Wireless Routers Worth Your Consideration

When it comes to the latest crop of wireless routers, the adage, "you get what you pay for," applies. Here are five products worth taking a look at.

April 30, 2004

8 Min Read
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When it comes to the latest crop of wireless routers, the adage, "you get what you pay for," applies. This product category has gotten wider and deeper over the past year--not only have products become more feature-rich, but you can now find routers that cost as little as $100 alongside others that are more than $1,000. Moreover, this year's vintage includes products that can handle more than one radio frequency.

As a reminder for those VARs who haven't been keeping up, the 802.11 wireless space has three different radio bands. The most popular is the 802.11b spectrum, which is supported on Centrino laptops and across the widest array of devices. But there are also 11a and 11g radios that can handle higher throughputs and greater data loads. So how do you differentiate? Let's take a look at what is available.

I tested five wireless routers and access points: IOGear's Wireless-G Broadband Gateway, Linksys' Wireless-G Broadband Router with SpeedBooster, Gateway's 7001 802.11G Access Point, Proxim's Orinoco AP-4000 Tri-Mode Access Point, and the Fortinet FortiWiFi 60 Gateway. Commonalities include built-in Web servers that make configuration easier, although both the Fortinet and Proxim products have their own command-line interfaces that can be reached by telneting into the router directly. This is some indication of both sophistication and flexibility, but VARs will need to learn the command syntax to make the best use of this feature.

In addition, all of the products can be used in a wide variety of environments as firewalls/routers for small and large networks. They can connect upstream to an ISP as a DHCP client, PPPoE or PPTP, or be set up to use a fixed IP address. All products also offer basic firewall and Network Address Translation protection for their wireless users. And all but the Proxim unit can be used as small network, four-port wired Ethernet switches as well. (The Proxim unit is strictly a wireless access point and does not have any additional wired Ethernet ports.)

All five products also operate on both the 11b and 11g radio bands; the Proxim product includes an 11a radio as well. This makes it useful for VARs that want to tailor the individual wireless access point to a particular environmental condition, mainly because there might be other devices that interfere with the wireless operations that are operating unbeknownst to the VAR doing the installation.

Here's a closer look at each product, starting with the least expensive.

IOGear's Wireless-G Broadband GatewayIOGear's offering is probably the least capable of the five units tested, and with the poorest documentation to boot. Granted, it came with the simplest menu settings, which enabled the unit to be set up quickly. However, simplicity comes at a price, because this unit also has the smallest feature set.

Still, one of its more interesting features is an external USB port that can act as a wireless print server for a network. One of the issues for having networked print servers attached to PCs is that they depend on the kindness of your fellow network users: When they turn off their PCs, there goes the shared printer to the network. Moving the printer to the router is a good solution, but only if your router is located near where you want to have a shared printer in your office or home network. Despite the appeal of a shared printer, I could not get this feature to work properly, between a combination of the bad documentation and unclear menu prompts.

Regardless, if your demands aren't great, and you have fewer than 10 users on a network, then this is a good starting place. If you need a print server that is more capable, then consider other products, including those from Asante and SMC, which have better printer server support.Linksys' Wireless-G Broadband RouterPriced equally low with the IOGear unit is Linksys' router. Fortunately, it has somewhat better documentation and menus and offers more features, including the ability to work with other routers on the network (versus being the sole gateway/router device connected to a cable modem, which is the intent of the IOGear product), and to set up parental controls to filter Internet content or restrict access for particular PCs to particular times of day.

One of the unit's drawbacks is that while it allows you to designate a single computer on the local network in a special zone that networkers refer to as a DMZ, it really places this PC outside the realm and jurisdiction of its firewall. That might not be exactly what you intended. Most routers include an entire subnetwork in their DMZs.

The most promising feature of the Linksys device is what the company calls "SpeedBooster," which increases network throughput by roughly 25 percent. While packet-blaster tests verifed these claims, most users won't really notice much difference in apparent throughput as they download their e-mail and surf the Web. The range of its radio seemed adequate and comparable to the other units.

