Although Apple's $299 AirPort Base Station provides wireless networking capabilities and routing in a stylish and shapely package (Reviews, April 2002), it's hardly the only option when it comes to setting up wireless networks. For as little as half the cost of the Base Station, you can buy an AirPort-compatible wireless router that offers most of the AirPort Base Station's features (and in some cases, even more). While a few of the seven wireless routers in this roundup aren't particularly easy to set up from a die-hard Mac user's perspective, others provide a solid set of features at a price that rivals AirPort's.
Macworld Lab tested seven Mac-compatible wireless broadband routers that use the same IEEE 802.11b technology (which Apple calls AirPort and other companies call Wi-Fi) found in Apple's AirPort cards and Base Station: Agere Systems' Orinoco BG-2000, Belkin's Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router F5D6230-3, Buffalo's AirStation WLAR-L11G-L, D-Link's D-Link Air DI-714 Wireless Gateway, Linksys's EtherFast Wireless AP + Cable/DSL Router BEFW11S4, Netgear's MR-314 Cable/DSL Wireless Router, and Zoom's ZoomAir IG-4165.
All the products we tested support a broadband Internet connection over Ethernet, have a Web-browserbased administration interface for initial setup and maintenance, and include 128bit WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) encryption and Net-work Address Translation (NAT). They also support PPPoE (Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet), which is required by some broadband service providers. And although they don't include built-in modems, as the AirPort Base Station does, the D-Link and Zoom routers facilitate dial-up Internet access by including a serial modem port for an external 56K modem.
Each router in this review also includes a DHCP server that provides IP addresses to wired and wireless clients when they join the network, giving each a local network identity and access to the Internet. All but the Orinoco BG-2000 include two to four switched 10/100BaseT Ethernet ports you can use to connect wired computers or printers directly to the router, providing dedicated bandwidth for the computer or printer connected to it and thus increasing network speed.
If you want to use AppleTalk to print from a wireless computer, your choices narrow to the four products we tested that provide AppleTalk routing for both wired and wireless Macs: the Orinoco, the AirStation, the MR-314, and the ZoomAir.
We set up each of our seven wireless routers with little trouble, but most hiccuped once or twice. We connected each router to the Internet via a DSL modem and to a local network consisting of a Power Mac G4 with an Apple AirPort card running Mac OS X 10.1.3; a PowerBook G3 with a Lucent Orinoco Silver PC card running Mac OS 9; and two wired computers, a desktop Power Mac and a Dell PC running Windows 2000. We tested PPPoE features on a different network featuring a wired Mac, a wireless PC, and the wireless PowerBook G3.
To get a wireless router up and running, you first connect the router to your cable, DSL, or dial-up modem and then connect a Mac to the router via an Ethernet cable for the initial configuration. Next, you'll need to configure TCP/IP on that Mac, locate the router's IP address, and enter it into a Web-browser interface to reach the administration interface. Once you've finished choosing administrative options in a browser, you'll need to set up a client driver (usually AirPort software) for each wireless Mac.
If you haven't configured TCP/IP settings before, you won't get much help from the documentation provided with most of these routers: the instructions are generally geared toward Windows users. To their credit, Netgear, Agere, and Buffalo offer Mac TCP/IP setup instructions, while Belkin and Zoom avoid the issue by giving general setup information and referring users to their computers' documentation. D-Link and Linksys provide Windows-specific instructions that Mac users who have experience setting up TCP/IP should be able to interpret. Only Buffalo's documentation provides Mac configuration instructions for configuring TCP/IP and AirPort settings in OS 9 and OS X, though it's poorly written.
Then you'll need to connect the administrator Mac to the router via a Web browser and begin the process of setting networking and wireless options: though the options themselves are the same in most products, the ease of configuration varied widely among the routers we tested. Belkin and D-Link use browser-based setup-wizard interfaces to walk you through configuration, making it easy to follow and refer back to your settings. The least intuitive interface belongs to the Buffalo AirStation; its cluttered series of screens feature error messages badly translated into English, and it provides no guidance on choosing settings specific to the kind of Internet connection you're using. Though all of the routers' Web interfaces offer some online help, Agere does the best job of integrating it into the setup pages themselves.
Making (and Keeping) the Connection
When we set up the Belkin router, we noticed that it would periodically lose its Internet connection. Belkin's tech support suggested a firmware upgrade, which, we were told, would have to be done from OS 9. The upgrade was not successful, even when we repeated the process on a Windows 2000 machine. By contrast, our upgrade of Netgear's firmware from a Mac running OS X was successful.
