"Modem Envy" causes loving family members to engage in impromptu wrestling matches for control of the one home computer connected to a DSL or cable modem.
With four computers, a wife, and 12- and 14-year-old daughters, Scott Thompson of Houston, Tex., knew that keeping everyone happy with their Internet access was going to be a challenge. He describes one daughter as a "chat-a-holic," and says the other "lives on Napster," downloading digital music with abandon. "It's common that there are three [computers] on line at once," he said.
Cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) modems and satellite boxes have brought campus and corporate office classes Internet-access speed to millions of households. Instead of poking along with a 56kbps modem, these new broadband modems allow home users to access the Web up to 50 times faster.
Broadband connections provide enough bandwidth for more than one person to access the Internet. However, most setups allow for only one computer to be online at a time. Fortunately, there are a number of products that can connect more than one computer to a broadband modem without adding a penny to subscription costs.
When accessing the Internet, the connection is assigned a unique external IP address that is visible to the rest of the Internet. With one IP address to go around, a normal broadband setup allows only one computer to access the Internet at a time. However, residential gateways have two key features that get around this limitation: Network Address Translation (NAT) and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP).
Using DHCP, residential gateways assign each computer on a local network a unique internal IP address that is not visible on the Internet. The NAT feature then translates Internet traffic coming from these internal IP addresses into an external IP address. By keeping track of which data requests came from which computer, all networked computers can share a single external IP address and surf the Web at the same time.
The residential gateways reviewed here offer four ways to extend the reach of a DSL or cable modem. They include Proxim Inc.'s $170 Farallon NetLINE Broadband Gateway, a simple gateway; SOHOware Inc.'s $180 Broadband Internet Gateway NBG600, a gateway with a four-port hub; Agere Systems' $449 ORiNOCO Residential Gateway Start-Up Kit, a wireless gateway system; and 2Wire Inc.'s $199 HomePortal 100, a gateway with phoneline networking support.
How We Tested
All units were tested on a generic 350MHz Pentium II PC with 128MB of SDRAM and an IBM WorkPad Z50 Windows CE-based mini-notebook. While the WorkPad Z50 is a different animal than a Windows 98x-based notebook, it does support Ethernet and DHCP, making it usable for this review.
All of these gateways assume that a cable or DSL modem connects to a computer via an Ethernet connection. This is an important limitation since many DSL providers outfit their customers with USB DSL modems that, of course, have no Ethernet port. For this test Efficient Networks loaned us an Alcatel 5260 Ethernet DSL modem, a popular model used or supported by many DSL providers. The test PC used a SIIG 10/100 Mbps PCI Ethernet adapter.
For a simpler way to connect computers scattered around a home to a single broadband connection, 2Wire's $199 HomePortal 100 is good, since it offers a variety of connectivity options. Not only does it provide USB and Ethernet ports, but it also supports phone-line networking, allowing users to connect devices to the network from any phone jack.
The unit, which has a funky X-like shape, is easy to configure once the necessary support software is installed. Enter the unit's unique key code into the setup software, and the next few screens gather information about the broadband setup and automatically configure the unit.
The HomePortal 100 can connect to a PC via 10Mbps Ethernet, USB (Windows PC only), phone-line networking, or via an Ethernet hub. All methods worked well in testing. The Ethernet port was able to use NAT and DHCP to automatically configure the test PC and notebook.
Aside from a USB connection meant for a nearby PC, the unit also has two USB ports marked "peripherals," apparently for USB peripherals such as scanners and printers. The manual notes that these ports are not yet enabled and directs users to the 2Wire Web site (www.2wire.com) for updates on when and how these ports will be activated.
The Home Portal 100 supports the 10Mbps Home Phoneline Networking (HomePNA) standard. Once the HomePortal 100 is connected to a phone line, users can add devices to the network by plugging an adapter into any phone jack and then connecting a device to the adapter.
The two 2Wire PC Port 10Mbps USB phoneline networking adapters we received proved easy to install and configure. The HomePortal 100 instantly recognized and connected to distant peripherals on our test network. Upgrading the unit is easy thanks to an automatic software wizard.
With one DSL modem for four people, Thompson decided to solve his technology dilemma with 2Wire Inc.'s Home Portal 100, a residential gateway that uses the existing home phone lines and allows all four computers access the DSL modem at once. For Thompson, the unit's phoneline networking support meant not having to string network cabling through his home. "The [HomePortal] box seemed like a really great solution," he said.
With a USB DSL modem instead of an Ethernet version, 2Wire offers the $399 HomePortal 1500, which includes a built-in DSL modem. 2Wire recently announced new wireless products that support the IEEE wi-fi standard for 10-11MBps wireless networking. The $399 HomePortal 100W and $599 HomePortal 1500W add wireless communications to the features of the HomePortal 100 and HomePortal 1500, respectively.
Broadband Internet Gateway NBG600
SOHOware's $179 Broadband Internet Gateway (BIG) offers a quick and fairly painless way to attach additional computers to any broadband connection. Adding computers, in most cases, is as easy as plugging them in.
The unit, about the size of an old-style desktop modem, combines a router with a four-port Ethernet hub. One of the four ports can be reconfigured as an uplink port to allow for further network expansion by adding another hub.
The Broadband Internet Gateway requires no driver software. Access the unit's password-protected configuration menu by entering its default IP address into a Web browser. A Parental Control menu specifies the Web sites that can be accessed, but this control always allows .org, .edu, and .gov domains to be visited. A log keeps track of Web sites visited.
The unit includes a built-in firewall, but a Gaming Zone feature allows one computer unlimited access to the Internet to use for online games, videoconferencing, or other tasks that have problems with firewalls. PPPoE is supported and worked flawlessly with our DSL connection. Its setup wasn't explained in the printed manual, but was adequately covered on line.
