So far we've been disappointed with the industry leaders' first round of 802.11g products, which have come up short on range, bandwidth, and compatibility. Enter the Belkin 54g wireless cable/DSL gateway router. Though it costs about $50 more than the competition, its easy installation, top-notch throughput, reasonable range, and perfect compatibility with old and new data radios put the established leaders to shame. Add in a built-in firewall, a lifetime warranty, and a six-month subscription to a versatile Web-filtering program for parents, and you have a great all-around solution for distributing Internet access, audio, and video throughout a home or a small office. When we opened the box and read Belkin's claim of a three-minute setup for the 54g wireless cable/DSL gateway router, we chuckled for a moment, then we got down to work. But the joke was on us--exactly 2 minutes and 45 seconds later, we had a fully operational 802.11g wireless network with four wired Ethernet ports. As amazing as it sounds, it's all true, thanks to Belkin's excellent start-up utility, which is among the best in the business. The prize for first place, however, still belongs to Netgear's MR814 802.11b cable/DSL wireless router, with its interactive installation assistant, ISP guide, and Smart Setup wizard.
If you're running Windows 98, Me, 2000, or XP, simply put the included start-up CD into the computer connected directly to your cable or DSL modem, run the Easy Install wizard, and follow the onscreen instructions. The router does all the work, and the wizard offers helpful pictures and detailed descriptions of what to expect along the way. All aspects worked well, except that the software twice had to run a 30-second check on our Internet connection before we could proceed with the installation. If you're using an operating system that's not listed above, you can set up the router using the Web-based configuration tool, but you'll need to refer to the user manual for instructions.
The Easy Install wizard gets you up and running in five steps.
The router comes with its network name (SSID) set to Belkin 54g and its Wired Equivalent Protection (WEP) encryption turned off. This makes connecting a snap, but it leaves the door to your network open to any enterprising hacker within range of your wireless network. Unfortunately, the setup wizard doesn't force you to choose a new SSID or enable WEP; we recommend that you change these settings immediately using the router's Web-based configuration tool.
In addition to the router, the box includes an AC adapter, a 10-foot CAT-5 networking cable, a start-up CD, an illustrated quick-installation guide, and manuals for both the router and the company's parental-control filtering program.
Smaller than most of the competition, the Belkin 54g wireless cable/DSL gateway router comes with an optional vertical-mounting base. You'll also find recessed holes on the bottom of the router where you can screw it onto a wall or a shelf. With LEDs for power, along with WLAN, LAN, WAN, and Internet connections, the system gives you plenty of information about possible connection problems or errors, although you may need to consult the manual to decode the various solid and blinking color combinations. We wish that Belkin had included a collision monitor such as the one found on the Linksys WRT54G Wireless-G broadband router, which is helpful in fine-tuning the network. On the back of the router, there are a pair of antennae that swivel 180 degrees and a recessed Reset button that lets you return the unit to its factory settings.
To configure the router, you must use the Web-based configuration tool. The main Setup page puts a wealth of information about the router--including its firmware version, IP settings, WAN address, and security settings--right at your fingertips. Along the left side of the page, you'll find a series of individual configuration choices set up in a logical and easy-to-read column. Going through the list, you can change DNS addressing, SSID, WEP encryption, and IP addressing (static, dynamic, or PPPoE).
The main setup page of the Web-based configuration tool puts many of the router's important settings right at your fingertips.
Like the first round of 802.11g devices from D-Link, Linksys, and Netgear, the router supports 64- and 128-bit WEP encryption but not the more secure 256-bit protection available on some 802.11a products. The router's NAT-based firewall uses stateful packet inspection to identify common hacker attacks, such as IP spoofing, land attack, ping of death (PoD), denial of service (DoS), Smurf attack, TCP null scan, and UDP flooding. In addition, the system supports port forwarding and IP or MAC address filtering. For sensitive applications that require unfettered access to the Web, such as online gaming or videoconferencing, you can designate one client as a DMZ host.
On the downside, you can't use the router to bridge two wireless networks or extend one beyond the reach of network cabling as you can with the Apple AirPort Extreme. Nor can you adjust the transmission power, the beacon interval, the RTS threshold, the fragmentation length, or the DTIM interval, making it a nonstarter for sophisticated network administrators.
If you try to access a blocked Web site, this message pops up.
The Belkin router comes with a six-month free trial for its parental-control Web-content-filtering service, which will appeal to families. (After the trial ends, the basic service costs about $25 per year.) Based on software developed by a company called Cerberian, the filtering service lets you easily shield youngsters from inappropriate Web material without installing additional software on each networked computer. How does that work? The router sends every Web page request to Belkin's database of 2.5 million approved family-oriented sites. If the material fails to pass muster, a warning screen pops up, and the user is denied access to the site. If the site isn't on Belkin's list, it triggers an automatic appraisal process, which takes several seconds to complete.
The filter generally worked well in day-to-day use and blocked some disturbing material, although if Belkin's server is down, you're out of luck. A software update that will be available in the coming months will solve this problem by storing the list directly on your PC. Like all filtering software, however, it also blocks innocuous sites, such as one for breast cancer research and another on anatomy. Of course, you can also override the warning and create your own policies. For a one-time fee of $10, you can upgrade the service to keep a list of all sites visited from your network.
Overall, the Belkin 54g wireless cable/DSL gateway router was a top performer among early 802.11g products both in g-only and mixed (802.11b and 802.11g) environments. It also exhibited excellent range on our tests.
The Belkin 54g delivered 19.1Mbps of throughput in 802.11g mode on CNET Labs' tests. That's about 20 percent faster than the Linksys WRT54G Wireless-G broadband router, but it's only marginally faster than the Apple AirPort Extreme. When we moved 5 feet away from the router, however, the Belkin 54g occasionally demonstrated inconsistent behavior, and its throughput dropped off dramatically. At 25 feet, its speed fell to 12.5Mbps, slower than both the Linksys and the Apple. At 75 feet, however, it regained its advantage over its competitors with an impressive 7.1Mpbs of throughput.
In mixed-mode tests using 802.11b clients, the router scored a top speed of 7.7Mbps, faster than its two peers. It also managed to maintain its lead at distances of up to 75 feet. The Belkin 54g worked flawlessly with two 802.11g PC Cards from other vendors and connected without incident to five different 802.11b radios.
For practical throughput tests, CNET Labs uses NetIQ's Chariot 4.3 software with Chariot 4.4 Endpoints as its benchmark. For wireless testing, the clients and routers are set up to transmit at various distances from the access point and to automatically select the best transmit speed. All tests are run with Chariot software using TCP and are run in our CNET offices over channel 11. Our tests indicate the range that you can expect in a typical office environment, but the range in your own home or office may differ. You may be able to achieve better performance in situations where you can establish a clear line of sight. For more details on how we test networking devices, see the CNET Labs site.
With its limited lifetime warranty and toll-free, 24/7 phone support, Belkin puts other companies to shame. The included 96-page manual offers good setup instructions, with a troubleshooting section and some information on getting the router to work with Macintosh computers. However, if you need additional help, the Belkin Web site offers only the very basics. For example, you'll find firmware updates and manuals but no searchable knowledge base, setup tips, or online chat rooms. The company says that it plans to revamp its support site, but it could offer no firm launch date.
Belkin's support Web site looks a bit sparse.