If you want to share your broadband Internet connection and make a wireless network, there's good news for you: you no longer need to buy a router and a separate base station. A new breed of routers that features the wireless technology of the Apple AirPort Base Station is now hitting the market. Macworld Lab tested five wireless routers ranging from $220 to $305: Farallon's NetLine Wireless Broadband Gateway, Buffalo Technology's AirStation, MaxGate's UGate-3300, Macsense Connectivity's XRouter Aero, and SMC's Barricade Wireless Broadband Router.
Although most of these routers are less expensive than AirPort, they aren't right for every network: unlike AirPort, which has a 56K modem jack, they don't support analog modem connections.
All the routers we tested include either printed or PDF instructions for setting up your router -- however, only the XRouter, NetLine Wireless Broadband Gateway, and UGate-3300 offer Mac-specific instructions. The Barricade includes screen shots of only Windows-based Web browsers, although the setup process is the same for Windows machines and Macs. The only significant problem we encountered was with the AirStation, which shipped with instructions only for its Windows setup application. Although you can set up the AirStation in the same way that you do the other routers, the AirStation manual doesn't mention it. (At press time, Buffalo Technology said that it planned to include Mac-specific instructions in the future.)
It Was an Obvious Setup
Normally, you'll set up your router by establishing a wireless connection directly to a computer and configuring it through a Web browser. We tested them on a network consisting of a 500MHz PowerMac G4, an Indigo iBook, and a Flower Power iMac. All of our machines were enabled with AirPort cards, and we used the G4 to configure the routers.
Configuring your wireless router isn't much more complicated than setting up a broadband Internet connection: it's a matter of entering your IP address (if you have a static IP address), DNS server IP numbers, a gateway address, and a router address. If you're using a DHCP network, you can simply check the appropriate box during the setup process, and the router will automatically retrieve your TCP/IP information. If you're using a PPPoE network, setup is even easier: you can simply type in your name and password, and the router will take care of the rest.
All of the directions were easy to follow, with the exception of those for the AirStation. However, we found the NetLine Wireless Broadband Gateway, the Ugate-3300, and the XRouter the easiest to set up; all three provide simple, intuitive interfaces. In comparison, setting up the AirStation wasn't easy, as the on-screen instructions were frequently confusing.
Smooth Network Traffic
All of the routers we tested offer one significant advantage over the Apple AirPort Base Station: two Ethernet ports, one for a WAN port for your Internet connection and another for a LAN port for your home network. In addition, the Barricade offers three ports, and the AirStation and the XRouter Aero have a four-port 10/100 switch. Unlike AirPort, which provides only one Ethernet port, these routers give you an edge in security by keeping your inbound Internet connection on a separate line from your local network. With the additional Ethernet ports, even if you have a DSL or cable modem, you can network older Macs with Ethernet or new Macs with AirPort, something you can't do with AirPort unless you buy an Ethernet hub.
The UGate-3300 and the NetLine Wireless Broadband Gateway are upgradeable, an important, economical feature. Both routers have a PC slot that contains a removable wireless networking PC card. (The NetLine Wireless Broadband Gateway comes with the same 11Mb Farallon SkyLine PC Card popular with PowerBook users.) Having a removable PC card maintains the value of your investment, and the PC card format doesn't result in a significant disadvantage in range compared with the routers that sport antennae, such as the Barricade and the XRouter Aero. The AirStation also has an intriguing feature: the ability to double its range with an added external antenna ($80). (Keep in mind, however, that vendor claims tend to be based on the best-case scenario. For example, a wall or two in between your router and your computer could interfere with your connection.)
Tales of Encryption
Be warned: whenever you're using a wireless router, your digital data is up for an airborne free-for-all. As a result, you'll need to protect it from any prying eyes within range, or lock it down so that you don't unknowingly share your Internet connection with your neighbor. The NetLine Wireless Broadband Gateway and the UGate-3300 provide the most security: both have 128-bit encryption. The Barricade and the Buffalo AirStation feature a more moderate 64-bit encryption, while the XRouter Aero offers the same 40-bit encryption as the Apple AirPort.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Using both Mac OS 9.1 and Mac OS X, we tested the wireless routers with a variety of activities: FTP downloads, checking e-mail, surfing the Web, and file sharing (both AppleTalk and AFP). In all our tests, the routers worked without a problem. However, whether you're adding wireless technology to an existing network or starting your first network, the MaxGate UGate-3300 is an excellent choice; it offers high encryption, an upgradeable wireless PC card, and an exceptional price. On the other hand, if you have both old and new Macs, the XRouter Aero is a wise choice. With wireless technology for your AirPort-ready Macs and a built-in four-port 10/100 switch for the rest, this one unit can cover all your needs.