One of the happiest (computer-related) moments in my life was the day Bredbandsbolaget turned on our broadband connection a few months ago. Up until then I had used an ISDN line with phone charges reaching around 100$/month and a not-too-stellar download speed. Suddenly we had a true 10 MBit/s LAN connection right in our apartment! This was also the moment when I realized I needed to start learning more about networking since the broadband jack was situated at our front door and the computer sat several rooms away. While the 15 m grey RJ45 cable was doing its job fine there were a few problems with this setup:
- Cable – Regardless if you can put the cables inside the walls or have to draw them outside along the roof or the floor, drawing cables around the house is an inconvenience.
- No flexibility – Our main computer sits in the same spot all the time, but I also have a laptop from work that I would like to connect to the broadband. With a wired network you must have cables going through the apartment if you want some flexibility.
The most important gripe of the above, of course, was the lack of flexibility. This is why I turned towards WLAN. Originally something you would think as only useful in the office, WLAN has moved in to being big business in homes.
WLAN, of course, isn’t perfect. I also had some worries when looking into it as a solution:
- Performance. Sure, it’s rated 11 Mbit/s but we all know that is theoretical. How much speed would I lose from my 10 Mbit/s connection? How would it react in our apartment?
- Security. Having your stuff flying around in the ether around you could be considered insecure.
- Ease-of-setup. I’m not exactly a wiz-kid when it comes to basic networking and the idea of having to trying to set up and administer a WLAN is a bit daunting.
- Price. Would it be worth the extra cash to get some extra flexibility?
Fortunately, Belkin stepped in and made the last point moot at the moment. They kindly supplied me with a WLAN Router, 2 PCMIA WLAN cards, 1 USB WLAN adapter as well as a PCI adapter that allows you to use one WLAN PCMIA card in your stationary computer. This review aims to see if those worries I had were warranted and if the added flexibility is worth the cost.
Before we go into the actual review let’s take a look at what WLAN really is:
There are a lot of different wireless standards out right now. We have everything from 802.11b, 802.11g and HomeRF to something that I feel proud about (hey, it’s originally a Swedish standard from Ericsson!), Bluetooth. The Belkin products are all based on the protocol 802.11b, also called WiFI (Wireless Fidelity), and I won’t talk about the others here but with one exception, 802.11a. More on that later, though.
802.11b came out in 1999 and supports speeds up to 11 Mbit/s. However, as we will see, this is a very theoretical value and as the signal gets weaker the speed goes down. The range of 802.11b is around 30-100 m inside and further outside. 802.11b uses the 2.54 GHz frequency and uses a method called DSSS (Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum). Nope – I won’t even try to explain that . Since it uses this band, 802.11b can be disturbed somewhat by microwave ovens as well as cordless phones. However, as you will see later, I didn’t notice any problems myself in this area.
So, what is 802.11a? Even though a comes before ‘b’, 802.11a actually is the sucessor to 802.11b. Offering up to 54 Mbit/s, it should definitely be welcome by those needing the throughput. It uses the 5 GHz band which has posed a problem here in Europe since that band is used for some other applications. I did, however, read that they have solved the problem which should mean we soon will start seing products using 802.11a.
Having your data flowing through the air doesn’t really sound that secure, does it? There are a few ways you can at least try to make your connection secure:
- Set up the Router to only accept connections from specific MAC addresses. Every network adapter has a MAC address and it is easy for you to set up so the router just accepts connections from this adapter.
- Use WEP encryption on your data. Belkin, as does most new WLAN equipment, supports 128 bit WEP. Some older networks only have support for 40/64 bit (the same) and you definitely should not settle for anything less than 128 bit.
OK, now your connection is completely secure. Or is it? Well, unfortunately not. Not long ago some security experts found a serious flaw in WEP. A paper was published outlining the flaw and not long after that a tool, AirSnort, appeared which with ‘just’ between 100Mb-1 Gb of data can determine your WEP key. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there are other tools, like NetSnort, which can pick up the SSID of your WLAN as well as any MAC addresses in the WLAN. Depressing? Well, if you are a big company that has built up a WLAN I guess you should be a bit worried. However, as a private user I must admit I’m not that worried. Simply put – how many people would be interested enough in my data so that they would come around to my place, sit with a laptop with Linux on it and sniff my data?
