The SMC Barricade 54Mbps wireless router provides clear evidence that products based on the draft 802.11g wireless standard have become commodities as quick as a wink. A nondescript gray box for a below-average price, the Barricade worked smoothly in our tests, delivering good performance across a long effective range. Of course, the usual draft-802.11g caveats apply: There's no guarantee that the router will be upgradable to the final 802.11g standard, and as with all 802.11g devices we've tested, its top speed falls short of expectations. Plus, if a backward-compatible 802.11b connection kicks in, all 802.11g connections fall back to the 7Mbps range. But that's par for the course for 802.11g, as is the very slight cost premium over SMC's equivalent 802.11b model. With four Ethernet ports and a bevy of firewall and administrative options (but lackluster documentation), the Barricade is an attractive choice only for small-business users who know their way around a router.
Nothing eases setup like a good quick-start guide. SMC delivers the Barricade 54Mbps wireless router with its 3-Click pamphlet that illustrates the basic connections and tells raw beginners how to launch the installation wizard on the included setup CD. SMC also supplies an Ethernet cable. The only departure from the router norm is a detailed explanation of manual installation for Mac users, since the wizard runs only on Windows 95 or later.
The setup wizard makes installation easy, but it offers no guidance when it comes to basic security settings.
But the nod to newbies is deceptive. The wizard runs out of gas quickly, stopping cold after helping you establish a connection with your ISP. For everything else, including basic security options, you must fire up the browser-based Advanced Setup utility, which includes essentials such as setting your password and establishing an SSID. In addition, the PDF user guide is poorly organized, particularly the section that covers configuration of client IP settings. (The user guide also described a different version of the wizard than the one that came with our test unit.) Plus, there's no glossary or any real attempt to explain basic networking concepts. Market leaders Linksys and Netgear do much better.
The Advanced Setup utility could also be better organized. For example, you might not realize that MAC address cloning--essential for setting up a router with many ISPs--lives in the WAN section or that basic security options fall in the Wireless section. The manual's instructions for advanced setup are fairly clear, but they neglect to explain the basics, such as the definition of DHCP. And WEP encryption is implied to be necessary only if you transmit "sensitive data," whereas most people should use it by default. At the end of the day, the Barricade is best suited for users who already know what they're doing.
Here's where the Barricade 54Mbps wireless router shines, particularly for power networkers. To begin with, the unit is a four-port Ethernet router, enabling you to hard wire key desktops and servers. You also get VPN support in the form of PPTP and IPSec pass-through. Most impressive, though, are the built-in firewall features that give the Barricade line its name.
The Intrusion Detection page lets you make various firewall settings.
The firewall protects against hacker intrusion by analyzing individual data packets. SMC claims that it can block colorful assaults such as ping of death, land attack, IP with zero length, smurf attack, IP spoofing, UDP port loopback, snork attack, TCP null scan, and TCP SYN flooding. The router will even send the administrator e-mail in the event of a hack attempt. Advanced users can tweak the intrusion-detection and packet-inspection parameters, adjust time-outs for connections, and fiddle with nine settings to create a custom definition of a denial-of-service attack.
Access-control functions give administrators the unusual ability to restrict available network services for specific clients--regulated, if desired, according to the time of day or the day of the week. Also, parents or administrators can enter URLs or keywords to block specific Web sites or types of sites. You also get MAC address filtering so that only certain computers whose IPs you enter can connect.
The Access Control page lets you limit services to specified clients.
Another nice feature, particularly for small businesses, is the dynamic DNS (DDNS) function, which enables you to use the router to host your own Web site even if you have a dynamic IP. The DDNS configuration screen shunts you to TZO.com, a service that automatically remaps your domain to new IPs as they are assigned by your ISP (a year of service costs $25). As usual, you can also assign a computer on your network as a DMZ open to the Internet, and a port-forwarding feature redirects outside requests to specific machines on your network.
The wireless options are unremarkable. Beyond setting up the SSID, all you get is the ability to choose the operating mode (mixed or 802.11g), enable 64-bit or 128-bit WEP, and select the operating channel. SMC says support for 802.1x authentication and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) will be added by June 2003.
In 802.11g mode, the standout feature of the Barricade 54Mbps wireless router is not its maximum speed--which is an unexceptional 18.1Mbps--but the nice, smooth slope in performance as clients get further from the router. At 75 feet, for example, the Barricade still cooks along at slightly more than 10Mbps. At 100 feet, it manages 5Mbps, higher throughput than any 802.11g router we've tested to date. The only slight disappointment is the mixed-mode (802.11g and 802.11b) performance, which fell to 7Mbps, approximately 1Mbps slower than the fastest 802.11g router we've tested.
Throughput tests (Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Note: *Indicates product meets 802.11g draft specification|
For practical throughput tests, CNET Labs uses NetIQ's Chariot 4.3 software with Chariot 4.4 Endpoints as its benchmark. For wireless testing, the clients and routers are set up to transmit at various distances from the access point and to automatically select the best transmit speed. All tests are run with Chariot software using TCP and are run in our CNET offices over channel 11. Our tests indicate the range you can expect in a typical office environment, but the range in your own home or office may differ. You may be able to achieve better performance in situations where you can establish a clear line of sight. For more details on how we test networking devices, see the CNET Labs site.
SMC has the weirdest warranty policy imaginable. Basically, your warranty lasts a year beyond the date when SMC stops selling your product, but only if you remember to send in your product registration card within 30 days of purchase. Otherwise, you get only a brief 90-day warranty. Few people send in a registration card, so this is a big gotcha for all but the most conscientious users. Given that CNET users have reported problems in the past with malfunctioning SMC products, this policy is worrisome.
SMC makes it easy to find the help you need.
Fortunately, SMC provides toll-free, 24/7 phone support. The company's Web site also has a full catalog of FAQs and product-specific downloads, but as with the documentation, you'll find precious little general information on networking.