There comes a point in every reviewer's career where they've seen too many routers, and simply cannot write a description of the dull, ugly things any longer. Thankfully, today is not that day, because the Belkin N1 actually has an interesting design that's both eye-catching and useful; it honestly is something of a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stagnant router design space.
It's not so much the semi-Piano Black and silver styling -- which, let's face it, is very 2005 -- or the very standard and to be honest very boring four router ports out the back. It's not the three fixed MIMO antennae -- if we were going to pick a router based on the antennae, it'd be Linksys' WRT300N with its faintly military-looking third antennae. No, what sets the Belkin N1 apart from the rest of the router pack are its indicator lights.
On most routers, indicator lights are the least consideration -- they're small, they blink, and if you've got a particularly fancy model, they might even blink in two colours. Belkin's taken a completely different route with the N1, replacing the dull LEDs with icon-based lit displays that track the wireless signal from the modem to the router, letting you know which bits of the router are working, and, if calamity prevails, which ones aren't. It's an incredibly intuitive interface, and while it's not like they've included a touchscreen to let you automatically fix problems, it at least gives you an idea of where your network is falling over. It's probably not a stretch of the imagination to guess that other vendors will follow suit rather quickly, patents notwithstanding. The one downside to this brave new iconic world is that the N1 is the only router we've ever seen that lacks port indicator lights, so if you need to quickly check which of the router's four wired ports are currently occupied, you'll have to flip the router around and actually look.
The big selling point of the N1 remains the implementation of the draft version of the 802.11n specification -- we're probably at least six months away from a final release of the specification -- although it's naturally enough also capable of working with 802.11b/g clients as well. In fact, the N1 makes an interesting distinction we've not seen on any other router with its cross-compatibility, as it only offers mixed-mode performance -- there's no way to tell it to work only with 802.11n clients. Single mode performance is often (but not always) a good way to get a little extra performance by removing the slower client speeds from clogging up your network. Aside from straight wireless, the N1 is an otherwise somewhat unexceptional router, with the usual raft of WPA/WPA2/WEP security features, DMZ, port forwarding and access point style features.
On the software side, the provided CD walks you very simply through the install procedure, and the web-based interface is essentially the same one that Belkin's used on all its contemporary routers; a touch spartan in design but certainly not that difficult to get to grips with.
Draft-N routers command a premium price because, in theory they offer premium performance. That's with the right equipment; you may see bettter performance with existing 802.11b/g equipment, but the real boosts in speed should only occur with compatible 802.11n equipment. In theory, this round of 802.11n product should be cross-compatible across vendors, although we didn't have any competing vendor product available to put this to the test; instead we had Belkin's own N1 Wireless Notebook card (AU$179.95) to test with. For desktop or non-PC Card types, Belkin also offers a USB N1 adaptor (AU$199.95).
Our US site recently tested the N1 against a pack of other N1 routers -- you can read their test results here. That gives you a good picture of how the N1 stacks up against other Draft-N routers, but we wanted to test how imperative the shift upwards to the Draft-N specification was -- especially as at this stage whether or not units will be firmware upgradeable to the full standard is something that no vendor can guarantee. To this end, we tested the N1 over a wireless network, first with an inbuilt 802.11g card, and then with Belkin's N1 card. We tested using PerfPing's analysis tool, as well as the CNET Bandwidth meter averaged over a dozen tests, to give a real world indication of the N1's expected performance.
CNET's bandwidth meter revealed a slight edge for the N1 card over the 802.11g card. The "slower" card managed an average of 2081kbps over an ADSL2+ connection, versus an average of 2838kbps for the N1. Network figures once you get outside a home LAN can of course be exceptionally variable, so we also tested on a local LAN using PerfPing.
|PerfPing Test Results|
|802.11g card||Belkin N1 card|
For the most part, the PerfPing results were better for the N1 card -- the slower figures for some of the lower packet rate figures are in line with PerfPing's own testing notes that admit there's a lot more variability in smaller packet size timing averages. Still, they're not entirely in line with many vendors -- including Belkin's -- claims for 802.11n technology. Those results -- along with our US test results -- reveal the N1 to be arguably the best of the pack for the current run of draft-N routers, but unless you absolutely must have the best possible throughput right now, the jump over 802.11g speeds as it stands isn't entirely worth it, and we'd suggest waiting for the fully-compliant release of 802.11n products.