For less than you'd spend on an expensive dinner, Actiontec's new, easy-to-use Wireless-Ready Multimedia Home Gateway lets you share Internet access, peripherals, and files among multiple computers in your home for $130. Add a pair of Actiontec Wireless PC Cards ($100 each) or any other Wi-Fi-compatible adapters and you can wirelessly surf the Web as well. While the gateway has its limitations, particularly its rudimentary firewall protection, it's still a good start for home networkers on a budget. For less than you'd spend on an expensive dinner, Actiontec's new, easy-to-use Wireless-Ready Multimedia Home Gateway lets you share Internet access, peripherals, and files among multiple computers in your home for $130. Add a pair of Actiontec Wireless PC Cards ($100 each) or any other Wi-Fi-compatible adapters and you can wirelessly surf the Web as well. While the gateway has its limitations, particularly its rudimentary firewall protection, it's still a good start for home networkers on a budget.
In a time of space-age designs, the gateway's unassuming, plain exterior is oddly refreshing. This little home-networking nucleus is a mere 7 by 8 by 2 inches and can sit horizontally or vertically on or under your desktop. There's also an optional wall mount for maximum wireless coverage, but don't get too creative; you'll still need to run a power cable to the gateway, along with Ethernet cables for any wired PC connections.
Given its low price and ease of use, the gateway would even work for the SOHO crowd, allowing a person to share a broadband Internet connection with up to 35 computers. The gateway also has several attractive options that set it apart from the competition. On the back of the gateway, you'll find four 10/100 Ethernet ports for wired connections--a must-have feature if you want to swap large video files across the network. By comparison, the Asanté FriendlyNet FR3002AL Wireless Cable/DSL Router has two Ethernet ports, and the Farallon NetLine Wireless Broadband Gateway has only one. The Actiontec gateway's dual PC Card slots, located on the side of the unit, are also unique. The top slot supports 802.11b, which lets you wirelessly communicate with other devices at speeds up to 11Mbps within a 330-foot range via radio waves; the bottom slot adds other networking flavors, including HomePNA, HomePlug, and Bluetooth. The company is working on developing cards for release later this year or early next year. Both slots also support the new 802.11a technology, with throughput speeds of 54Mbps.
If you want to go wireless, it'll cost you a bit more. First, you need to plug Actiontec's Wireless PC Card ($100) or any other Wi-Fi-certified card into the top slot on the side of the gateway. Then you need to plug another card or wireless desktop adapter into each computer you want to network. Depending on the number of computers you have, this step could quickly cost more than the gateway itself. Actiontec plans to sell kits that include the gateway and one or more Wireless PC Cards in time for the holidays (at post time, prices had not been set).
Provided your desktop runs Windows 95 and above or Mac OS 7.1 and higher, installing the gateway is simple. Before you get started, you'll need to configure the network settings of each PC you plan to network. Actiontec walks you through the process in the included, illustrated setup guide. Then you plug in the power supply and connect the cable from your broadband modem to the gateway's LAN port. Finally, plug in the RJ-45 (Ethernet) cable(s) from your PC's NIC to one of the gateway's four Ethernet ports (Actiontec includes one RJ-45 Ethernet cable to help you get started). After a quick restart, you handle further maintenance and management via your Web browser, using the provided IP address.
The Web-based management interface makes configuration easy. Simply open your Web browser and type the provided URL into the address bar. When the installation wizard appears, click the Begin Basic Setup button and follow the onscreen instructions. The wizard asks you a few simple questions about your connection, then it automatically configures your system. From this interface, users can also control features such as firewall services (for example, blocking specific sites), log files, throughput thresholds, protocol support, file/print sharing, and so on.
The firewall is this gateway's biggest problem. Actiontec offers rudimentary protections, such as blocking specific Internet content and auditing browser trails. But the gateway doesn't currently offer a hacker-pattern inspection and blocking feature to protect against threats such as IP spoofing and other hacker subterfuges. It also doesn't send e-mail alerts of hacking attacks. While the likelihood that a home network will be hacked is theoretically small, if security's important to you, you'll have to add it yourself.
The Wireless-Ready Multimedia Home Gateway performed satisfactorily in CNET Labs' throughput tests. The gateway was a bit slower than both the Asanté and the Farallon, but its speed was still more than adequate for home use, especially if you just want to surf the Web wirelessly. Actiontec claims you can roam within 330 feet of the gateway, but since range is determined by environment, your experience will most likely differ, depending on the walls, floors, and other obstructions between your computer and the gateway. Your signal can also fade due to distance or interference from metal objects, cordless phones, or other sources, so as you roam farther from the gateway, the data transmit speeds drop to 5.5Mbps, then 2Mbps, and finally 1Mbps before quitting altogether.
One area where Actiontec fails to measure up to the competition is in service and support. The company backs the gateway with a mere one-year limited warranty, compared with 3Com's five-year warranty for its Home Wireless Gateway. The company's long tech support hours--6 a.m. to 11 p.m. PT every day--would be better if you didn't have to pay for the phone call; 3Com offers toll-free phone support. At least you can find a lot of answers yourself if you do a little digging on the Actiontec Web site. The product support page offers FAQs, firmware updates, a troubleshooting guide, a basic online tutorial, a user manual, and setup instructions for the major ISPs, including EarthLink, Sprint, Pac Bell, and AT&T.
The Actiontec Wireless-Ready Multimedia Home Gateway is a smart way to share a broadband connection in your home. At a mere $130, the device is definitely the low-cost leader in this category, and it's easy to set up and configure. Just remember that wireless will cost you extra, and you may want beefier security than the gateway provides on its own.
Practical throughput measured in Mbps (longer bars indicate better performance)
How we tested
For practical throughput rate tests, CNET Labs uses NetIQ's Chariot software as its benchmark. The clients and gateways were set up to transmit at short ranges and maximum signal strength. The Actiontec Wireless-Ready Multimedia Home Gateway was a little slower than the competition, but its performance should still be satisfactory for home users.