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Bandwidth for bucks
At $449, the Skyline 802.11a access point is a bit pricey, especially for small businesses and schools that already work within tight budgets. And that's just the beginning. To communicate with the access point, you'll also need to outfit each computer on the network with a wireless adapter (Proxim sells the $179 Skyline 802.11a CardBus Card for laptops, for instance).
But while the price of admission may be steep, 802.11a does promise an impressive return on your investment. Like the Intel Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point, the Proxim operates over radio waves in the unlicensed 5GHz band, so it's not prone to the interference from which 802.11b users suffer as they share their 2.4GHz space with Bluetooth and cordless phones. The 802.11a standard promises throughput speeds up to 54Mbps (which is much faster than 802.11b) and supports eight nonoverlapping channels, which provide up to 432Mbps of bandwidth in a given coverage area. Because 802.11a and 802.11b use different radio technologies and portions of the spectrum, however, they are incompatible with one another. While twin-standard equipment is being developed, in the meantime, you'll have to make a choice between the two and stick to it.
The Skyline 802.11a access point acts like a bridge, connecting wireless-equipped laptops and desktops to wired Ethernet networks. The package contains the access point, the power adapter, the documentation, and the warranty. The access point is remarkably small and light; with the exception of the rear-mounted twin antennae, the most notable feature of its rounded, gray, plastic case is the translucent front panel. It has three LEDs indicating wireless and Ethernet activity, as well as the unit's overall status. The back sports an Ethernet port, a power socket, and an LED showing cabled Ethernet activity. The access point can be mounted on the wall or the ceiling to improve range or reduce clutter.
While installing the access point was easy overall, it was a little tricky just at the beginning. Proxim's quick-start guide offers clear, step-by-step instructions for the most part, but it skips a couple of important steps. For example, the guide says nothing about needing a password to configure the system, so you'll get nowhere without reading the full user manual located on the CD-ROM.
Despite some minor initial confusion, we were able to install the access point in less than an hour. The process is fairly straightforward: You plug the access point into an Ethernet hub, then configure any PC connected to the network, wireless or wired, to use a static IP address that will put it on the same network as the access point. To configure the access point, open a browser on the networked PC and type in the IP address printed on the bottom of the access point. From the Status screen, click the Configure tab and enter the username and password provided. The next screen features tabs for Network, Radio, Security, and System Access settings. Here you can set up the access point to act as a DHCP client, enable 2X mode (which uses more than one radio channel to increase transmission rates), activate 152-bit WEP security, set the service-set identifier (SSID), and perform other adjustments. Access Control lets you allow or deny access to up to 100 specific PCs or other network devices by MAC address.
Plenty of bandwidth
In CNET Labs' tests, the access point's throughput was almost 20Mbps in 802.11a (1X) mode and more than 23Mbps in proprietary 2X mode. Both figures are short of the 54Mbps and 108Mbps advertised. But they're still four to five times faster than the actual performance of 802.11b. Nevertheless, 802.11a has its own performance potholes to keep in mind.
Because it operates at a higher frequency, 802.11a's range is significantly less than the 300 feet claimed for 802.11b. In a small office or a home, the difference may not be important; with several walls and 50 feet separating our access point from an 802.11a-equipped laptop, signal strength in our tests was adequate for normal use. But as your distance from the access point increases, your connection gradually slows to 48Mbps, 36Mbps, 24Mbps, 18Mbps, 12Mbps, 9Mbps, and finally 6Mbps.
The access point comes with a one-year parts and labor warranty, typical for the industry. Toll-free phone support is available Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT. In addition to the usual FAQs, manuals, and software updates, the company Web site offers help with general networking topics, including planning and installing your own network.
The Proxim Skyline 802.11a access point represents an important next step in the evolution of wireless networking. It's definitely pricey compared to like products using the established 802.11b standard, but it's also faster and less prone to interference problems. Add to that the Skyline's smooth installation, and it's an attractive alternative for small businesses and schools looking to implement a wireless network.
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 its benchmark. For wireless testing, the clients and routers are set up to transmit at short ranges and at maximum signal strength. CNET Labs' response-time tests are also run with Chariot software using the TCP protocol. 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.