Is the simplest solution always the best? The Proxim Symphony HomeRF base station lets you share an Internet connection wirelessly in your home, and it is among the easiest solutions to install and configure. It's also one of the least expensive Internet-sharing devices currently available. But this base station's simplicity comes with some limitations. And although it offers adequate bandwidth for basic broadband sharing, an 802.11b solution would give you greater maximum throughput. Is the simplest solution always the best? The Proxim Symphony HomeRF base station lets you share an Internet connection wirelessly in your home, and it is among the easiest solutions to install and configure. It's also one of the least expensive Internet-sharing devices currently available. But this base station's simplicity comes with some limitations. And although it offers adequate bandwidth for basic broadband sharing, an 802.11b solution would give you greater maximum throughput.
New HomeRF measures up
The Proxim Symphony base station is one of the first products based on the new HomeRF 2.0 specification. It is backward compatible with earlier HomeRF products and increases the technology's maximum connection speed to 10Mbps. This boost in bandwidth catapults HomeRF into the same league as 802.11b solutions. But while HomeRF may now be better equipped to handle voice and streaming-media transmissions, its adoption rate still lags behind that of the more popular 802.11b. This is a big deal since business users may want to connect at work or on the road, as well as at home. And because HomeRF and 802.11b are not compatible, you need to make a clear decision between one technology or the other.
Small and simple
The $200 Proxim Symphony is a little bigger than a deck of cards and small enough to sit unobtrusively on a flat surface, such as the top of most broadband modems. It has three status lights on its top panel to indicate power, Ethernet activity, and wireless activity. Two auto-sensing 10/100 Ethernet ports on its back panel let you connect to a standard DSL/cable modem; you can also hook up to an uplink port on a hub or switch using the supplied Ethernet cable. The quick-start guide runs through basic hardware and software installation, but for more in-depth information, refer to the user manual. There you'll find a general section on wireless networking, detailed configuration and operating instructions, and a basic troubleshooting section.
To communicate with the base station, each computer you want to network must be equipped with a HomeRF wireless adapter. The base station is compatible with Proxim's first-generation Symphony HRF devices (based on the HomeRF 1.2 standard) but not its original family of Symphony cordless products based on the OpenAir standard. And remember, if you plan to use the base station with the Symphony HRF devices, you'll have to make do with their slower 1.6Mbps maximum throughput speed. To get higher bandwidth, the base station needs to communicate with an adapter based on the new HomeRF 2.0 specification. Theoretically, the base station is compatible with other companies' HomeRF products. However, because the base station uses a proprietary configuration tool, using it with products from other vendors could be tricky. You would need to download and run the Symphony software to make any advanced configuration changes on the base station, such as fiddling with network address translation (NAT), DHCP, or PPPoE or changing IP address information.
Maestro, if you please...
You can configure the Proxim Symphony HomeRF base station and check its status remotely with the help of Proxim's Maestro configuration utility, the same utility you use to manage your Symphony USB or PC Card adapters. This simplifies installation because you don't need to install an additional configuration utility; you just use the software you already loaded onto your system to install the adapters. At the same time, however, it locks you in to Proxim's Symphony product line because you need the Maestro configuration utility to configure the base station. The Maestro program has all the right administrative features, letting you monitor network activity and signal strength, change network settings, upgrade the unit's firmware, and more. Still, we prefer browser-based configuration tools, such as the one that comes with Proxim's Skyline 802.11b wireless broadband gateway, because of the greater flexibility they offer. With a browser-based configuration utility, there's no additional software to install, and it can be easily accessed from any system connected to the network.
A bit poky
This base station is the first HomeRF 2.0 product CNET Labs has tested, so we were curious to see if it could hold its own against the more popular 802.11b products. On the whole, our throughput tests showed marginal performance. The Proxim Symphony's throughput clocked in at 2.4Mbps. Many of the 802.11b devices we've tested offer nearly double this.
The Proxim Symphony base station offers little in the way of security. The device supports NAT, which provides a rudimentary firewall against intrusion via the Internet. That's about all you can reasonably expect at this price, and it's sufficient for surfing the Web and sending e-mail. But NAT doesn't offer data encryption; if you're working with sensitive data, then you'll probably want to install a VPN or take other security measures. An 802.11b network doesn't offer much better; it comes with WEP encryption, which is easy to crack. HomeRF's one possible advantage is its security through obscurity: People aren't driving around with antennas attached to their dashboards looking for open HomeRF networks, but people are out there looking for 802.11b networks.
Proxim offers good overall support policies for the Symphony HomeRF base station. The two-year warranty is longer than most, and toll-free tech support is available for the life of the product. Phone lines are open only Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT, however; for home products, we like to see weekend hours as well. The company's Web site offers many good resources, including software downloads, manuals, FAQs, and a Learning Center that helps you plan and install your home network.
If you already have a Symphony HomeRF network in place and simply want to add an Internet sharing device, the Proxim Symphony HomeRF base station is the obvious choice. Integrating it into a preexisting Symphony network is literally a snap. But if you are planning to build a network from scratch, you may want to consider the more widespread and powerful 802.11b solutions.
Editor's note: Since this review posted, Proxim has added Mac support for its Symphony HomeRF products. The new Symphony Maestro Macintosh user interface will be available at no additional charge on the Proxim Web site in February.
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.