Wireless Comes HomeThe latest home networking products promise to make linking your PCs together fast and affordable. But do they deliver? We try out 12 new kits and select a Best Buy.
You probably think you have it pretty good if you've got a DSL or cable line running into your house for high-speed Internet access. You may even be patting yourself on the back for hooking a couple of PCs together with ethernet cabling.
But that's yesterday's news. These days, true home-computing bliss means wireless networking. Pick up your notebook with a wireless PC Card installed, and you're free to read e-mail or surf the Web while lounging by the pool or reclining on the couch. Going wireless has advantages for desk-bound PCs, too: It relieves you of the chore of drilling holes and snaking ethernet wires through walls and floors. That's especially desirable if you're trying to network PCs that are scattered throughout the house. Envision trying to run cable between the work PC in your basement office and another machine in an upstairs bedroom.
Last year, wireless networking took a quantum leap with the release of 11-megabit-per-second products based on the 802.11b wireless standard (commonly known as Wi-Fi) defined by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. Previously, wireless adapters operated at 1 or 2 mbps (versus wired ethernet's 10 mbps, 100 mbps, or even 1000 mbps). Eleven mbps may seem like overkill for sharing an Internet connection or transferring a few files over a home network, but new applications like streaming video and shared MP3 audio consume all the bandwidth they can get.
The decision to go wireless is not an open-and-shut case. The effective range of the wireless signal is one issue to consider. Most manufacturers of 802.11b cards claim their products' range is up to about 100 feet indoors, in a typical wood-frame house. But the range can be much shorter in a concrete and steel building. As the wireless signal degrades, performance drops with it. Also, setting up and configuring the network can be difficult.
Setting up a peer-to-peer (computer-to-computer) Wi-Fi network will set you back $50 to $150 for each PCI Card adapter and $50 to $200 for each notebook PC Card adapter. A less expensive networking alternative--phone-line networking products based on the HomePNA 2 standard--costs roughly $40 for each adapter. Phone-line products are faster and often easier to install--provided you have a handy phone jack everywhere you want to put a PC. The flip side: You don't get the convenience of roaming with your notebook. In June last year we compared five phone-line products, and they've changed little since then (see "Home Wired Home").
If you want to share a broadband connection without a host computer acting as server, you can do so with a wireless or phone-line gateway, a product that bridges traffic on a network and routes it to systems equipped with adapters. A wireless access point costs $200 to $400. A comparable phone-line setup can run $300--$150 for an ethernet router, and another $150 for a phone-line bridge.
Finally, slightly less expensive products based on another wireless standard, HomeRF, also compete with those based on Wi-Fi. HomeRF is due for a speed boost this summer (see "Coming Soon: HomeRF 2").
For this review, we put 11 Wi-Fi networking products to the test by setting them up in two homes--a two-story, two-bedroom condominium, and a two-story wood-frame house. We also looked at a comparable phone-line setup using a new product from Netgear, to determine how performance differs between the two technologies. One vendor, 2Wire, offers a product capable of both Wi-Fi and HomePNA networking, and we tested both.
After setting up all the devices, measuring their performance, and examining whatever extras they offer, we gave Linksys's EtherFast Wireless Access Point our Best Buy for its easy installation, wealth of useful features, and affordable price. For beginners and those who don't need roaming capabilities, the Netgear solution could also be a good choice.
You've probably heard a number of terms bandied about in relation to home networking: hubs, bridges, routers, access points, gateways. Technically, these all refer to specific functions, which are often combined into one physical unit.
A hub typically has several ethernet ports that the various computers on your network can plug into, enabling them to communicate.
A bridge links local area networks, usually connecting sections of a larger network that would otherwise suffer from line length limits, or linking two different types of LANs. For example, the Netgear bridge in this review lets network traffic from computers on a phone-line network pass to systems on a separate ethernet network, and vice versa. We reviewed the Netgear bridge along with a Netgear ethernet router--a device that takes Internet traffic and routes it to one or more computers on your LAN, allowing you, for example, to share a Web connection.
