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Simple, efficient design
From a design perspective, the MN-500 looks similar to other wireless gateways. The base station touts a cool, industrial design and can stand on its side, making for an unobtrusive addition to a home or office. Unfortunately, you'll need to create your own wall-mounting solution if you want to maximize wireless reception; the MN-500 doesn't come with extra mounting hardware. It does, however, include four wired 10/100 Ethernet ports and a WAN input for your cable or DSL modem. At $150, the MN-500 sits at the low end of the price range for wireless gateways, leaving you plenty of cash to add a wireless USB adapter (MN-510) or a PC Card adapter (MN-520) for $80 apiece. Microsoft expects a kit including both the base station and an adapter to retail for a reasonable $220.
Easy-to-use setup utilities
The included Start Here pamphlet will help you through basic installation, but if you need more help, the clearly written 96-page manual will be a relief. And if you've ever used a Windows XP setup wizard, the broadband networking installation wizard will seem soothingly familiar. After you configure the base station and install the Broadband Network Utility software, you have the option of creating a setup disk for your client PCs (a blank disk is included), which simplifies the task of adding PCs to your network. However, we wish the software let us save the file to some type of removable storage, such as a DiskonKey, given the nearing extinction of the floppy disk drive.
The Broadband Network Utility provides a snapshot of your wireless strength, the status of your Internet connection, and a list of other devices currently on your network. The Web-based Base Station Management Tool provides access to a myriad of other options, including WEP settings, MAC and client filtering, port forwarding, and DMZ creation. Fortunately, the software in the base station is upgradable, and you can choose to be notified of any software updates and bug fixes.
While you can access the base station from non-Windows computers, Microsoft's network adapters work on only PCs running Windows 98 or later. In addition, the Broadband Network Utility is a Windows application; if you need to configure the base station from a Macintosh or other non-Windows PC, you must use the Web-based management tool. The base station does support Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), however, which makes it easy to connect with other networkable devices such as Microsoft's .
Wireless performance lags
Testing wireless access points and gateways is a notoriously difficult science; even the slightest changes to your setup can tip the results. In CNET Labs' tests, we obtained speeds of 4.6Mbps, which trailed the 4.9Mbps we obtained with both HP's hn200w wireless gateway and Belkin's wireless cable/DSL gateway router.
On the other hand--and perhaps not surprisingly for a company that has taken so much heat for security flaws--the default configuration for the base station ensures that both 128-bit WEP encryption and the included firewall are turned on by default. Make no mistake, WEP encryption is far from airtight, but it provides plenty of security for most SOHO users.
Microsoft offers very good tech-support options for its wireless-networking products. The company covers the entire product line with a two-year warranty and, more importantly, includes 24/7, toll-free telephone support for the duration of the warranty. While not nearly as impressive as the lifetime phone support offered by Linksys and Belkin, this package is significantly better than offerings from Intel, HP, and other competitors.
The Microsoft MN-500 wireless base station offers an excellent solution for Windows users looking for an affordable, easy-to-configure, wireless network for the home or small office, thanks to its glut of documentation and support, as well as good security.
Measured in Mbps (longer bars indicate better performance)
Measured in milliseconds (shorter bars indicate better performance)
|How we tested|
For practical throughput tests, CNET Labs uses NetIQ's Chariot software as our benchmark. For our wireless testing, the clients and routers are set up to transmit at short ranges and maximum signal strength. CNET Labs also runs Chariot software using the TCP protocol in response-time tests. Response time measures how long it takes to send a request and receive a response over a network connection. Throughput and response time are probably the two most important indicators of user experience over a network.