Wireless networking is an extremely popular and efficient way of distributing a broadband internet connection throughout a household. When setting up a network required pulling Ethernet cable through walls, very few households drilled holes to build their network, and typically had only one computer hooked into the ‘net. Many of us had their computer in the basement, close to the broadband connection. Tangles of wires are clearly not things of beauty. With the introduction of wireless home networking, a far more elegant and tidier method of setting up a network gained popularity. Now, we could put our drills away, and connect a whole house of computers and peripherals with no wires!
The original wireless 802.11b standard got replaced by the faster wireless 802.11g standard. Both operate on the 2.4 GHz frequency. (The less common 802.11a wireless standard operates on the less congested 5.8 GHz frequency). Crowding 2.4 GHz frequency are microwaves, the most popular cordless phones, and the wireless 802.11b and 802.11g standards. This portion of the spectrum is especially packed in urban areas. In other words, your neighbor’s “gigarange” phone and wireless network, as well as the WiFi hotspot at the Starbuck’s on the corner all are competing for a narrow piece of the electromagnetic radio spectrum. It’s a real marvel that any of these devices can function with all of this interference.
Furthermore, when wireless networking was envisioned, no one planned on using it for streaming audio and video, across multiple computers as well as other platforms. In short, it was faster than the broadband internet connections, and that was more than fast enough. Today’s networking requirements are outstripping the available bandwidth of current wireless networks. With wireless chips in every notebook sold, many handhelds, and now bandwidth hungry media streaming devices, the wireless network that started out as a convenience, is transitioning to a key component of any household computer as well as electronics setup.
Not to worry though. The crafty engineers over at the IEEE are hard at work. These are the same folks that helped bring us such standards as parallel ports, Firewire, and the previous wireless networks. The plan is for faster, longer ranging, and more stable wireless connections in the 802.11n standard. While this all sounds great, the detail is that the standard is not planned to be ratified until 2007. Manufacturers just can’t wait to build (and sell) better networking products, so the current vogue is to label the current crop as “pre-n” which is not really part of any IEEE standard. No matter though, the bottom line is that if it works, who cares what we call it!
The latest innovation is called MIMO technology . MIMO stands for multiple in, multiple out. This refers to the use of multiple antennae on the equipment, a recent development. In all previous devices, from your AM radio in the back of the closet (remember those?), to your cell phone, or to your satellite radio, one antenna transmits the signal, and at the other end, another antenna receives the data. For a stronger transmitter, put up a taller antenna, and increase the power to the signal. Well, in wireless networking, the engineers are taking a different approach. By FAA regulations, the signal for WiFi equipment is limited to a measly 100 mW. Also, most of us are not enthusiastic about installing an antenna on our roof to improve our network coverage in the backyard. (Even if we are, our neighbors are not). MIMO uses several antennae to simultaneously broadcast the same data across 3 channels. The signal is simultaneously received on 3 antennae on the receiving end, and the data is reconstructed into one unified stream at the other end. This technology serves to increase the speed, and reliability at which the data can be sent, especially in an environment with interference present.
That lengthy introduction serves as a backdrop to our evaluation of the Belkin Pre-N Router and Wireless Notebook Network Card. Up until a year ago, when one thought of networking, Belkin was not the first company to come to mind; however, that definitely has changed. They currently have a full line of networking products including routers, notebook cards, and USB adaptors. The Pre-N lineup, which is the focus of this article, currently is their top of the line networking hardware. It’s likely to remain that way until 2007 when the IEEE approves the “n” standard.
I’m approaching this review from the stand point of how easy it is for a regular end user to set up a wireless network. My broadband connection consists of a DSL connection from Verizon. I will attempt to add three computers to the network. My notebook (running Windows XP Home) will be using Belkin’s Pre-N Card Adaptor, and my desktop (running Windows XP Pro) via a USB wireless adaptor. Finally, I will add an older desktop, running the older Windows ME via a wired Ethernet connector from a PCI card. I’ll highlight any pitfalls or speed bumps along the way. When it is all connected, we will take a look at transmission speeds under “real world” conditions.
What’s In The Boxes?