A wireless access point combines router and bridging functions: It bridges network traffic, usually from ethernet to the airwaves, where it's routed to computers with wireless adapters. Finally, a gateway, while a fairly loose term these days, is generally understood to be a device that links a LAN to a wide area network, usually the Internet, and sometimes even includes a built-in broadband modem. All the products in this review are gateways.
As with wired networks, a wireless network includes adapters installed in or hooked to your PCs--PCI cards for desktops, PC Cards for notebooks, or USB adapters that connect to either.
The wireless products we looked at for this review fall into several groups. (For a complete list of products, see the Home Networking Products Features Comparison.) Taking the uncomplicated approach, those from Agere, SOHOware, and Xircom are no-frills access points that merely bridge your wireless network cards to a cabled ethernet network (or to the ethernet port that's in your cable or DSL modem). They also act as basic firewalls, since their Network Address Translation feature prevents outside machines from talking directly to any machine on your home network.
For more flexible network security, 3Com, Buffalo, D-Link, Farallon, Linksys, and MaxGate offer wireless access points with programmable firewalls--necessary if you want to run a Web server on your network, for example, or access Web services such as online gaming. Most of these more advanced units also include 4-port ethernet hubs, so you don't have to buy a separate hub if you have a few wired devices in addition to your wireless ones.
Cayman's DSL Gateway takes things a step further: As its name implies, it's an integrated gateway that bundles Wi-Fi wireless, wired ethernet, and a built-in DSL modem into one unit. And 2Wire's HomePortal combines all three networking technologies--Wi-Fi, wired HomePNA, and ethernet--in one handy box. The 2Wire product is an economical choice for those who want to combine phone-line and Wi-Fi networking.
Other products offer useful extras. The MaxGate unit, for example, has a parallel port to connect a printer, and so acts as a network print server. Linksys also makes a version of its wireless gateway with a print server, although we did not test it.
Becky Waring is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California, and Kalpana Narayanamurthi is an associate editor for PC World. Testing was performed by Robert James and Jeff Kuta of the PC World Test Center.
Hook Up and Get Going
Building a wireless network is basically the same for all these products, and the wiring is the easy part. However, getting the wireless adapters running and communicating with the access point, and then configuring the gateway for your Web connection, can be the most time-consuming part of the process.
To start, you first plug the ethernet cable from your broadband connection (DSL or cable modem) into the access point's WAN port. You then run and connect ethernet cables from one or more desktop computers or hubs into the access point's LAN ports.
Because of the range limitations of wireless, you need to consider the location of your access point carefully before installing it. If your DSL or cable modem is not already installed, you'll probably want to hook up the access point in a central location (not necessarily in the office or living room where your main PC is located) and be sure to have your broadband line installed nearby. This will minimize distances between the access point and your computers.
Once the wired connections are made, you can then install wireless adapters where needed, and then configure the gateway, usually via a Web interface. If you choose to place the access point in a location other than your office, you should remember to buy an extra wireless adapter for your main PC.
If you have a mixed Windows/Mac network, you'll probably want to stick with ethernet and Wi-Fi, since Apple's AirPort system is Wi-Fi compatible, and all current Macs have built-in ethernet support. Some of the gateways can be configured only with Windows software, but all support Macs as clients via ethernet or Wi-Fi cards.
The experience of installing these products ranged from sublimely simple to insufferably complicated--it's one reason we put heavy emphasis on a product's ease of installation when picking our Best Buy. In some cases we had our network up and running in under 30 minutes, but in other cases the job took hours that felt more like days.
The level of difficulty varies, but in general, setting up any home networking system is a task best handled by someone with some knowledge of the specific products involved. None of the packages reviewed here are plug-and-play devices. Thankfully, however, once you've got the network up and running, you can largely forget that the gateway is even there.
