The Play Max router is a disappointing step backward for Belkin. Compared against Belkin's own highly rated, the wireless networking and network storage capabilities of the Play Max are bogged down by Belkin's software, which must run in the background for many of its features to work.
The router is housed in a plastic chassis and doesn't have any status indicator lights, except for one that shines solid green if the device is on and ready and amber if something's wrong. Its included software applications are either confusing or useless. On the upside, the router offers fast wireless speeds and long range. It's also the only wireless router on the market in this price range ($130) that comes with two USB ports that support both USB storage devices and printers.
If you are looking for similarly configured dual-band router, we'd recommend the easier-to-use and similarly priced Cisco Linksys E3000. If you don't care about dual-band, stick to the good old Belkin N+, or check out the Cisco Valet Plus .
Setup and design
The Belkin Play Max Wireless Router comes in a compact package with its antennas hidden within the chassis. It's designed to work in the vertical position and comes with a detachable base.
On the back it has two USB ports, four Gigabit ports (for wired connections), and one WAN port (to connect to a broadband modem). The router comes with a CD of software, which supposedly guides you through the setup process. This process, however, is unnecessarily confusing. For example, one of the first steps involves entering the default wireless name (SSID) and password that are provided on a sticker attached to the router. This is a required step even when the computer is connected to the router via a cable and has no wireless adapter. To make it worse, the default SSID is "Belkin.5A17" and the password is "C427332D." These are tedious to type correctly, especially for those who are not so fluent with a keyboard. Most importantly, it's an unnecessary step. Generally, setup involves simply creating a network, not logging into an existing one.
After that there are many features, which Belkin calls "apps," for you to configure. These apps are really just needless window dressing for what we consider fairly standard features. For example, there's an app called "Music Mover," which is just a function that enables the streaming of music from connected USB drives. The Cisco Linksys E3000, for example, can stream not just music but also photos and video, and you can enable it from its Web interface.
We also found that the Belkin setup software, despite its colorful appearance, is more of a gimmick than a real application. Most of its supposedly advanced functions are just the shortcuts to those particular parts of the router's Web interface. For example, when you click on the "Firewall Settings" from within the desktop software, it will launch the browser and point to the Firewall section of the Web interface. Again, we didn't see why this software was necessary. It would be easier and faster to use the Web interface right away and skip having to install setup software.
The setup process will also install the Belkin Router Monitor application, which is set to run automatically each time the computer starts. The application works with both Windows and Mac computers. Beyond the fact that this program will slightly bog down your computer, we were also disappointed to discover that many features of the router require software to be running on a network computer. These features include the USB print and storage functions, Music Mover, Music Labeler, Daily DJ, and Bit Boost.
For comparison, all other routers that have built-in network storage or USB printer functions, including the Belkin N+, do so without requiring any software installed on any computer in the network. Requiring a computer to be on in order for network storage and printing features to work somewhat defeats the purpose of having these features at all, because, after all, if you must have a computer on, you are better off having that computer host the printer and storage than the router.
Furthermore, we found that most of the listed "apps" are just gimmicks. For example, the BitBoost supposedly optimizes the router for different types of traffic, including Video, Voice Device, and Online Game. However, when we picked one, it was unclear how the setting was being applied and there was no way to verify if it was working. It was also not clear if the change would affect just one computer or all the computers in the network.
All in all, we didn't find any of these little features useful nor did they seem to enhance the networking experience in any way. We believe the router is better used when you skip the "apps" entirely, which unfortunately also means you forgo the router's USB-related features, and stick with its Web interface.
The Web interface is very much like that of the Belkin N+'s: organized and responsive. Here you will find the router's other advanced features, such as Access Control, which restricts the access to the Internet of certain computers in the network; Virtual Server, which allows you to set up a computer for a particular service, such as an FTP or HTTP sever; Firewall, and so on. Unlike the N+, the Play Max also has a feature called "Self Healing," which is a fancy name for another gimmick that allows the router to restart itself periodically.