Wireless Broadband Routers

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Do you want to take advantage of a wireless network while at the same time sharing your broadband Internet connection? Thanks to a new breed of routers based on the wireless technology used in Apple's AirPort Base Station, you no longer need to purchase both a router and a Base Station to achieve this goal.

Macworld Lab tested six routers ranging in price from $220 to $379: the FriendlyNet FR3002AL, from Asanté; the AirStation, from Buffalo Technology; the XRouter Aero, from Macsense Connectivity; the UGate-3300, from Macsense Connectivity; the Netline Wireless Broadband Gateway, from Proxim (formerly from Farallon); and the Barricade Wireless Broadband Router from SMC Networks. We found that while these routers generally offer significant advantages over the $299 AirPort, they aren't right for every network; unlike the AirPort, which has a built-in 56K modem jack, none of these routers support analog modem connections.

No Manual Labor

You set up a wireless router as you would any router: by connecting it directly to your computer and configuring it via a Web browser. We tested these routers on a network comprising a 500MHz Power Mac G4 (used to configure the routers), a Flower Power iMac, and an indigo iBook. All our machines were equipped with AirPort cards, but PowerBooks from 1999 and earlier can also use Proxim's SkyLine Wireless PC Card (3.0 mice; http://www.macworld.com/2000/08/09/reviews/skyline.html ) or Lucent's Orinoco PC Card Silver (4.0 mice; http://www.macworld.com/2000/06/features/cutloose.html ).

All the routers we tested include either printed or PDF setup instructions; the FriendlyNet comes with both. Most of the routers offer Mac-specific setup instructions, even though setup usually takes place in a browser, making the process identical for both Macs and PCs. The exceptions are the Barricade, which nonetheless has adequate instructions for Mac setup, and the AirStation, which comes with a Windows-only setup application. Although you can set up the AirStation through a Web browser, the manual doesn't mention this. (Buffalo Technology says it plans to include Mac-specific instructions in the future.)

Configuring a wireless router isn't much more complicated than setting up a broadband Internet connection: simply enter your IP address (if it's static), DNS server IP numbers, a gateway address, and a router address. If you're using a DHCP network, check the appropriate box during the setup process, and the router will retrieve your TCP/IP information for you. If you're using a PPPoE network, setup is even easier: type in your name and password, and the router takes care of the rest.

All but one of the routers had easy-to-follow directions: the AirStation's on-screen instructions were frequently confusing. In contrast, we found that the simple, intuitive interfaces of the Netline, UGate-3300, XRouter, and FriendlyNet made for easy setup.

Using both Mac OS 9.1 and Mac OS X, we tested the wireless routers by performing a variety of activities: FTP downloads, checking e-mail, surfing the Web, and sharing files (via AppleTalk and AFP). In all our tests, the routers worked well and presented no problems.

Airborne Advantages

The six routers we tested have one significant advantage over the AirPort Base Station: each includes at least two Ethernet ports. Having two ports means that you can use one for your Internet connection and one for your local network, keeping the two connections on separate lines for better security.

The Barricade has a third port, and the AirStation and XRouter have a built-in four-port 10/100 switch. With the additional Ethernet ports, you can network older Macs via Ethernet and new Macs via AirPort, even if you have a cable modem or DSL--something you can do with AirPort and the two-port routers only if you buy an Ethernet hub.

A distinct advantage of the Netline, the FriendlyNet, and the UGate-3300 is that they're all easy to upgrade. Each has a built-in PC slot that holds a removable 11 Mbps wireless networking card: the Netline comes with a Proxim SkyLine Wire-less PC Card; the FriendlyNet, with an AeroLAN card; and the UGate-3300, with an Intersil Prism card. Because the PC Card determines your maximum network speed, you'll need to purchase only a new PC Card, rather than a whole new router, to take advantage of higher network speeds. And using a PC Card doesn't give these routers significantly less range than that of the Barricade and the XRouter, which both sport antennae. (Buffalo Technology sells an $80 antenna for the AirStation to extend its range.)

The FriendlyNet has a unique feature that rids your Mac of one more cable: a built-in, Mac-compatible print server. Although the UGate also has a print server, it doesn't support Macs.

Security Alert

Be forewarned: whenever you're using a wireless router, your data is essentially up for grabs. These routers need to encrypt data to protect it from any prying eyes within range. The Netline, the UGate-3300, and the FriendlyNet offer 128-bit encryption; the Barricade and the AirStation follow, with 64-bit encryption. The XRouter offers the same 40-bit encryption as the AirPort Base Station. While all these encryption levels are sufficient to discourage the casual eavesdropper, none offers true security. If you routinely transfer highly sensitive information, a wireless router--even one that adheres to the most current security standards--is probably not for you.

The FriendlyNet suffers from a security incompatibility with the Apple AirPort card. Because the router and card process the WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) protocol Security Key differently, the card doesn't recognize the key you enter and leaves your data unencrypted. Although the manual recommends disabling security features on both the card and the router so they can be used together, there's an easy workaround: type a $ sign before the security key for the router and the AirPort card.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Whether you're adding wireless technology to an existing network or setting up your first network, MaxGate's UGate-3300 is an excellent choice; it offers a high level of encryption and upgradability at an exceptional price. If you need to network old and new Macs together, Macsense Connectivity's XRouter Aero is a good option; through its built-in four-port 10/100 switch, even Macs without AirPort cards can join the network.

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