The unit supports NAT and DHCP but failed in its attempt to automatically configure our test notebook's Ethernet adapter. It did work flawlessly with our test PC and worked with the notebook after an IP address was manually assigned to its Ethernet adapter. Note that the BIG supports 10Mbps or 10/100Mb auto-sensing Ethernet networks but operates at 10Mbps.
SOHOware recently introduced two new products, the NetBlaster II, an 11Mbps wireless hub which supports the IEEE 802.11b wireless standard, and the BroadGuard, a secure cable/DSL router. More information on new products and on how to set up the BIG with a particular DSL or cable modem service is on SOHOware's Web site (www. sohoware.com).
NetLINE Broadband Gateway
Proxim's $170 Farallon NetLINE Broadband Gateway is the smallest and simplest device in this roundup and is a means of adding a broadband Internet connection to an existing Ethernet network. It has just two ports: A broadband port for a line from a DSL or cable modem and a local port to connect with an Ethernet hub. Computers that can access the broadband connection may be added from the hub as well.
The NetLINE Broadband Gateway requires no drivers, since it's configured by entering its default IP address into a Web browser. The configuration menu sets a password, enables or disables NAT and DHCP and sets limits on the type of Internet data that is allowed to pass through it. The NetLINE can adapt itself to a cable or DSL modem via DHCP and also supports PPPoE.
An "exposed computer" setting allows one computer on a network to bypass the unit's firewall in order to play online games, videoconference, or use other services. A computer can be directly connected to the unit's local port but it needs a crossover cable instead of a standard straight-through Ethernet cable. Two DIP switches restore factory default settings should the NetLINE's configuration become corrupted.
Proxim recently announced the $399 Farallon NetLINE Wireless Broadband Gateway, a wireless gateway that supports the popular 802.11b standard for 11Mbps wireless networking. The company also offers the compatible Farallon SkyLINE wireless PC Card and PCI card ($239 together).
Despite its simple outside appearance, the unit is highly configurable. Users can turn off NAT and DHCP and assign IP addresses to computers manually. In testing, the unit worked well, automatically configuring our test PC as well as our notebook.
ORiNOCO Residential Gateway
If surfing the Internet from the backyard sounds alluring, sign up for Agere Systems' $449 ORiNOCO Residential Gateway Start-Up Kit. The system uses the popular IEEE wi-fi wireless standard to distribute a broadband or a modem connection wirelessly at up to 11Mbps.
The Residential Gateway Start-Up Kit comes with the sleek-looking RG-1000 base station ($349 alone) and the Silver wireless PC Card ($149 alone). The rear of the base unit, which can be wall-mounted, includes an Ethernet port for a cable or DSL modem, a power jack, and a phone jack for its built-in 56Kbps modem. Front-panel LEDs monitor power as well as wireless, Ethernet, and modem data traffic.
The base unit has a unique identification code that must be used as the "network name" on wireless devices attempting to connect with it. New wireless connections are automatically configured via DHCP. Shared peripherals on networked computers can be accessed via the ORiNOCO wireless network.
The ORiNOCO Silver PC Card supports 64-bit data encryption and comes with drivers for various operating systems. Available separately is the $169 ORiNOCO Gold wireless PC card, which supports 128-bit encryption. The Silver PC Card's Windows CE driver worked perfectly with our test notebook. The notebook immediately recognized the wireless network once it was configured with the proper name. Up to 30 people can use the system at once.
With the base unit placed at the extreme end of the most distant bedroom, a reviewer was able to walk a notebook around a three-bedroom apartment without losing the wireless connection, despite obstacles such as walls and appliances. The manual claims a maximum range of 525 feet at 11Mbps and 1,750 feet at 1Mbps. A status bar on the notebook keeps track of the quality of the wireless connection.
Last year Lucent Technologies acquired Agere, a Texas-based company specializing in programmable network processor technology. In December 2000, Lucent spun off its Microelectronics Group and adopted the name Agere Systems, which now handles ORiNOCO products. Avaya Inc. also markets ORiNOCO products. Many notebook and PC manufacturers carry wireless products built by Agere Systems under their own brand names.
All units tested worked as advertised. We were able to surf the Web and perform other Internet-related activities from multiple computers -- usually with no discernible drop-off in access speed. Proxim's Farallon NetLINE Broadband Gateway and SOHOware Inc.'s Broadband Internet Gateway NBG600 require no drivers and thus were very easy to configure.
Setting up the wireless Agere Systems ORiNOCO Residential Gateway required more work since drivers need to be loaded on the notebook. The 2Wire HomePortal 100 offers a wizard that speeds the installation of its support software, but a phone-line networking adapter and its necessary drivers are required for each computer added to the network.
On balance, the 2Wire HomePortal was the most versatile gateway reviewed. Even the cost of a phoneline adapter for each computer doesn't make the total cost of networking unreasonable. Note that any phoneline-networking adapter that complies with the Home Phoneline Networking (HomePNA) standard will work.
Since some computers, including some of Compaq Computer's Presario models, come with phoneline networking adapters preinstalled, the HomePortal 100 is an easy way to start sharing a broadband connection.
If running Ethernet cabling throughout the house is OK, SOHOware's Broadband Internet Gateway NBG600 is extremely easy to use. Since it supports DHCP, most of the headaches often acquired in trying to configure an Ethernet network are eliminated.
The Agere Systems ORiNOCO Residential Gateway performed surprisingly well, even when the notebook was used while walking around. However, it loses access speed the farther it moves from the wireless base station. Finally, for home computers that are already networked, the Proxim Farallon NetLINE Broadband Gateway will quickly and painlessly add a broadband connection to any network.
With these and many other devices to choose from, there's virtually no reason to install multiple broadband connections in your home. The money you save may be your own.