The hardest part with each installation was setting up the wireless connections. The documentation provided with most of the products was almost uniformly scanty or difficult to follow, or it simply didn't reflect reality. You must uninstall any previous routing software you may have installed, such as WinGate or Sygate. You also have to copy down all your IP address and ISP connection information from the Network control panel before you start. If you accidentally lose this, you could spend a lot of time on the phone with your ISP. All the products work with the three major IP addressing options: static IP address, PPP over ethernet, and DHCP (in which you get a new IP address from your service provider each time you log on).
Though all Wi-Fi cards are supposed to be compatible with any Wi-Fi access point, our tests indicate that making different brands work together can be hard to do, if only because you must understand networking terminology such as encryption levels (40-, 64- or 128-bit), channel numbers (Wi-Fi uses 1 of 11 channels), network name, and short RF preamble (our personal favorite for incomprehensibility).
The hands-down installation champ was the Linksys. The company makes both Wi-Fi PCI and PC Card adapters, and they can be installed easily and quickly. After hooking up the EtherFast access point/gateway to our DSL cable and installing the wireless adapters, we opened up the EtherFast's simple browser interface to enter our IP address and were online in a flash. The Linksys has both online and printed documentation that's clear and easy to understand. The manual even discusses such issues as how to determine when to use crossover or straight-through ethernet cables--a matter most of the units glossed over but which can stymie anyone short of seasoned network installers. And a full set of indicator lights on the Linksys's front panel simplifies troubleshooting.
Installation of Buffalo's AirStation and Cayman's DSL Gateway gave us the most trouble. With the Buffalo, we had to install three different pieces of software before configuration could even begin. We also had to adjust various Windows settings.
The Cayman's documentation is inadequate and confusing. It fails to explain the cryptic Web-configuration screens that look like programmer's tools. Figuring out that we had to change VCC1 (huh?) to one of eight different settings (with labels like Ether-IIC and PPOE-vcmux) was grueling even for our technical experts in the PC World Test Center.
Also, because Cayman doesn't make its own PC Cards or PCI cards, we had to use third-party wireless cards. Trying to match the two vendors' configurations settings was a daunting process, given the Cayman's thin documentation. (For those brands that sell gateways but don't offer wireless PCI boards or PC Cards, we used Agere Systems' Orinoco cards. Lucent Technologies, which spun off Agere, was one of the first vendors to introduce 802.11b products, and Agere cards were most likely to be compatible with others.) Some vendors make USB wireless adapters, as well. Such adapters are almost always much easier to install than PCI cards, but you'll have to contend with yet another box sitting next to your PC.
We encountered no major problems installing the 3Com, D-Link, Farallon, and MaxGate, thanks in part to simple Web interfaces for configuring wireless and Internet settings. All those vendors except MaxGate sell wireless adapter cards, thus ensuring easy compatibility.
The 2Wire, Agere, SOHOware, and Xircom units were almost as easy to set up. The Agere, SOHOware, and Xircom products don't have user-programmable firewalls and so don't require as much configuring as other Wi-Fi units.
With no wireless settings to configure, Netgear's USB-based HomePNA product was a cinch to install. In our setup, we simply plugged in a few cables and installed the drivers for the HomePNA-ethernet bridge into one of our PCs. We connected it to a second Netgear box, the RT314 Cable/DSL Router that served as the Internet router and firewall. As with the wireless products, we needed to add our IP address and other networking configuration information to connect to the Internet, but that task was relatively easy.
Speed: No Wireless Champs
Based on our tests transferring files, printing over the network, and connecting to the Internet, performance is not much of a consideration when picking one brand of wireless network over another. The average throughput rates of all the wireless products' are very close, at 2 to 3 mbps. (For a complete explanation of our tests and a summary of some of the test results, see this chart.)
By contrast, our HomePNA network delivered throughput of 7 to 9 mbps--close to its nominal capability of 10 mbps. Why the big difference over wireless? With wireless, signal strength and the distance from the access point are critical to throughput. The Wi-Fi products are designed to fall back to 5.5, 2, and 1 mbps speeds as you move progressively farther from the access point. Wireless also involves more overhead than wired networks, due to the constant need for error correction and resending of packets.
