Although almost every home networking vendor now makes a router with integrated wireless capability, there are times when all you need is a stand-alone 802.11b access point. Adding wireless capabilities to an existing network is one example. Even when setting up a new network, you may want to divorce the access point from the router, since dedicated routers are generally more feature-rich than their wireless-ready counterparts.
For times when an access point is called for, Belkin offers this $199 Wireless Network Access Point.
The Belkin Wireless Access Point follows the same basic design as their Wireless USB Network Adapter, but it's longer. The unit has dual rotating antennas-a feature I appreciate since it provides full wireless coverage - and three LED status lights on the top denoting power, link, and network activity.
Minor complaint - the normal state for the power indicator is a steady red, a color I mentally associate with a problem condition. Green or amber would be a better color choice, so a quick glance wouldn't have users momentarily thinking something was wrong.
The unit is sturdy, and with a low center of gravity and four rubber feet, it stays where you put it. Another nice touch is the screw mounts on the bottom of the unit, allowing you to mount it on the wall if preferred.
For security, the Belkin supports both 40- and 128-bit WEP encryption to safeguard your data from prying eyes. To preclude access to your network by Web roaming interlopers, the unit provides a MAC Filtering feature, so only hosts with a pre-defined MAC address can connect to the access point.
According to Belkin, the Wireless Access Point is Macintosh compatible. Belkin promises a lifetime warranty on the product along with 24-hour technical support.
One feature that is conspicuously absent in the Belkin is the ability to manage the access point from a browser interface, a capability found in many comparable products. This is not a fatal limitation, since the access point is generally configured at installation time and in most cases left alone, but it does mean that you can't make subsequent configuration changes from other machines without installing the utility again. Belkin says that this feature will be included in a follow-up product that will be available later this summer.
The setup of the Belkin Wireless Access Point was exceedingly straightforward. I plugged the AP into power and a Cisco 1548 switch and ran the setup utility included on the CD. I ran the Wireless Access Point Manager and waited for it to find the newly-installed access point, which it did easily, in about 20 seconds.
The Wireless Access Point Manager is similar, if not identical, to the configuration utilities found in some other 802.11b access points. You can use it to configure the AP with static IP information or as a DHCP client.
This utility also lets you change the password, reload the default settings, or update the firmware of the AP. I took the opportunity to update the firmware to the most up-to-date version, which was 1.4g.8. The update process was simple: I downloaded the file and a few clicks in the Manager software later, it was upgraded.
The performance of the Belkin Wireless Access Point (tested with Belkin Wireless NICs) can be characterized by two words, fast and consistent, as evidenced by the results on our suite of Qcheck performance tests. On the TCP Throughput test, arguably the most representative of typical performance, the Belkin turned in scores ranging from 4.2 to 4.5Mbps, depending on conditions, while response times ranged from 4 to 8 ms.
Turning on 128-bit encryption did not significantly impact the performance on the throughput test, as the Belkin continued to post scores in the low-to-mid 4Mbps range. TCP and UDP response times degraded somewhat, no doubt owing to the added overhead introduced by encrypting and decrypting the network traffic.
It's worth noting again, however, that the performance in the various categories was not impacted as the client moved further away from the access point. The scores remained nearly the same whether I was in the same room as the access point or two floors below it.
I was also able to successfully connect to the Belkin Access Point with a 802.11b network card from another vendor-specifically, D-Link, with and without encryption enabled.
The Belkin Wireless Access point impressed me with its ease of setup, quality documentation and drivers, and consistent performance under a variety of conditions. I'd prefer that the unit provide web-based administration capability, but the Belkin has enough else going for it that this oversight is not a major deal-breaker.
Pros: Easy set-up; great documentation; fast and consistent performance.
Cons: No browser-based administration.