Belkin F7D8301 Play N600 HD Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router
The Belkin Play N600 HD Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router (Model F7D8301) is the latest in Belkin's Play series of wireless routers, which includes the Play Max N600 HD that we reviewed last year. If the Play Max was mostly disappointing, the Play N600 HD has its own saving grace. It offers stellar close-range throughput on the 5GHz band and comes with the most affordable price for a true dual-band router that has two USB ports.
In the end, however, the router is cheap for a few good reasons: its feature set is lacking and the performance of the 2.4GHz band as well as the network storage function are mediocre. The router's range isn't impressive and you can't use its Web interface to manage all of its features.
If most of your wireless clients support the 5GHz band (meaning they are based on the 802.11a/g/n chipset/adapters) and you don't care much about range, at a street price of just around $80, the N600 HD is a great buy. Otherwise, for better wireless support and performance and more features, we'd recommend spending a little more for the Linksys E4200 or the Netgear WNDR3700.
Setup and design
The Belkin Play N600 HD router has the same compact design as others in the Play series, with all the antennas hidden within the chassis. The router works only in the vertical position and comes with a detachable base. It can't be mounted on a wall.
On the back it has two USB 2.0 ports, four Gigabit ports for wired connections, and one WAN port for connecting to a broadband modem. The router comes with a CD of software that helps with the setup process and enables some of the router's features.
However, the CD is unnecessary for the setup process if you just want to use the router as a dual-band wireless router, which will be true in most cases. This is because the router comes preconfigured with two wireless networks (one for the 2.4GHz band and one for the 5GHz band). These two networks' names, and their respective encryption keys, are on a label stuck on the side of the router. This means all you have to do is plug the router into an Internet source (such as a broadband modem) and turn it on, and you're ready to go. If you don't like this preconfiguration, you can then log in to the router's Web interface by pointing a browser to 192.168.2.1.
The router's USB port can be used to connect external hard drives or printers. We found the router took a long time, say a minute or two, to recognize bus-power external hard drives. It nonetheless worked with all the drives we tried and was able to power those that drew energy from the USB port. It supports drives formatted in either the FAT32 or NTFS file system.
The Play N600 HD is not actually as cool as it's cracked up to be, since most of the so-called special features shown off on its packaging are just gimmicks or common functions with names that have been exaggerated to sound more enticing.
For example, the Self-Healing feature is just a setting that automatically restarts the router periodically at a given time. Generally, most routers' connection-related problems can be solved with a restart. A good router, however, should be able to work for a long time without having to restart at all.
The Video Mover feature is basically the ability to stream video and music stored on an external hard drive connected to the router's USB port to a media streamer, such as an Xbox 360 or iTunes. Calling it Video Mover is confusing as it suggests that the router would move video files from one place to another. We tried this feature out and it didn't work very well when the streamer was a Mac computer. As it turned out, the router doesn't seem to support Mac network protocols, such as Bonjour.
Unlike Self-Healing and Video Mover, which can be controlled (turned on or off) via the router's Web interface, the Torrent Mate feature requires that a piece of software called Vuze be installed on a computer for it to work. As Torrent Mate allows the router to download torrent files onto a connected external hard drive by itself, requiring the use of a computer to set up the downloads sort of defeats its purpose. It would be much better if you could manage the downloads using the router's Web interface.
Another corny-sounding feature is Memory Safe, which is a backup software application that automatically backs up a computer's files to the router's external storage. We would have preferred it if this were simply called Backup Software.
It's worth noticing that all of these so-called special features are just basic features found in most, if not all, routers that have support for external storage, such as the Linksys E4200 or the Netgear 3700. The only difference, if any, is the fact that the Belkin Play N600 HD's features are less intuitive to use.
However, the Play N600's Web interface is very much like that of the best-of-its-time Belkin N+, intuitive and responsive. Here you will find the router's other advanced (yet common) features, such as Access Control, which can be used to restrict the Internet access of certain computers in the network; Virtual Server, with which you can set up a computer as an FTP or HTTP server; Firewall; and so on. We found that it's better to skip the router's included software and all the related features and use only its Web interface to manage it. You'll have a much more pleasant experience with the device this way.
Again, the Belkin Play N600 HD is a true dual-band router, meaning it offers two concurrent, separate wireless networks, one in the overly popular 2.4GHz band and the other in the newer and cleaner 5GHz band. It also has a Guest Networking feature that enables you to create a third separate 2.4GHz wireless network for guests. This network allows guests to access the Internet but not local network resources, such as printers. While Guest Networking is not new, Belkin has upped this feature a notch by offering a Web-based log-in for guest users, making the router suitable for use as a public hot spot.
Like most recent routers, the Play N600 HD supports all available wireless encryption standards, including WEP, WPA-Personal, and WPA-Enterprise. The router also supports Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) with a button on its front that initiates a 2-minute time window when other WPS-enabled devices can enter the wireless network automatically.
The Play N600 HD showed mixed performance in our tests.
On the one hand, it blew us away with the throughput speed in the 5GHz band at close range (around 15 feet), scoring 109.6Mbps, the fastest we've seen. At this speed the router can finish 500MB of data in just around 35 seconds. When we increased the range to 100 feet the throughput was lowered, as expected, coming in at 73.4Mbps as the second fastest in our comparison, just a tad behind the 79.1Mbps of the Linksys E4200. We noted, however, that the gap between 109.6Mbps and 73.4Mbps is quite large.
And this signal degradation was even worse in the 2.4GHz band. This time, the router scored decently at 57Mbps for the close-range test but fell to a mere 12.6Mbps when the range was increased to 100 feet, the lowest we've seen among N routers. In the mixed-mode test where the router was set to work with both Wireless-N and pre-N wireless standards, at close range, the router scored an average 33.6Mbps.
Overall, the N600 only worked well with clients within a 75-foot radius. Farther out, the throughput dropped significantly or fluctuated a great deal and was only enough for light Web surfing. In our testing both bands of the router offered a maximum range of around 240 feet, noticeably shorter than other dual-band routers. The router however did pass our 24-hour stress test, during which time it didn't disconnect once.
Like all routers with built-in support for network storage, the Play N600 HD didn't impress us at all with its storage performance, with just 11.4Mbps and 23.8Mbps for write and read, respectively, via Gigabit Ethernet. These numbers are just too low for any serious data sharing, backup, or media streaming over a network. If you're serious about network storage, we'd recommend the LaCie Wireless Space or, better yet, a dedicated NAS server.
Service and support
Belkin backs the Play N600 HD with a two-year warranty, whereas most of routers on the market come with only a one-year warranty. Belkin's toll-free phone support is available 24-7, or you can fill out a form at Belkin's Web site for e-mail support. Its Website also offers documentation, downloadable drivers, and FAQs.
Due to its lack of range and mediocre 2.4GHz wireless and network storage performance, it's hard for us to recommend the Play N600 HD Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router except to 5GHz enthusiasts. It's probably time Belkin dropped the Play concept with its bloated and corny "features" and focused on making its routers lean and solid performers, as the N+ was in its day.