Wireless network performance can also degrade due to unexpected disconnections. Wireless is subject to interference from microwave ovens, cordless phones, and other electronics that share the 2.4-GHz industrial, scientific, and medical frequency band. Over the course of testing, connections inexplicably slowed down or even disappeared for a few seconds numerous times.
In spite of the performance hit, we'd still choose Wi-Fi over wired in a heartbeat for any portable. The convenience is too compelling, and the speed is adequate for most purposes. Just don't try to watch DVD videos over your network; clear DVD requires throughput ranging from about 4.7 to 9 mbps. We tried watching some videos, and got choppy, disagreeable results.
Users of portables should note that 5-volt PC Cards draw lots of power when used continuously, as modem cards do.
As for the performance of the Netgear and 2Wire HomePNA products, results were quite different. The Netgear raced ahead of the 2Wire, primarily because it used PCI cards in the desktops. The 2Wire used only USB adapters, which tend to produce slower throughput.
Those Not-So-Little Extras
The Linksys's clever design and extra features also distinguish it from the pack. Its four 10/100 ethernet ports eliminate the need for a separate hub in most home and small-business settings, and the unit has a modern, pleasing design. Combine all this with a moderate $289 price, and you have a great value.
With its heavy, painted-metal case, the D-Link unit has a distinctly utilitarian look, but it offers three ethernet ports, and at just $199--the lowest price of the group--it's a real bargain.
Near twins in design and software features, the Farallon and MaxGate units have just one 10/100 ethernet port and a slot for the Wi-Fi card--all the other models except the Cayman have the circuitry built in. However, both have a slot that gives you the flexibility to upgrade to next-generation cards.
Taking a minimalist approach, the SOHOware and Xircom units also come with just one ethernet port. They are basic access points, useful for adding wireless capability to your network, but forgo all extras such as firewalls. Limited to 40-bit encryption, they are also not the best choice if you are concerned about wireless security. They're priced in the same range as the full-featured units, and it's hard to recommend them.
The Agere gateway has just one ethernet port and no firewall or other higher-level networking capabilities, but, uniquely in this group, it includes a phone jack and built-in 56-kbps modem, so you can access the Web via a dial-up connection or via a broadband connection. That versatility makes it a good choice for homes that do not yet have cable or DSL, and for users who want a dial-up backup connection should the broadband link go down.
The better-equipped gateways (Buffalo, DLink, Farallon, Linksys, and MaxGate) let you designate one computer on the network as a Web server and set internal IP addresses for virtual servers. They also have VPN support, special settings for streaming video and networked games, and the ability to install firmware updates over the Web; and they allow you to access your network from outside the home.
The Mix-and-Match Network
It's important to note that your network can be a hybrid of wired and wireless. Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and HomePNA products are mostly compatible and relatively easy to hook together--especially if all the parts come from the same vendor. Combining wired and wireless can help reduce the overall cost of your home network while improving both its performance and its range.
For example, if you have two desktop computers in one room, plus a portable you want to take around the house, you can run a cheap, simple cabled ethernet connection between the two desktops and get just one wireless adapter for the portable. All the wireless products in this review can bridge between ethernet and wireless. If you have desktops in different rooms and conveniently placed phone jacks, you might instead want to install HomePNA boxes on the PCs and add a simple access point for the portable. If you want to share a printer among your computers, consider the MaxGate, which has a built-in print server.
We wouldn't hesitate to buy Wi-Fi, given its broad industry support and the numerous products available, but if you're going the wireless route--and can wait a bit--consider HomeRF 2, explained above. This second-generation technology promises some advantages, including lower prices and telephony capabilities.
With its programmable firewall, dual antennas, and easy installation--all for $289--the Linksys BEFW11S4 EtherFast Wireless Access Point stands head and shoulders above the rest and handily earns the Best Buy. Linksys also makes its own PCI and PC Card adapters to use with the gateway, making setup an even simpler task.
When the Morristown financial group, a New Jersey-based financial planning and services firm, started expanding five years ago, managing partner John Hyland faced a turning point. Adding new employees meant the company finally needed to invest in a networking system. Until then, the company had consisted of only six employees, and setting up a network had not been a priority. But with a growing workforce, sharing client and data management software by sneakernet was no longer practical.
