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The Play Max router is a disappointing step backward for Belkin. Compared against Belkin's own highly rated N+ router, the wireless networking and network storage capabilities of the Play Max are bogged down by Belkin's software, which must run in the background for many of its features to work.
The router is housed in a plastic chassis and doesn't have any status indicator lights, except for one that shines solid green if the device is on and ready and amber if something's wrong. Its included software applications are either confusing or useless. On the upside, the router offers fast wireless speeds and long range. It's also the only wireless router on the market in this price range ($130) that comes with two USB ports that support both USB storage devices and printers.
If you are looking for similarly configured dual-band router, we'd recommend the easier-to-use and similarly priced Cisco Linksys E3000. If you don't care about dual-band, stick to the good old Belkin N+, or check out the Cisco Valet Plus .
Setup and design
The Belkin Play Max Wireless Router comes in a compact package with its antennas hidden within the chassis. It's designed to work in the vertical position and comes with a detachable base.
On the back it has two USB ports, four Gigabit ports (for wired connections), and one WAN port (to connect to a broadband modem). The router comes with a CD of software, which supposedly guides you through the setup process. This process, however, is unnecessarily confusing. For example, one of the first steps involves entering the default wireless name (SSID) and password that are provided on a sticker attached to the router. This is a required step even when the computer is connected to the router via a cable and has no wireless adapter. To make it worse, the default SSID is "Belkin.5A17" and the password is "C427332D." These are tedious to type correctly, especially for those who are not so fluent with a keyboard. Most importantly, it's an unnecessary step. Generally, setup involves simply creating a network, not logging into an existing one.
After that there are many features, which Belkin calls "apps," for you to configure. These apps are really just needless window dressing for what we consider fairly standard features. For example, there's an app called "Music Mover," which is just a function that enables the streaming of music from connected USB drives. The Cisco Linksys E3000, for example, can stream not just music but also photos and video, and you can enable it from its Web interface.
We also found that the Belkin setup software, despite its colorful appearance, is more of a gimmick than a real application. Most of its supposedly advanced functions are just the shortcuts to those particular parts of the router's Web interface. For example, when you click on the "Firewall Settings" from within the desktop software, it will launch the browser and point to the Firewall section of the Web interface. Again, we didn't see why this software was necessary. It would be easier and faster to use the Web interface right away and skip having to install setup software.
The setup process will also install the Belkin Router Monitor application, which is set to run automatically each time the computer starts. The application works with both Windows and Mac computers. Beyond the fact that this program will slightly bog down your computer, we were also disappointed to discover that many features of the router require software to be running on a network computer. These features include the USB print and storage functions, Music Mover, Music Labeler, Daily DJ, and Bit Boost.
For comparison, all other routers that have built-in network storage or USB printer functions, including the Belkin N+, do so without requiring any software installed on any computer in the network. Requiring a computer to be on in order for network storage and printing features to work somewhat defeats the purpose of having these features at all, because, after all, if you must have a computer on, you are better off having that computer host the printer and storage than the router.
Furthermore, we found that most of the listed "apps" are just gimmicks. For example, the BitBoost supposedly optimizes the router for different types of traffic, including Video, Voice Device, and Online Game. However, when we picked one, it was unclear how the setting was being applied and there was no way to verify if it was working. It was also not clear if the change would affect just one computer or all the computers in the network.
All in all, we didn't find any of these little features useful nor did they seem to enhance the networking experience in any way. We believe the router is better used when you skip the "apps" entirely, which unfortunately also means you forgo the router's USB-related features, and stick with its Web interface.
The Web interface is very much like that of the Belkin N+'s: organized and responsive. Here you will find the router's other advanced features, such as Access Control, which restricts the access to the Internet of certain computers in the network; Virtual Server, which allows you to set up a computer for a particular service, such as an FTP or HTTP sever; Firewall, and so on. Unlike the N+, the Play Max also has a feature called "Self Healing," which is a fancy name for another gimmick that allows the router to restart itself periodically.
The Belkin Play Max is a true dual-band router, meaning it offers two separate wireless networks, one in the ever popular 2.4Ghz band and the other in the newer and cleaner 5Ghz band. It also has the guest-networking features that creates a separate 2.4Ghz wireless network for guests. This network allows for access to the Internet, but not to other resources of your local network, such as your printer or files.
Like most recent routers, the Belkin Play Max 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 window time when other WPS-enabled devices can enter the wireless network automatically.
We did find, however, that the router's Web interface was buggy at times, though not consistently. For example, more than once, the router just stopped working after we had applied the changes via its Web interface, requiring us to restart. And once, after a restart, the router for, unknown reasons, reverted to its default settings, discarding all the changes we had made to it.
Like with the Belkin N+, we were happy with the Play Max's wireless performance.
In the 5Ghz band, the router scored 57.6Mbps in the close-range throughput test, where the router was placed 15 feet away from the client. At this speed it could transfer 500MB of data in about 69 seconds. In the 100-foot range test, the router still scored impressively at 56Mbps, which is a very small amount of degradation in signal strength.
As expected, in the 2.4Ghz band the Belkin Play Max scored lower than it did in the 5Ghz band, but was still very fast compared with other routers, registering 52.2Mbps and 44.8Mbps, in close-range and long-range tests, respective. In the mixed-mode test, in which we set the router to work with both N and legacy G clients at the same time, the Belkin scored 47.5Mbps, which is a very good number.
We were especially happy with the Belkin's range. Like the Belkin N+ and the recently reviewed Cisco Linksys E3000, the Play Max offer up to around 280 to 300 feet of range in the 2.4Ghz band and around 250 to 270 feet of range in the 5Ghz band.
It was a different story when it came to the network storage functionality. Belkin claims that the router can offer a rate of up to 30MBps for data transfer, but in our test it was nowhere even close to that. We tested the router with a few external storage devices, including some USB 3.0 drives, and the best we got from it is 1.1MBps (8.8Mbps) for writing and 2.2MBps (17.6Mbps) for reading. This is by far the slowest among routers that have built-in support for network storage.
The router worked well throughout our testing. However, it gets rather hot after a few hours--not hot enough to worry about seriously, but make sure you leave it in an open space rather than a tight corner.
Service and support
Belkin backs the Play Max with a two-year warranty, which is very good for routers, as most 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 Web site also offers documentation, downloadable drivers, and FAQs.