In spite of the rash of announcements for Draft N networking equipment earlier this year, actual hardware has been slow to surface. Worse, the performance of the products that have been released--from Linksys and Netgear--has fallen short of expectations. Belkin's Pre-N router is still one of our favorites for its impressive intersection of price and performance, so we had high hopes for the company's Draft N product, the Belkin N1 wireless router (and the companion wireless notebook adapter). Though it was slightly speedier than the other two Draft N routers we've tested, it's still a ways off from delivering on the promise of Draft N.
The Belkin N1 router differs from either Linksys's or Netgear's competing Draft N products by not offering a single-mode operation. Instead, the only option is a mixed n/g/b mode. Generally, single-mode operation offers better performance, because in mixed-mode, the older-generation products (such as 802.11b clients, which can sustain a slower throughput than 11g or pre-11n clients) become a network bottleneck. This discrepancy makes direct performance comparisons impossible, but the Belkin N1 did best the Linksys and Netgear Draft N routers in CNET Labs' mixed-mode and long-range (in mixed mode) throughput tests. We're sticking with the same advice we've given in reviews of other pre-N and Draft N devices: unless you absolutely must have the fastest gear for your network, sit tight and wait for the 802.11n spec to be finalized before buying (latest reports peg this at early to mid 2007). If you do have to buy now and want something that will likely be upgradable through firmware to conform with the final 11n spec, this Belkin N1 router would be our choice. If you don't mind buying a new router now and again when the spec is finalized, stick with Belkin's Pre-N router.(And keep in mind that if you do opt for so-called pre-N or Super G networking equipment, you'll need to use matching routers and cards for the best performance.)
The Belkin N1 wireless router has the same body as its pre-N predecessor--with the same three-antenna configuration--though the slate-gray plastic has been replaced with a slick, silver-and-black exterior. The rear of the router serves up the standard connections: four LAN ports for hardwired connections, a WAN port, and a power jack, plus a pinhole reset button.
The standout design feature of this router is one that's been a long time in coming: Belkin replaced the standard LED lights with a top-mounted network-status display that gives you better insight into your network. The LEDs normally mounted on a router blink to indicate activity, but the blinking probably doesn't mean much to someone new to networking, especially when that person is trying to troubleshoot a problematic network connection. Belkin's network-status display panel uses graphical representations of each element of the network: a globe for the Internet; a modem; a three-antenna router; a desktop PC, representing a wired connection; a laptop, representing a wireless connection; and a lock to represent wireless security. The included guide tells you that a solid blue icon means everything is fine, while a blinking amber-colored icon indicates that something is amiss at that juncture in the network. So if you're surfing the Web on your laptop and discover that you can't connect, a quick glance at your router should tell you where to start your investigation.
Belkin upped the ante on consumer-friendliness in other areas, as well. When you open the box, you're faced with a quick-installation guide that details the process of setting up the router in plain English. Even better, each step is lettered, and a sticker on the router has the corresponding letters, as do the included power and networking cables, so newbies won't have to guess at which port is the WAN port, for example.