of Ethernet adapters' MAC address, a unique hexadecimal serial number. In this way, only the devices in the access list can use the gateway. To enable it, you go the Advanced settings from the setup CD and choose Access Control Settings. The CD also provides some help on discovering the MAC addresses of connected adapters.

The Intel Wireless Gateway includes a built-in NAT firewall to help protect your network. In my tests, in which I used GRC's online tools and Hacker Whacker, it garnered high marks for solid network shielding without having to set often complicated firewall parameters. But that advantage may be its very weakness, particularly for those who do want to delve into esoteric settings that require a network administrator's handbook. You can't configure the firewall the way you can standalone products.

During one instant messaging session, for example, I experienced some disruption in my file transfers. Whereas I depended on my MSN Messenger before to transfer files to my colleagues, the Intel Wireless Gateway prevented such transfers. More specifically, the built-in firewall seemed to have stopped my IM app from sending out files, though I was able to receive them. Unfortunately, it is not configurable in the same way as some software firewall packages, such as ZoneAlarm. In the latter, you can usually specify which programs allow certain network traffic through and which ones should not. However, all is not lost if you user other IM apps. I was able to send files via Yahoo! IM, but that's an inconvenience not everyone is willing to experience.

The help files, which are all contained in the setup CD in HTML, cover all the basics, including troubleshooting minor, predictable problems such as the gateway setup not starting. It does have a few holes that need patching, foremost being my problems with access point setup. Although the help files show one configuration on how to use the gateway as an access point, diagrams for other, more complex configurations are missing. (Curiously enough, you can find qualitatively different documentation on the Web site that isn't on the CD, including the access point diagrams.)

The CD documentation did not help with my firewall configuration problem, either. The only entry in it is an explanation of what the firewall does. Finding more detailed information for problems you may encounter requires searching Intel's not-so-navigable pages. Besides, if your main problem is not being able to get the gateway to work, how do you get to these online support pages in the first place?

The Intel Wireless Gateway is an easy way to network a home or small business. My recommendation is marginal. The performance was not outstanding, particularly with WEP turned on. But it is easy to set up as your main gateway and it will serve most everyday functions well, including Internet surfing and file transfers. 3D gamers may find its performance inadequate. Intel could beef up documentation, particularly on setting it up as an access point. Moreover, it is strictly for broadband users, i.e., cable and DSL modems; dialup users will have to look somewhere else.

Pros: Quick setup; unique design; good security

Cons: So-so performance; firewall not configurable; sparse documentation

Reprinted From 80211-Planet.com.

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