After weighing several networking options, Hyland settled on a wireless solution, mainly because of the ease with which new users could be added. Using Agere Systems' Orinoco products, the company's network now connects 14 desktops and 4 laptops. The system, a peer-to-peer network, is hooked up to DSL, so all users have high-speed Internet access.
According to Hyland, wireless networking suits the firm well. "When we have meetings with clients, we can just take our laptops into our conference room and stay hooked up to the network," he says. Furthermore, when the company decided to relocate in August 1997, bringing the network along was as simple as unplugging and then replugging at the new location.
Hyland says the network has presented no major problems. If the company needs to add a new user to the network, or if minor troubleshooting is necessary, a part-time IS manager is on hand to take care of the new user's configuration and make fixes.
Hyland liked the setup so much, he hooked up an identical wireless network at home. "That way, I can take my laptop home, sit out in the backyard, and do work--if I want to," he says.
Is Wireless Security Full of Air Holes?
Sending data bits through the air adds a whole new dimension to the network security problem. Recently, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, managed to crack the Wi-Fi encryption protocols, which means that an extremely determined hacker may be able to tap into your wireless network. The Wi-Fi industry group, the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, is currently working to strengthen Wireless Equivalency Protocol encryption, but in the meantime, you can mitigate the threat in several ways.
The first line of defense is the same as for wired networks: Configure Windows File and Print sharing carefully with passwords, or turn them off; use a personal firewall such as Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm; and make sure your antivirus software is up-to-date. You should also secure your wireless network with a password.
Why use a personal firewall when many of the gateways in this review come with a programmable firewall? Because the firewalls in gateways can protect only against attacks coming over the Web, not against hackers who might tap directly into your local network using a wireless connection. In addition, personal firewalls can alert you to Trojan horses--malicious programs that hackers secretly install on your computer to send data back to them, thereby circumventing the gateway's firewall.
These wireless products also use encryption to scramble data before sending it over the airwaves; you should set the highest level of encryption your wireless cards support--some support 40-bit encryption, while others support 64- or 128-bit. Most products in this review use easily guessed default passwords (or none at all), and encryption is generally switched off by default. That's fine for initial setup, when you want to make sure everything's connected properly. But as soon as you're set up, reset your password and switch on encryption.
Once all the pieces are in place, you can sit back in your pool chair, surf the Web with your laptop, and enjoy the freedom of wireless, without the worries.
Coming Soon: HomeRF 2
With dozens of products shipping, you might think that Wi-Fi, or 802.11b, is the clear wireless networking winner. But HomeRF, another wireless standard that transmits over radio frequencies, may reemerge as a contender. The soon-to-be-released HomeRF 2 has heavy backers like Intel and Proxim, and the HomeRF governing body, the HomeRF Working Group, contends that version 2 will offer a number of advantages over 802.11b.
HomeRF 1.x operates at just 1.6 mbps, but version 2 will bump the speed up to 10 mbps--which is only 1 mbps shy of Wi-Fi. And speed isn't the only point of comparison. The HomeRF organization claims that version 2 will support voice, data, video, and multimedia streams, making it more suited to new home telephony and video applications than 802.11b is. Wi-Fi relies on Voice-over IP, a technology that allows voice calls to be made over the Internet, so calls must go through a computer at both ends. But HomeRF 2 should deliver voice conversations directly to a telephone handset, making it convenient when DSL providers start packaging phone service.
The HomeRF Working Group states that you should soon see Internet-connected HomeRF alarm clocks, radios, and other devices from vendors such as Simple Devices and Uniview. Also, HomeRF 1.x gateways and adapters are less expensive than Wi-Fi-based products. Access points are about $100 cheaper, and adapters run $25 to $50 less. HomeRF 2 products reportedly will ship with prices in the same range as the first generation's.
