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Thanks to a new breed of inexpensive, easy-to-use routers, people with small networks in their homes or offices can share DSL or cable connections and boost security at the same time. These routers are simple to set up using your Web browser, and they'll have your Macs (or PCs) working together in no time.
We looked at Farallon's NetLine Broadband Gateway, MaxGate's Ugate-3200P, Netgear's RT314, and SMC's Barricade. We found that the Ugate-3200P had the most to offer, and that the others still can't compare with the EtherFast, from Linksys ( Reviews, August 2000)-it's our second choice.
Just about any router that uses Ethernet and can be configured in a Web browser will work with a Mac. Many routers have Windows-centric documentation, but if you can decipher setup instructions from pictures of a Windows Web browser, you'll be fine.
Setting Up Shop
We tested each router with a sage iMac DV, a Power Mac G4, and a DSL connection, using a static IP address. We configured the routers using Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 (Netscape Navigator 4 or Internet Explorer 4 or newer are recommended). The NetLine Broadband Gateway was by far the easiest to set up, thanks to its well-written, clearly labeled setup card.
The RT314 featured a Web-based setup wizard, but instructions included in the box made no mention of the Mac. The wizard, which uses your answers to a series of questions to configure the router, spares you having to tinker with expert settings such as the DHCP-server IP-address range and the number of nodes-for example, computers or printers connected to the network. (The RT314 has a 32-node limit, while the others allow 252.) You can opt to configure this router using Telnet, circumventing the wizard, but doing so is awkward and time-consuming.
Setting up the Barricade was problematic. It ships with instructions on a CD-ROM that isn't Mac-compatible. We managed to find the Read Me file and use it to get started, but a hybrid-format CD could have saved a lot of extra time and effort.
The Ugate-3200P, housed in a slick, thin, metallic case, is as pleasant to set up as it is to look at. It features a step-by-step Web-based setup with specific instructions for Mac users. For most routers, your TCP/IP control panel should be set for DHCP, but the directions for our unit suggested first setting up the Mac manually (the company plans to rewrite these directions to describe the DHCP setup instead). The Ugate-3200P also comes with a service called Dynamic DNS, which lets users without static IP addresses host servers using a DHCP connection. The router handles the changing IP addresses so that you can always reach your machine over the Internet-a handy feature if you want access from afar. The service is free for the first year; after that, it costs $25 per year. The Ugate-3200P also includes a print server, which theoretically allows you to share certain parallel-port printers across a network of Macs. However, this feature was not implemented in time for us to test it.
Ports of Call
The four routers we looked at feature both 10BaseT and 100BaseT bandwidth, with auto-sensing capabilities so they can choose between the two as needed. Each also has a Wide Area Network (WAN) port for your cable or DSL modem. They differ primarily in the number of Ethernet ports. The RT314 and the Barricade have four ports. (The Barricade also comes in an eight-port configuration that costs $186.)
The NetLine Broadband Gateway has only one Ethernet port, so you'll need an additional hub to use it with more than one machine. And its WAN port is limited to 10BaseT. A router such as this is useful only if you already have a network and you just want to add a DHCP server and DSL-sharing capabilities. (The Netline Broadband Gateway's small footprint makes it easy to add to an existing network.)
The Ugate-3200P features more ports than most home users will know what to do with: seven Ethernet ports as well as an uplink port (used to connect additional hubs and switches).
From an industrial-design perspective, all of the routers were straightforward and functional, except for the Barricade. Its power cord frequently fell out of the router, and a light on top blinked amber as though something were wrong, but that is its way of saying that everything is OK.
One of the most important benefits of adding a router to your DSL or cable-modem connection is the enhanced security from Network Address Translation (NAT). Using NAT, the router assigns computers behind it IP addresses that users on the Internet can't detect.
And each of the four routers we looked at offers the convenience of PPPoE (PPP over Ethernet). During setup, you enter the log-in information provided by your ISP, and thereafter the router will connect whenever a computer on the network makes a request.
Macworld's buying advice: If you want to prepare for the day your network grows beyond the two or three machines you now have, the Ugate-3200P, from MaxGate, is the best choice. With seven ports, as well as an uplink port for adding more hubs and a print server, this router has the most flexibility. Setup is easy, and the free year of Dynamic DNS service is a bonus. For smaller networks, you may want to take a look at Linksys's EtherFast ( Reviews , August 2000). If you already have a small network with an Ethernet hub, the NetLine Broadband Gateway, from Farallon, is a fine choice.From left: the MaxGate Ugate-3200P, the Farallon NetLine Broadband Gateway, the SMC Barricade, and the Netgear RT314