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The User Experience
Wi-Fi vendors are working hard to make networking products easier to use. Of the products in this roundup, the Linksys offered the best combination of easy setup, documentation, and tech support policies--but no competitor fell far short.
Installation routines varied. The Belkin, Linksys, and Netgear RangeMax routers, for example, come with wizards that attempt to detect your existing broadband modem settings to save you the trouble of inputting them manually. In our informal tests, however, none worked perfectly. The Linksys automated setup was designed for people who start out with a single PC and a broadband modem. It worked fine for us; but if you're upgrading from an older router, it doesn't help at all: You must manually change the router's firmware settings via the browser interface.
In our hands-on tests, the Belkin router failed to identify our fixed IP address setting. The Netgear RangeMax installation routine took an unusually long time--and when it wrapped up, we discovered that it had somehow shut down Windows' Wireless Zero Config (WZC) software, which manages Wi-Fi connectivity. Without WZC, we couldn't even scan for available wireless networks, much less connect to one. Netgear attributes our experience to a bug that it says it has since fixed.
The remaining products had browser-based setup wizards, which require you to manually enter the relevant broadband settings--user IDs and passwords, equipment MAC IDs, fixed IP addresses, and whatever else your ISP requires for authentication. The wizards all worked flawlessly in our hands-on tests--but that's a lot of information to input. If you have a home network or are thinking about getting one someday, write down all of your broadband configuration information (you can get it from your broadband provider) in a document and keep it handy for the next time you want to upgrade your network equipment.
Once they were set up, the products worked similarly, although their physical design varies. The Netgear Pre-N router is boxy, corporate-looking, and somewhat fragile--when the product fell a foot or so from a sofa to the floor, two of its three antennas popped out of the case. The Linksys router is futuristic and silvery. The Netgear RangeMax has no external antennas; its seven internal antennas are represented by a small circle of blue LEDs that shine through the router's case. The lights flicker and swirl as the antennas reconfigure to suit the environment. Some people may like this effect; others won't.
Most of the mimo routers we tested provide the same basic hardware package: All have four switched ethernet ports plus a wide-area network port for the cable that connects to your cable or DSL broadband modem. All have a reset button that returns the router settings to factory-default values. And all have an ethernet cable to use during setup. The one unusual extra was the U.S. Robotics router's built-in USB printer server; this feature allows devices on the network to print to a USB printer.
Accompanying software bundles are minimal and consist primarily of trial versions of security and filtering software.
For the most part, firmware features are excellent. All of the units we tested offer built-in, configurable firewalls, though we recommend installing an additional software firewall for more security. In addition, they all support port-forwarding (for running a Web server on your network) and remote management (for changing your network settings when you're away from your home). All have filters that block unwanted visitors based on hardware identifiers and block Web sites based on content or URL, and all support pass-through VPN connections. Only the U.S. Robotics line supports WPA2, the latest security technology (see "Wi-Fi Security Options").
The dearth of extras in most products is not a deal-breaker. If you're unhappy with your wireless network's range and file transfer speeds, the new Wi-Fi may be a true problem-solver.
An affordable alternative to an expensive MIMO router is a range-extending PC Card to use in place of your notebook's built-in Wi-Fi card on an 802.11b or g network. We looked at the latest version of one of the best: Hawking Technology's HWC54D Hi-Gain Wireless-G Laptop Card.
Like its predecessor, which we tested last spring (see "Stretching Wi-Fi"), the HWC54D uses a pop-up directional antenna to extend the range for a standard 802.11g connection: I connected to the Belkin Wireless Pre-N router from a good 90 feet (and several walls) away--that's 30 to 40 feet beyond the maximum distance at which a standard 802.11g card could function. The new card adds support for the WPA security protocol plus LED lights (similar to those in Hawking's Wi-Fi finder) to show signal strength. For $45, it's a great way to make the most of your existing Wi-Fi router.
Belkin F5D8230-4 Wireless Pre-N Broadband Router
D-Link Super G MIMO Wireless Router
Linksys by Cisco Wireless-G Broadband Router with SRX - WRT54GX
Netgear Pre-N Wireless Router
Netgear WPN824 RangeMax Wireless Router
US Robotics Wireless MAXg Router with integrated USB Print Server