If you are concerned with security, you should set up a VPN as well as PNG-encrypt your e-mail. So far that’s the only way to be completely ‘safe’ when running a WLAN. I did recently read an article that claims that the IEEF is working on adding more security to 802.11b. However – the article was written in September 2001 and I’ve yet seen anything more on it so ..
Ok, enough with the theory, let’s concentrate on the actual products.
Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router – part no F5D6230-3
This is the base of the whole WLAN network. It’s a gateway router which not only allows you to connect to the WLAN but also has a 3-port 10/100Base-Tx Ethernet switch built in to allow you to add a link to a wired network. The Router offers NAT firewall to protect your network from outside intrusions by hackers, and an IP Sec pass-through for remote access through Virtual Private Networking (VPN). If you need to play games and are having a problem with the firewall you can use the DMZ to temporarily put a computer outside the firewall. As expected, a DHCP server is built in so you don’t have to do anything on your machine more than let it pick up everything from the DHCP server.
The router comes with a manual and a CD that contains software which makes it easy to set up a computer that is connected to the router. The router itself needs no drivers/software and it is administered through a web interface. This means that the router is completely platform-independent.
The manual is a beauty. If I was worried about setting up the router before I got it, one look at the manual made me feel a lot better. There are instructions for everyone, from the newbie to the more advanced user, about how to set up the router. The only real complaint I have about the manual is that it forgets to tell us about some of the more advanced features and how to use them. More about that later.
Wireless USB-network adapter – part no. F5D6050
Not everyone want to use/can use a PCMIA-card or a PCI card when connecting to a LAN/WLAN. Belkin has a Wireless USB adapter´that might be the answer. The adapter works on all Windows versions including XP (with the latest drivers). Included with the adapter is a setup utility that also helps you keep an eye on the connection. A similarly good manual is enclosed with the adapter as with the router. Last, but not least, it comes with a 6 foot USB cable.
Wireless Notebook Network card – part no. F5D6020
For the laptop Belkin has a PC Card adapter. As with the USB adapter this should connect to any 802.11b-compliant wireless device. The adapter supports both 64 bit and 128 bit WEP encryption and comes with a setup utility that quickly allows you to set up the card and connect to the WLAN. As with the other devices, this one comes with an excellent manual. It should be noted that there aren’t any drivers for XP; however, I used the Win2000 drivers without a problem.
Wireless Desktop PCI Network Adapter – part no. F5D6000
This is a PCI adapter that allows you use the Wireless Notebook Network card (F4D6020) in a stationary PC. The adapter comes with a manual and a CD containing drivers for the PCI card plus setup utilities. The manual actually is the same as for the Notebook Network card and thus includes info about how to set up the WLAN with a Notebook Card also.
To get a feel how the WLAN would work in different conditions, I chose to set it up at home and at my parent’s place. At home I have 10 MBit/s LAN with a dynamic IP. The apartment is small but some of the walls are concrete. My parent’s house has ADSL with a download speed of max 2.5 MBit/s and transfer speed of max 750 KBit/s. They have been assigned an IP from their ISP and have to configure 2 DNS servers in the network setup.
Setting up the router was extremely easy. First, I connected the network cable to the WLAN jack in the router and then to the jack in the wall. The lights on the router immediately started to shine indicating it was ready for action. Since it is recommended to place the router high to maximize range of the antennas, I put it on top of a shelf.
Next step was to install the USB adapter in my stationary computer. As expected this was real easy, especially since I had downloaded the XP drivers. As soon as this was done I installed the configuration utility to set up the WLAN. WinXP does include support for WLAN but every source I’ve read suggests that you should use the supplied configuration utility instead. Here I experienced a small problem which could as easily be attributed to WinXP as to the adapter. The WLAN popped up as a network connection but I had no connection. It took me a while to realize that the connection actually wasn’t active – I had to activate it. After that I got a connection to the router.
I expected to get a good signal to the USB adapter since I could place it away from the computer, closer to the router. I also could move the antennas to ‘maximize’ the reception. However, I had big problems getting a strong signal. Most of the time the signal and link strength was around 20-30%, which is considered low. Even more worrying was that I often got a split second where the connection was gone. Some new drivers that were released a few weeks ago fixed the reception part. Now I get about 60% signal, but the split second loss of connection happens from time to time. Luckily, I’ve yet to notice anything while online gaming.