In terms of ongoing router management, the Orinoco is an innovator, with several features that will appeal to business users, such as a choice of Web, terminal, or SNMP access, as well as the ability to create different configuration profiles for the router that can be used when the router is moved. You can also export the Orinoco's system-log file, a feature you'll find in the MR-314 router as well.
Wireless security has been a hot topic ever since security experts broke the WEP encryption scheme in mid-2001. WEP will remain the standard means of securing a wireless network until the IEEE ratifies an improved technology, and the routers we tested do include security mechanisms you can use to limit access. For instance, all the routers we tested provide MAC (Media Access Control) address control, allowing you to enable access to your network only for machines with known MAC addresses.
The routers we tested also include firewalls that prevent access from outside your network to clients on your local network. But if you want outsiders to be able to access the network, in the case of Web servers or other types of remote servers, all allow for a virtual server (also called port forwarding) that exposes one or more ports that you specify to the outside world. Netgear and Zoom shine in this category, providing a convenient list of popular port types that you can use to create a virtual server.
If you need to access files or download e-mail at home from your office network, VPN support may be a prerequisite for making a connection. If your company uses a VPN, you'll need a router that supports it. The routers in our roundup from Agere Systems, D-Link, Linksys, Zoom, and Netgear support VPN pass-through using IPsec, the standard VPN protocol. Check with your system administrator to find out which type of VPN support you need.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Apple's AirPort Base Station offers a few key features that you won't find in any of the seven routers we tested: A built-in modem, AOL support, and Mac-specific documentation. If you require any of those features, the AirPort is your best bet. But if you can forgo those options or if you need VPN support or multiple switched Ethernet ports, one of the routers in this review will most likely serve you better--and at a lower price.
We highly recommend the Netgear MR-314 Cable/DSL Wireless Router, for its welcome Mac-friendliness, excellent admin interface, and great price. The Zoom ZoomAir IG-4165, with AppleTalk support, Mac-specific documentation, and its two-port Ethernet switch, comes close to (and sometimes outdoes) the AirPort Base Station in features, and it costs $100 less.l
Wireless Broadband Routers Compared
A Guide to the Wireless Alphabet Soup
All the wireless routers in our review, along with Apple's AirPort, adhere to the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, pronounced "I triple E") 802.11b standard, a radio-based protocol operating in the 2.4GHz frequency band (the same band used by microwave ovens). 802.11b is the leading wireless-LAN standard today, but there are others, both IEEE follow-ups and technologies being promoted by other industry groups.
The 802.11b offerings have come to be known as Wi-Fi (you'll see a Wi-Fi certification logo on many wireless products). True Wi-Fi products have been certified by WECA (the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance) as being compliant with the IEEE standard.
Here's a brief look at some of the wireless standards coming our way--and where they're going.
* 802.11a signals can travel at the blazingly fast speed of 54 Mbps, albeit at a much shorter range than 802.11b. But because 802.11a operates in the uncluttered 5GHz band, it's much less susceptible to interference from the multitude of 2.4GHz devices, such as cordless phones and wireless security systems. Though some companies, including D-Link, Netgear, and Proxim, already offer 802.11a products, they're currently incompatible with 802.11b networks.
* 802.11g is a high-speed version of 802.11b that operates in the same 2.4GHz band at speeds as fast as 54 Mbps and has a range nearly as good as 802.11b's: hundreds of feet. However, despite achieving 802.11a's speed with a much further reach, 802.11g probably won't be ratified by the IEEE until the middle of next year, which means companies are not building products that use it. Still, many industry observers believe that 802.11g will eventually supplant 802.11a, because it offers backward compatibility with 802.11b products.
* Supporting standards for security (802.11i), spectrum management (802.11h), and quality of service (802.11e) are also working their way toward ratification and will probably be integrated into wireless products in the next two years. These subsidiary standards will enhance Wi-Fi capabilities by working over whatever standard you use, 802.11a, -b, or -g.
* Touted as a networking technology before 802.11b emerged, Bluetooth was held back by its short range. Like 802.11b and 802.11g, Bluetooth operates in the 2.4GHz radio band. Both Apple and Microsoft have begun promoting the technology as a way to wirelessly connect PDAs, keyboards, monitors, and other peripherals to computers, but Bluetooth's severe range limitations make it impractical for creating wireless networks.
* Before 802.11b there was HomeRF, a 2 Mbps 2.4GHz standard that competed with 802.11b. But the radio-based standard, which was once championed by Intel, has largely gone the way of the dinosaur, mainly because it can't match the speed or range of 802.11b. No Mac-friendly HomeRF products are available.