Advances aside, HomeRF has a lot of catching up to do if it hopes to take the lead from 802.11b. Apple, Dell, IBM, and Toshiba are already shipping portables with 802.11b support built in. And with a wide variety of access-point solutions available, 802.11b has proved to be the wireless system of choice in business and education. Some ISPs are even adapting it as a means of delivering broadband Internet services, rather than stringing wires into remote or hard-to-reach areas, such as small outlying communities.
The Wi-Fi camp also promises speed increases, up to 54 mbps. A 22-mbps version, 802.11e, should have products appearing by the end of the year, according to Wi-Fi proponents. While 22 mbps may be technically feasible at the 2.4-GHz band, it still requires FCC approval. (HomeRF is cleared to make the move to 20 mbps in 2002.) But 54 mbps will require a move to 5 GHz, which will prevent backward compatibility with older Wi-Fi products.
Home Networking Products Features Comparison
|Access Point/Gateway||Street price (4/1/01)||Wireless adapter for client, street price (4/1/01) PCIcard ||Wireless adapter for client, street price (4/1/01) PC Card ||Wireless adapter for client, street price (4/1/01) USB ||Wire ports WAN ||Wire ports LAN ||Wire ports Other ||Encryption level||Warranty (years), support (hours/days)||Comments |
|2Wire HomePortal 100W|
|$399||None||None||None||1||1, 10Base-T||USB, phone-line jack||64-bit||1, 24/7||A solid solution if you want wireless, phone-line, and ethernet all in one. Fairly simple installation; no programmable firewall.|
|3Com Home Wireless Gateway|
|$349||$69||$149 (64-bit encryption);|
$169 (128-bit encryption)
|$199||11||1, 10Base-T1||Phone-line jack for|
|64- or 128-bit||3, 24/7||Built-in 56-kbps modem useful for accessing Internet via dial-up connection. Explicit installation documentation helps networking novices.|
|Buffalo Technology WLAR-L11-L AirStation|
|$300||$41||$120||$179||1||4, 10/100||None||40-bit||2, 16/5||Complicated installation software and procedures mar otherwise capable unit. Comes with 4-port hub.|
|Cayman Systems DSL Gateway|
|$500||None||None||None||DSL jack2||4, 10Base-T||None||40- or 128-bit||1, 8/5||Difficult to install; no advanced firewall features. Only device here that offers built-in DSL modem, which can save money.|
|$199||$135||$99||$130||1||3, 10/100||Serial||40-bit||1, 12/5||Cheapest device here doesn't skimp on extra features, including a programmable firewall. Metal case gives it an industrial look.|
|Farallon NetLine Wireless Broadband Gateway|
|$299||$50||$149 (64-bit encryption);|
$1493 (128-bit encryption)
|None||1||1, 10/100||None||64- or 128-bit||1, 9.5/5||Fairly easy to install. PC Card slot permits upgrades to next-generation cards.|
|Best Buy Linksys BEFW11S4 EtherFast Wireless AP|
|$289||$49||$129||$149||1||4, 10/100||10/100 uplink4||40, 64-, or 128-bit||1, 24/7||Easy installation, a programmable firewall, and a wealth of features for a reasonable price; best choice for both novices and pros.|
|$279||None||None||None||1||1, 10/100||Parallel||None||1, 9/5||Easy-to-install unit includes a print server and a programmable firewall. Special online gaming support.|
|SOHOware NetBlaster II Hub|
|$250||$200||$150||None||None||1, 10/100||None||40-bit||1, 24/7||Useful for adding wireless capability, but omits programmable firewall and ethernet hub. Full line of cards and adapters available, but others do more for the same price.|
|Xircom Wireless Ethernet Access Point|
|$330||None||$180||None||None||1, 10/100||None||40-bit||Lifetime, 11/15||Expensive for a unit that doesn't include a programmable firewall or an ethernet hub and offers only 40-bit encryption.|
|Netgear Phoneline 10X PE102 and RT3145|
|$3486||$40||None||$149||None||1, 10/100||Phone-line jack||None||5,7 24/7||Trouble-free setup makes this a good choice for networking beginners. Separate router box simplifies use in combination with wireless products.|