With the proliferation of 802.11-based networking products over the past year or so, there is no question that the devices required to set up a wireless network are now generally plentiful and quite inexpensive.
However, that's not to say that all 802.11 products are created equal, because many products emerge from their boxes rougher than five-o-clock shadow - with documentation ranging from poor to non-existent as well as half-baked software installation routines that can make setting up a wireless network much more of a chore than it needs to be. I've seen my share of products that may have good technical capabilities, but whose supporting materials leave much to be desired.
This Belkin Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router is different. Belkin seems to have gone out of their way to create a product that is exceedingly easy to set up. Frankly, tying my shoes presented more of a challenge.
The F5D6230-3 unit combines a broadband router, three-port 100 Mbps switch, and 802.11b access point in one sturdy unit.
Call us me old fashioned, but I particularly like Belkin's low, flat footprint (won't knock over) and dual rotating antennas. It's not as Jetsonesque-looking as some of the stuff out there, but I'll take it.
It's also noteworthy that in an era where product documentation usually consists of little more than fold-out sheet, a quick-start card, or a PDF on CD-ROM, Belkin saw fit to include an honest-to goodness printed and bound manual. The manual is well-organized and written (as opposed to hastily translated from a foreign tongue), with step-by-step instructions and lots of screen shots. Not that you're likely to need it (except perhaps for reference for some of the advanced features), but I'd rather have it than not, and I commend Belkin for including it.
If you just want to get up and running and would sooner drink chlorine bleach than read a manual, a step-by-step fold out is provided as well, including information relevant to the Macintosh's OS X, with which the product is (obviously) compatible.
The Belkin Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router provides a wide range of wired and wireless networking capabilities. It can be set up to use either a static or dynamic address from your ISP, or to utilize the hated (by me, anyway) PPPoE on some DSL connections.
The router supports a DMZ and virtual servers, so you can poke through certain addresses or network services if you want to run, say, a web server or game server from your home.
Like most broadband routers, the Belkin can act as a DHCP server to allocate IP addresses; in fact DHCP server is the default setting. I liked that I was able to configure DHCP lease duration, something I am accustomed to from working with DHCP in Windows NT and 2000. With nine choices ranging from a half-hour to "forever," the settings are not very granular, but many products with DHCP don't give you any choice at all.
In the area of security, the Belkin router's NAT feature provides some level of protection from nefarious passers-by on the Internet, and MAC filtering lets you specify which (wired or wireless) clients get access to your network.
The Belkin also provides internal security features, like the ability to restrict LAN client access by day, time, or type of traffic, which is pretty nice. This feature could come in extremely handy in both a home and small business environment. The router does not, on the other hand, provide any content filtering capability, either manually or by subscription, making it better suited for home offices than to share a family broadband connection.
The router is administered completely by the browser, and by default any computer on your internal network can administer the router (provided the password is known, of course). The router also lets you specify one IP address that will be able to administer the router remotely (on TCP port 88). This is a nice feature, but you don't always have a static address, so we would have rather been able to specify a subnet, or at least a range of addresses, so we could remotely administer from more than one machine.
One item on my security wish list for this product is better reporting. The router will log attempts to access your network, but you must access the router through the browser to read the log; no provision to e-mail the alerts is provided.
On the strictly wireless side, the Belkin provides both 64- and 128-bit WEP encryption.
Setting up the Belkin Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router was a simple affair. The only thing that was out of the ordinary was that the default address was 192.168.2.1, instead of the more common 192.168.0.1.
No matter, though, because once I put a PC on that subnet, we were able to access the router through my browser, and I was on the Net in the time it took for the router to talk turkey with my DSL gateway...about three minutes.
Aside from the browser, you don't need any software to configure the router, even initially. It comes with some utilities on CD called NetSetup and NetShare, but these are little more than another nod to the neophyte, since they help you change the network settings on your computer.
Once you connect to the router, you proceed through a series of 17 different screens where you can very easily configure the myriad features of the router. After the initial configuration, you can access them individually via a menu on the left-hand margin. One important note: be sure to set up a password for router administration access; it doesn't come with one from the factory.
The configuration screens are generally very well laid out and easy to work with, but there are a few areas I found particularly noteworthy.
Many of the settings you can modify have an "Enable" check box associated with them.
In other words, if you want to turn off the feature (for example, a virtual server or a DMZ machine), you can simply clear the check box, and check the box again to re-enable the feature. This sure beats clearing the information out off all the fields (and then possibly re-entering it again later), which many routers require. The enable check box comes in very handy if you're not the "set it and forget it" type, and instead often make configuration changes on your network.
I tested the Belkin router with their Wireless PC Card NIC, and the performance was more or less in line with my expectations. I did notice a significant drop in performance in TCP and UDP throughput (about 50% and 30%, respectively) when 128-bit encryption was turned on, something that the Belkin's stand-alone access point did not suffer from.
This performance degradation is due to the fact that the router's CPU is more heavily loaded with routing and switching activities on top of providing the encryption, whereas the processor in the access point need not concern itself with such matters.
On the other hand, response time and streaming performance did not suffer with encryption enabled, and the unit certainly didn't "feel" any slower when it was.
In a market now flooded with dozens of competing products, the Belkin Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router distinguishes itself not only with its features and performance, but also with its excellent documentation and the fit and finish of the entire package. Notwithstanding a few minor niggles, if you're looking to get a wired/wireless network off the ground as quickly and easily as possible, I don't think you could do much better.
Model Number: F5D6230-3 - $179 street price
Pros: Brain-dead setup and administration; great documentation; Macintosh compatible
Cons: Considerable performance hit with 128-bit WEP; limited security alert features