Wireless networking made a big splash in 2001 with the rise of 802.11b, but 2002 promises a much faster wireless-networking standard. Intel's Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point is one of the first devices to utilize 802.11a technology, which delivers nearly five times the bandwidth of 802.11b solutions and is immune to interference from other devices. Is the 802.11b standard about to become obsolete? Intel is banking on it, and so are many industry analysts. Time will tell, but clearly the Pro/Wireless 5000 series with its speed, seamless roaming, and powerful management services, offers a compelling alternative to existing wireless-networking solutions. Wireless networking made a big splash in 2001 with the rise of 802.11b, but 2002 promises a much faster wireless-networking standard. Intel's Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point is one of the first devices to utilize 802.11a technology, which delivers nearly five times the bandwidth of 802.11b solutions and is immune to interference from other devices. Is the 802.11b standard about to become obsolete? Intel is banking on it, and so are many industry analysts. Time will tell, but clearly the Pro/Wireless 5000 series with its speed, seamless roaming, and powerful management services, offers a compelling alternative to existing wireless-networking solutions.
It's just plain faster
The 802.11a standard operates over radio waves in the unlicensed 5GHz band and delivers speeds up to 54Mbps (or as much as five times faster than the old 802.11b standard)--enough to handle data-intensive applications, large files, and true multimedia streaming video. It also supports eight nonoverlapping channels (compared to three for 802.11b), which provides up to 432Mbps of bandwidth in a given coverage area. Another advantage of 802.11a solutions such as the Pro/Wireless 5000 is their immunity to interference from cordless phones, microwave ovens, and Bluetooth adapters. These devices can bring an 802.11b network to its knees, but 802.11a operates at 5GHz where the air is clearer.
Roam if you want to
The $449 Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point is not much bigger than a paperback novel. The entire package contains the access point, a mounting bracket, a power supply and cord, a CD bearing software and product documentation, and a Quick Installation Guide. Hardware installation amounts to selecting the right location, plugging in the power cord, and snapping in an Ethernet cable. If you need help, the CD-ROM contains the Adapter Manual, the Access Point Manual, and the LAN Administrator's Guide. All three are well organized, comprehensive, and fully searchable.
Adjusting the Pro/Wireless 5000's network settings is a little trickier. The access point ships with DHCP disabled, so you must connect via a wired workstation to configure it. Once you've done that, the Web-based configuration tool lets you add the access point to your network within a matter of seconds. Simply assign it a name, a wireless network ID, and appropriate IP address information either statically or by enabling DHCP. Next, reboot the Pro/Wireless 5000 access point, connect it to your office LAN; voilà, your 802.11a network is up and running. In addition to the access point, remember that each computer you want to connect wirelessly must have an 802.11a adapter, such as Intel's $179 PC Card adapter for notebooks or the $229 PCI adapter for desktops. Unfortunately, the Pro/Wireless 5000 series does not currently support Macs.
Simple yet powerful
Despite its straightforward installation, the Pro/Wireless 5000 series is clearly geared toward network professionals. The Web-based configuration pages let you tailor the device to your own office environment by making some pretty sophisticated adjustments. For example, you can adjust the antenna pattern, the transmit power, the data rate, the fragmentation threshold, and the beacon interval. The Web-based utility also gives you detailed traffic statistics, including information on packet and error types. And the access point comes with firmware that can be upgraded over TFTP.
Security has never been one of 802.11's strong points. Although the Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point can be configured to use 128-bit WEP encryption, Intel recommends that you run wireless connections through a VPN. WEP is the Achilles' heel of the Pro/Wireless 5000. If running wireless connections through a VPN isn't an option, consider a solution with more advanced 802.1x support.
Faster than a speeding bullet
In CNET Labs' tests, the Intel Pro/Wireless 5000 delivered more than four times the throughput of a typical 802.11b solution. Like 802.11b, 802.11a falls back to lower transmission speeds depending on range, signal strength, and network load. As your distance from the access point increases, your connection gradually slows to 48Mbps, 36Mbps, 24Mbps, 18Mbps, 12Mbps, 9Mbps, and finally 6Mbps.
CNET Labs found that the Pro/Wireless 5000 outperformed its 802.11b counterpart at distances up to 100 feet. After that, we had trouble connecting at all in our indoor environment. When we attempted to transmit data through walls our range decreased substantially. This makes the Pro/Wireless 5000 ideal for relatively open spaces with lots of users, such as large office spaces with cubicles. For interiors with several enclosed rooms, plan to invest in more access points to push your network into those hard-to-reach areas. The Site Survey utility included on CD-ROM can help you analyze signal strength in various locations and identify the best location for the access point.
Intel backs the Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point with a three-year warranty, which is among the best in the industry. Tech support is available Monday thorough Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT, but unfortunately, it's a toll call. Because the product is so new, Intel has not yet posted any documentation, downloads, or FAQs on its Web site.
The Pro/Wireless 5000 is capable of delivering several times the throughput of any other wireless LAN solution we've seen. It can carry a much heavier load than 802.11b solutions, and its eight nonoverlapping channels will give you room to grow your network. Given how long it took for 802.11b to reach the mainstream market, its successor may not be an overnight success--at least until some of the security concerns can be ironed out. But the Intel Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point demonstrates that 802.11a has not only arrived but is a legitimate alternative to slower 802.11b solutions for forward-looking businesses.
Measured in Mbps (longer bars indicate better performance)
Measured in milliseconds (shorter bars indicate better performance)
How we tested
For practical-throughput tests, CNET Labs uses NetIQ's Chariot software as its benchmark. For wireless testing, the clients and routers are set up to transmit at short ranges and at maximum signal strength. CNET Labs' response-time tests are also run with Chariot software using the TCP protocol. Response time measures how long it takes to send a request and receive a response over a network connection. Throughput and response time are probably the two most important indicators of user experience over a network.