Microsoft MN-700 Wireless Base Station

Wednesday Nov 26th 2003 by Joseph Moran

Clearly and unabashedly geared toward home broadband users, Microsoft's wireless router and access point is marred only by significant performance issues when Wi-Fi Protected Access security functions are turned on.

The MN-700 wireless base station, Microsoft's new 802.11g wireless local area network (WLAN) offering, clearly and unabashedly reflects the product's intended audience, omitting many advanced features so that users don't to have to be overwhelmed by a phalanx of configuration options just to get the unit operational.

As a result, while it should work well in most residential environments, advanced or technical users may find the MN-700's functionality wanting in some respects.

The unit is a broadband gateway device as well as an access point. Microsoft doesn't offer a separate stand-alone access point product, but you can switch off the router functions if WLAN features are all you need.

From the minute you open the box, you get the unmistakable sense that ease of installation was Microsoft's paramount concern in the development of this wireless base station. The inside of the box and the unit's protective wrapping both sport stickers admonishing the user not to disconnect their existing equipment or connect the MN-700 until after the software is installed. Also, the MN-700 is one of the few WLAN products in recent memory to include a full printed manual (and a rather thick one, considering it's an English-only document).

The Broadcom AirForce-based MN-700 has a stubby 2-inch swivel antenna that's fixed to the device. It can be used in a horizontal orientation or vertically with an included stand, but there's unfortunately no provision for wall mounting the unit.

Microsoft's setup application is designed to streamline setup by picking up the existing ISP settings from the user's existing broadband connection, which is presumed to be directly connected to the PC. This is precisely the scenario found in countless home offices, so the presumption on Microsoft's part is sound. On the other hand, I personally know better than to have a computer directly connected to the Internet via Cable Modem or DSL connection even for only a few minutes (especially with the static IP address I have), so I bypassed this part of the setup process.

The utility walks you through basic wired and wireless network settings. When it came to specifying wireless encryption settings, 64- or 128-bit wired equivalent privacy (WEP) were the only choices offered, though the MN-700 does support Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and it can subsequently be enabled via browser configuration. After providing the pertinent ISP information for my cable modem connection, the MN-700 promptly began providing Internet access.

Generally speaking though, while proceeding through the setup utility will be useful for networking neophytes, I'd recommend bypassing it if you have a working knowledge of TCP/IP.

On the routing side, the MN-700 serves up the typical compliment of features and capabilities, including a DHCP server, static and dynamic port forwarding, and a DMZ. The MN-700 also has a firewall that is not user configurable, save for the ability to enable or disable Internet control message protocol (ICMP) ping response from the wide-area network WAN port. The device maintains a log that can be manually saved to a file but not otherwise outputted externally.

The MN-700's client filtering allows you to prevent internal clients from accessing certain types of traffic over the Internet. But rather than providing a number of common traffic types to choose from, you're forced to enter (and first look up) port ranges, which contradicts the ease-of-use ethos of the product.

Speaking of: from the "Why did they do that?" file, you can't upgrade the MN-700's firmware via the Web browser. Rather, you have to use the software utility, and the option is buried in the Help menu.

Microsoft is one of the relatively few vendors that endow their product with a parental control feature. While it's not a comprehensive, service-based offering like that in Belkin's 802.11g product, it does afford the ability to block access to any unspecified domains. While this may pose some inconvenience for those whose access is filtered, when you consider the impossibility of manually entering every potentially harmful site, this approach is infinitely preferable from a parent's perspective. Looking at the wireless configuration options of the MN-700, Microsoft's focus on simplicity is again apparent. Instead of page upon page of wireless settings as are often found in many products, the MN-700 provides only a few key options--mainly wireless performance mode, wireless encryption, service set identifier (SSID) broadcast. You won't find a way to control the radio's transmission power (though you can disable the radio entirely), for example, or a bridging or repeating function. The MN-700 also can't authenticate users against a RADIUS server.

The MN-700 offers two performance modes — either 11g-only mode or mixed 11b/g mode. I tested the MN-700's throughput performance using the companion MN-720 Wireless Notebook Adapter, and the performance was quite good, with one notable exception. It didn't post the highest numbers I've seen since it doesn't currently use the performance enhancement of Broadcom's frame-bursting implementation. Still, the MN-700 provided solid performance that remained relatively high at increasing distances. Throughput at 10 feet was 20.66 Mbps and stayed strong before dropping to 11.13 Mbps at 125 feet.

Unfortunately, enabling WPA encryption on the MN-700 sent the throughput numbers through the floor. With WPA turned on, throughput was a mere 9.41 Mbps at 10 feet — a drop of over 50 percent. While some performance penalty with WPA is to be expected, cutting throughput in half certainly is not. By comparison, the Broadcom-equipped Buffalo AirStation took much less of a performance hit with WPA turned on, dropping from 21.5 Mbps to only 15.1 Mbps.

This certainly implies that the issue lies with the WPA implementation on the MN-700. (There was no performance penalty when using 128-bit WEP encryption.) Microsoft said that their testing didn't show the same WPA performance impact I observed, but that they were continuing to test with the goal of improving performance.

Performance in mixed mode with a 802.11b client associated was high at 14.38Mbps, but the figure is misleading. This is because although the MN-700 was transmitting at full speed for about 25 seconds in the middle of the one minute test, indicating that the b client had disassociated from the access point temporarily. This disassociation occurred at different points each time the test was run.

Running in mixed mode with 11g and 11b clients simultaneously, the MN-700 provided 7.76Mbps of aggregate throughput, with 4.73 Mbps going to the 11g client and 3.05Mbps for the 11b client, which is more or less typical for products in this class without the use of frame-bursting.

If your needs are basic, the MN-700 is a solid product in most respects and should serve well as the cornerstone of a home network, where the setup utility and parental controls are definite pluses. However, the unexpectedly low performance of the device with WPA encryption is a cause for concern, and one that hopefully can rectify in a future firmware release.

Adapted from Wi-Fi

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