The digital nerve center
The $399 Home Wireless Gateway measures just 7 by 8.5 by 2 inches, and it's shaped sort of like a cigar box. Yet this compact, unassuming device functions as the digital nerve center of your home network. It communicates with notebook and desktop computers over radio waves, allowing them to share a high-speed Internet connection, as well as printers and files, within a 300-foot range at speeds up to 11mbps. (Note: While the Home Wireless Gateway lets you share an Internet connection among both PCs and Macs, you'll need to run Windows NT Server's Services for Macintosh or a comparable service if you want to share files or printers between the two operating systems.)
In addition to the Home Wireless Gateway, remember that each computer on your network must have a wireless Ethernet adapter. Since the Gateway supports the 802.11b standard and is Wi-Fi certified, it is operable with Wi-Fi cards from 3Com and other vendors. (For a list of Wi-Fi-certified devices and cards, check out the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance Web site.)
The Home Wireless Gateway is both easy to set up and to manage. To set up the device, you simply plug in the power supply and connect the included Ethernet cable to your DSL, cable, or ISDN modem connection. Next, install a network adapter in each computer you want to network, and configure the TCP/IP settings for communication with the Home Wireless Gateway. There's no software to install; the device includes an integrated configuration tool that you access over a standard Web browser. Just type the provided IP address into the address bar of your browser and hit Enter. When the Setup program appears, go to the Gateway Setup Wizard and follow the onscreen instructions. The included Installation Map and User Guide also provide step-by-step instructions.
Aside from supplying wireless connectivity, the Home Wireless Gateway also has three wired 10/100 Ethernet jacks for faster data-transfer speeds, in case you want to swap large video files. To connect to a wired Ethernet port, your computer must have a network interface card (NIC) installed.
Network-speed theory vs. reality
CNET Labs' experiences testing the Home Wireless Gateway reflect the possibilities--and limitations--you may encounter in your own home. For example, 3Com claims you can wirelessly connect up to 35 computers using the Home Wireless Gateway. That big of a cluster, however, could easily slow the network to a crawl, because all machines connecting to an 802.11b Wi-Fi network have to share available bandwidth. Based on the results of CNET Labs' tests, the Home Wireless Gateway is probably best suited for Wi-Fi-compliant networks of seven or fewer clients. When you factor in the device's three Ethernet ports, you have ten nodes total, more than enough for most home-networking environments.
3Com also claims that you can roam wirelessly anywhere within a 300-foot range of the Home Wireless Gateway, but in CNET Labs' tests, a range of 200 to 250 feet was more realistic. Also, the gateway automatically reduces transmission speeds to 5mbps, 2mbps, and finally 1mbps, depending on the quality of the signal, so the farther you are from the device, the slower the connection speed will be. Ultimately, the range will depend on the acoustics of your home.
The Home Wireless Gateway includes an integrated firewall that uses network address translation (NAT) and an array of defense techniques to protect you against many of the most common attack methods. This is not an industrial-strength firewall, but it should be adequate to protect your network from eavesdroppers. The unit also safeguards data with 40-bit encryption, and it offers VPN (virtual private network) pass-through support for the most common security standards and protocols, including L2TP, PPTP, and IPSec.
A broadband bias
We had only one complaint about the Home Wireless Gateway. Because the unit is targeted at a broadband audience, it doesn't include a modem or an RJ-11 phone jack. If you want to share a wired or wireless dial-up connection, check out Orinoco's RG-1000 Residential Gateway.
A good, long warranty
Kudos to 3Com for backing the Home Wireless Gateway with a lengthy, five-year warranty. Toll-free phone support is fairly convenient for the home user. It's available Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT. Also, the 3Com Web site offers a searchable knowledge base, manuals, FAQs, and downloadable firmware upgrades.
3Com's Home Wireless Gateway is an ideal way to share a broadband connection. This Wi-Fi-compliant device is easy to set up and configure, and it requires no software installation. It securely protects your data and even lets you access your office network over a VPN. For the price, it offers a good solution for a busy home's Internet-access and other sharing needs.
Note: Wireless networking products were tested in a controlled environment using two Dell notebook computers. Transfer times may vary depending on your particular home environment and the computers you use choose to network.