Gateway's 7001 802.11g Access PointGateway is taking the midpriced spread and aiming squarely at the SMB market with its new line of wireless routers. The routers are part of Gateway's overall networking emphasis, including a larger line of wired switches that will also be announced this month and will be available soon.

The Gateway access points are more expensive than the Linksys and IOGear models, but the extra dough is worth it because they are full of features that you would find in more expensive routers from Cisco, Proxim and others. Included in the unit is support for multiple networks, better and more capable user authentication, and power over Ethernet.Separate virtual LANs can be configured with their own service set identifiers, or SSIDs. This allows different communities of users to run over the same physical access point, such as having all outside contractors on one VLAN and employees on another. In addition, there are two wired network interfaces so that these outside workers can have their own separate physical network as well. Also included with this unit is a 100-user Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service (RADIIUS) server, which enables users to be authenticated without requiring additional gear. Typically, these servers are found on larger enterprise networks, but for the SMB market it makes sense to include the server as part of the router package.

Gateway's support for power over the Ethernet 802.3af standard means you don't need a separate AC power adapter. That is a convenience plus and comes in handy in larger-scale enterprises that support this standard and have configured their networks to transmit power over the unused twisted pairs in their Ethernet cables.

Proxim's Orinoco AP-4000 Tri-Mode Access PointTaking a step up in price also brings a more enterprise-class product into focus, the Orinoco AP-4000 from Proxim. The wall-mounted unit is the only one of the five I tested that doesn't come with an external antenna, yet its signal were just as strong as the others when measured anecdotally around my office. The unit also supports the power-over-Ethernet standard, and offers the ability to keep its firmware updated at all times, which is useful in large network deployments where such upgrades can be painful and are usually ignored.

One of the big advantages of the AP-4000 is its support of multiple logical networks on the same access point. As with Gateway's Access Point, the Proxim also supports multiple VLANs with their own SSIDs, with up to 16 for each wireless interface for added security.

The AP-4000 is the only one of the five units tested that comes with separate 11a and 11b/g radios. Each radio can be configured for separate user communities, too. This comes in handy for those customers and VARs that are migrating from one kind of wireless network to another. Another nice feature is the ability to have control over transmission power level for both radios; power can be reduced in 25 percent increments to match particular environmental conditions. Clearly, with the way that its Web-management interface is designed and the additional features, this is a unit that is meant for multiple networks and larger-scale enterprise installations.Fortinet's FortiWifi 60 GatewayThe top-priced unit in this collection is also the most feature-rich. The most noticeable characteristic about the Forti-Wifi 60 unit is its redundant WAN ports on the back. This means that the router can be connected to two different ISPs and provide service when one link to the Internet fails--a nice feature that isn't found on too many other vendors' products.

That, in fact, is a good metaphor for the capabilities of this product overall. You will find more features and options on this unit than just about anything else available on the market today. The trouble is being able to configure and understand them.

A good example of how Fortinet takes security seriously is that its offering is the only one of the units tested that uses the secure HTTP protocol to connect to its configuration pages. A nice touch, to be sure.

I would characterize the FortiWifi 60 unit as typical of others by this vendor in providing the most extreme security settings. You have all kinds of choices to set up firewall rules between the various ports, including a specialized DMZ port that can be a separate network exposed to the Internet and lives outside the firewall protection of the rest of the attached devices.

Another nice feature is that the unit can handle PCs that were once connected to the wireless network, but were infected. The firewall scans the content of these PCs to prevent further infections or attacks.And, as was mentioned earlier, the unit comes with two USB ports. However, unlike the IOGear unit, these cannot be used for a printer server and are reserved for future and unspecified uses by the vendor.

The range of wireless products continues to increase. These are just five of the newer products that are out there. With the entry of Gateway (and continued presence of Dell and lower-priced products from others), VARs have more opportunities than ever to choose the right products for their customers, both from the low end and the high end.

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