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Forget about bandwidth when evaluating broadband connections; latency, or the time it takes to process requests, is what really counts. Hawking Technologies' HBB1 Broadband Booster can help by imposing a proprietary Quality of Service routine to streamline Internet access from your network; however, it attacks only one part of a vast problem. While it's easy to set up and works with all routers, the Broadband Booster's effects are truly appreciable only when streaming media files. And at $79, Hawking's Broadband Booster costs as much as a midrange router. For a bit more money, you can find a router that implements a similar Quality of Service routine, such as the D-Link DGL-4300. But if you're devoted to your current router and just need to speed up streaming audio or video, the Hawking Broadband Booster could be a welcome addition to your network.
Broadly speaking, latency is the time each network takes to process a data packet and send it along. It can range from an imperceptible few milliseconds to an annoying several seconds. Hawking's Broadband Booster streamlines the data traffic flow to the Internet through a cable, DSL, or T1 connection. The problem is that while broadband can deliver a few megabytes a second of data, all but the most expensive ISPs uplink at only a couple hundred kilobytes per second; when there's a lot of action, some data and commands have to wait their turn.
By examining every data packet leaving the network and ranking them based on importance and timeliness, the Ubicom StreamEngine inside the Hawking Broadband Booster puts the most critical items--such as VoIP audio, online gaming, and streaming video--ahead of more mundane items such as Web page and FTP requests, background operations, and software updates. It may sound like a complicated process, but the Hawking Broadband Booster hides the complexity from the user. Just plug it in between your network's router and broadband modem and wait a minute for it to evaluate your connection and adjust its parameters. Hawking claims that it works with every router on the market. We tried it with four recent network devices from Hawking, Linksys, D-Link, and Netgear, and it worked with all.
After the Broadband Booster powers up, its LEDs glow green; they flash blue to let you know when the device is streamlining throughput. The package includes the Category 5 cable you'll need as well as a handy short extension cord so that you won't tie up two AC outlets with its bulky power adapter. For everyday operations such as page requests and e-mail, the LEDs blink and flash occasionally; but while you're gaming online, watching streaming video, or listening to Internet radio, the Broadband Booster's LEDs are constantly flashing.
The Hawking Broadband Booster has browser-based setup pages, but they allow you only to change your upstream data rate and connection type (if you change your broadband connection). We found that setting the device to automatic worked well.
The Broadband Booster's performance is a mixed bag. While loading media-heavy Web pages (such as CNET's own front door), the Broadband Booster sped up the process by about 5 percent, which few people will be able to notice. On the other hand, when we used a benchmark that repeatedly pinged a group of remote servers, the Broadband Booster didn't improve things and at times slowed response. To test how it handles media files, we connected to three different Internet radio stations while watching a NASA Webcam--a scenario that will bog down most home or small-business networks. None of the streams dropped out or sputtered, and the view looked steadier and more detailed, with better color and sound synchronization than without the Hawking Broadband Booster. No pain, no gain, as they say, because the improved efficiency of the Broadband Booster means that some outbound data must now wait. Expect the more mundane operations, such as e-mail and basic Web surfing, to slow slightly, though you'll be hard-pressed to notice the difference.
The HBB1 Broadband Booster comes with a two-year warranty, which is good but only second best compared with Belkin's lifetime warranty on networking equipment. Although Hawking provides a selection of drivers, firmware, and manuals and a thorough knowledge base for its other products, you won't find much more than a product description of the HBB1. In addition to using e-mail support, you can call Hawking's toll-free help desk; at the moment, however, it's open only on weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT. The company plans to staff a 24-hour help desk by the middle of September.