|The config utility detected my WLAN without me having to do anything||I guess someone has a use for these statistics|
|See what access points are available in your area.||Set up the WEP encryption|
|Hmm, unfortunately there was no real explanation for these settings.|
After I had a connection to the WLAN I actually noticed that not only did I have a connection to the router – I had a connection to the Internet also. Nice! Since I have a dynamic IP plus get everything from a DHCP server at Brebandsbolaget I actually didn’t have to set up anything in the router to get Internet access. At this time I ventured into the web-based setup for the router. Here follows some screenshots and explanations as to what the screens do.
|The first screen you see after logging in. Gives you an overview of all settings|
|Select a connections type. You can choose between Dynamic IP, Static IP and PPP over Ethernet.|
|If you chose PPP over Ethernet in the previous screen this is the screen to enter your details|
|Some ISP’s records the MAC address of your network card and only let you connect using that adapter. By cloning the address you ‘fool’ the ISP and can use the router.|
|If you need to set up DNS servers, this is the screen to do it|
|Want to know if someone tries to hack in?|
|A log of ‘instrusions’. In my case only my own.|
|Okey dokey. The first screen of a few which isn’t really explained in the manuals. Turns out I needed to open up port 21 and ‘connect’ it to port 21 on my internal IP to get my FTP server to work.|
|‘Special Application Ports’ … once again a screen that is not explained at all in the manual. However – I did some reading @ http://www.practicallynetworked.com and kind of think I understand it … .|
|Don’t want that laptop to have access to the net during nights? Want to restrict port 21 on your son’s computer (not that it stop him as he uses another port for the ftp )? Use this screen.|
|Set up the range of internal IP addresses as well as turn on/off the built-in DHCP server.|
|NAT makes your internal IP invisible on the Intranet.|
|You can manage the router from outside. Not recommended, though.|
|Want to restrict access to the router to a couple of specified network adapters? Not a problem!|
|Set up the channel as well as the SSID of your WLAN. These are the default values.|
|Set up WEP encryption. Highly recommended.|
As I said earlier, the biggest problem I have with the configuration is the fact that the manual forgets to tell you how those more advanced settings work. I had to ask around as well as search the net on how to set up my ftp server so people ouside could access it. I think Belkin should include some examples in the manual on setting up these things.
After I had set the network up I really didn’t need to do much more. Plugging in a PCMIA card in my laptop quickly made me able to access the WLAN from the laptop with just a quick driver install. Moving aorund with the laptop in the apartment I had >70% signal strength almost everywhere. In fact, sitting in the same room I got >90% signal strength.
My Parents House
My parent’s house is from the end of the 70′s (1979 to be exact). It has 2 floors and the router was placed on the botton floor. The first computer is several rooms away on the same floor while the other computer, a laptop, is situated on the top floor. Preferably on the couch in front of the TV .
The difference between my parent’s setup and mine is that they have a static IP as well as having to set up 2 DNS servers. However, it took me less than 5 minutes to enter the numbers, once again thanks to the excellent manual, and having the WLAN working fine. The computer on the same floor as the router used the USB adapter and got around 60% signal strength while the laptop, using a PCMIA-card, on the top floor reached around 60-70% signal strength. Just for fun I took that computer across the street to my sister’s house, maybe 50-60 meters away, but I couldn’t get any signal at all there.
OK, enough talk about setting up the WLAN. How about the performance of the WLAN? To test the performance of it I used several methods.
- Pure subjective opinion. Does it feel as fast as with a wired connection?
- Performance using Direct Connect (a file sharing service) against other users using either another broadband connection (ADSL mostly) or the same broadband connection (10 Mbit/s from Bredbandsbolaget).
- Performance using TPTest 2.01. This is a program you can find at http://www.tptest.konsumentverket.se/. It lets you test your connection against several different servers in Sweden. It tests both UDP as well as TCP/IP – both transmit and receive.
- Uploading a 40 Mb file to www.bjorn3d.com server
- Playing WWII Online as well as MOHAA online.
My normal connection is, as I’ve said, 10 Mbit/s. However, it is rare that I reach this speed. Downloading directly from the net has never given me higher speeds than around 400 KB/s (4 Mbit/s). Using a program like Direct Connect and getting files from other Bredbandsbolag users (ok, I admit it – I’ve downloaded every “Enterprise” episode since it will take ages for it to come here) I both can and have reached 10 Mbit/s.
First, I started uploading and downloading a 40 Mb file to www.bjorn3d.com. The server is situated here in Sweden so I should have a reasonably good connection.
LAN (10 MBit/s)
upload: 369.2 kb/s
download: 579.5 Kb/s
WLAN – USB adapter
upload: 145 Kb/s, 190 Kb/s, 278 Kb/s
download: 211 kb/s, 222 Kb/s, 295 Kb/s
WLAN – PC Card Laptop
upload: 326 Kb/s, 316 Kb/s
download: 295 Kb/s, 282 Kb/s
WLAN . PC Card in stationary computer
u/l Laptop non:316 Kb/s
u/l Laptop 68bit:236 Kb/s
u/l Laptop 128bit: 236 Kb/s
u/l stat. PCcard 128bit: 221 Kb/s
d/l Laptop non: 282 Kb/s
d/l Laptop 68bit: 261 Kb/s
d/l Laptop 128bit: 261 Kb/s
d/l stat. PCcard 128bit: 262 Kb/s
PCI + PCMIA card:
Around 60-70% QUality
UDP: Send – 2.9 Mbps, Receive: 4.06 Mbps
TCP: Send – 1.28 MBps, Receive: 3 MBps
USB on Laptop with newest drivers
Around 90% Quality
UDP: Send – 3.5 Mbps, Receive: 3.5 Mbps
TCP: Send – 700 kBps, Receive: 3.0 MBps
My Parent’s house
My expectations at my parent’s house was that they wouldn’t lose any speed. 2.5 Mbit/s download and 750 kbit/s send speed shouldn’t be impossible to hit. So was it? Actually, no. In fact, running TPTest 2 continually hit 2.45 Mbit/s send. Sending data hit 750 kbit/s also just as expected. Downloading a 40 Mb file from my server took 3 minutes and 43 seconds, around 180 KB/s.
The bad stuff
Nothing is perfect and this WLAN was no exception. I did have some initial problems with the USB adapter. At first I couldn’t get it to switch to 128 bit WEP, only 64 bit. This was unfortunate since I had set the router @ 128 bit WEP and now couldn’t connect to it. With the new drivers this problem went away.
The PCMIA card lost connection after my laptop went into power save mode and could only be awakened by removing it and inserting it again.
Recently I have had some problems with the WLAN losing connection completely. It went so far that I actually put back my wired connection but while writing this review I switched back and so far it has worked like a charm. Note: I’ve had it running without any problems both here and at my parent’s house for at least 1 1/2 month so the recent days problems are the exception.
Last, but not least, the USB adapter (or the Belkin software) was responsible for me almost throwing a friend’s computer out of the window. While installing her new computer and using the WLAN to get all the WinXP (and later Win98SE and Win2k) updates I had big problems with the computer crashing everytime I connected to her ISP via modem. After a lot of searching I noticed everything worked when I was connected to the WLAN but as soon as I removed the USB adapter and no longer had a connection the problem came back. Uninstalling the WLAN on her computer fixed the problem and she can now connect to her ISP via modem. I tried a modem on my own machine and had the same problem. It looks like there is a conflict somewhere between the Belkin software and the modem (I tried 3 different modems).
The good stuff
I love the WLAN. The flexibility it offers is amazing. Just open up your laptop and sit down on the sofa (or in bed or at the kitchen table, it doesn’t matter). I get a great connection wherever I go. My parents are equally happy about it. In fact, the only thing they weren’t that happy about was when I took it away from them again. In their house the flexibility was even more appreciated since they had the computers on 2 separate floors.
I wish setting stuff up would be as simple as with this WLAN. Belkin has done an excellent job making it easy even for the networking novice.
Will I keep the WLAN running for my main computer? No, I won’t. As soon as I get the white network cable I ordered, a cable will be placed between my main computer and the router. Losing almost 60% of the speed (and I do get full 10 Mbit/s when using Direct Connect) is a bit too much for me to trade for some flexibility. However, for my laptop the router will stay because on that machine I don’t really need the full speed. This means I can get the best of both worlds by using both a cable and a WLAN connection.
If you have broadband less than 5 Mbit/s, then I definitely recommend setting up a WLAN. The added flexibility with no real loss of speed should make it a no brainer unless you are really worried about security.
I’ve now used the Belkin router and adapters for a few months and I actually realized a few days ago that I almost had forgotten I had a router between me and the Internet. I play a lot of online games with WWII Online currently the main game and I’ve yet to run into any problems with the router/firewall interfering with my gaming.
If you are considering a WLAN you can’t go wrong with Belkin’s stuff. So far everything I’ve tried from them have been good quality and these WLAN products are no exception.
FInal score: 8/10