The first box (unusually trapezoid shaped) contains the Belkin Wireless Pre-N Router. The router retails for $159, but I have seen it for sale at lower prices.
Contained in the box is the following:
-Pre-N Router with three attached antenna, 6.7 x 7.2 x 1.3 inches
-Ethernet cat 5 cable
-CD-ROM of installation drivers
-quick start guide
-parental control manual
The second trapezoidal box contains the Belkin Wireless Pre-N Notebook Network Card. The package also includes installation software, a user manual, and a quick start guide. The card retails for $99, but again, it often sells for less. I would like to have seen some type of carrying case included as the card should be removed from the notebook when stowed in a bag, but there is none. In Belkin’s defense, as far as I know, other companies don’t include any type of carrying case either for their wireless cards.
A desktop adaptor is available, but there is currently no USB adaptor in the Pre-N family (I don’t believe any other company makes a Pre-N USB adaptor either). Of note, the desktop adaptor appears to be based around the notebook card in a PCI slot form factor; I would expect it to perform very similarly.
The Belkin Pre-N Router has three antennae on the front of the device, and is designed to be placed on a desk or shelf. Alternatively, it can be mounted on a wall, but then the antennae won’t stand up straight. It is constructed out of plastic with ventilation holes on both the top and the bottom. Unfortunately, the antennae are permanently attached to the unit, and can’t be swapped out for a high gain version. On the left side of the unit are several LED’s.
The rear of the device has a few ports, all color coded for easy setup. The green port is where the router gets connected to the modem with an Ethernet cable. The white port on the right is for the power connector. Kudos to Belkin for making the power supply a distance from the plug so it doesn’t take up three outlets in my surge strip! Finally, in the blue area there are four wired ports to directly connect up to four computers with Ethernet cabling. In other words, the Belkin router has a 4 port Ethernet switch built into it. After all, why connect something wirelessly if it is right next to the router anyway!
Down the left side of the unit are a series of green LED’s. Not only do they look cool, but they indicate networking information as well, and aid in troubleshooting. The top LED indicates power to the unit. The next one down lets you know that the wireless signal is being transmitted. The 3rd one down labeled is “internet,” when it is on, it means that the router has an active connection to the web. The bottom four LED’s, labeled one to four above “LAN” (which stands for local area network) correspond to the four wired Ethernet ports on the rear of the unit. This allows you to connect up to four computers directly to the router with a wired connection. Only the ports that are plugged into a computer will illuminate.
The Belkin Pre-N Router even includes a recessed reset button. This serves to factory reset the router if the settings get fouled up. I doubt most users will need this, but it is a nice safety net. The router also supports 64 bit WEP, 128 bit WEP, and the latest WPA encryption protocols. There is an included firewall, and a 6 month trial to a parental blocker. I think Belkin packed every feature they could think of into this router (except the kitchen sink).
Turning our attention to Belkin’s Wireless Pre-N Notebook Network Card reveals a standard PCMIA card. This is designed to work in the side slot of a notebook. With the card inserted, it does protrude out a little bit showing its two LED’s. One LED indicates the card is receiving power, the other that it is connected to a WiFi network. It only takes a few seconds to place the card in the slot. It’s amazing they can put an antenna in such a small device.
I have read many networking “horror stories” through the years about the myriad of difficulties that users encounter when setting up their wireless network. The gear does often work eventually, but only countless hours of sweat and effort.
I therefore approached the installation with some trepidation. Thankfully, Belkin has made the process not only painless, but also idiot proof. The installation sequence involves starting with the computer attached via a wired connection. The installation CD starts by collecting relevant info about your system and internet connection. Then, it prompts you to connect the router in sequence. All of this is clearly laid out using diagrams in the installer, and the color coded ports on the back of Belkin’s router make this abundantly clear to anyone with more than a first grade education! Belkin even put a sticker over the ports on the router to remind any “eager beavers” to not plug the router in until prompted by the software; now this is going the extra mile.
I timed the whole process from start to finish. I was amazed that it took only 6 minutes total! And this was on a notebook with only 24x CD drive. This is the fastest computer peripheral I’ve ever installed except for a USB key, with no included software.
After the Belkin Pre-N Router was up and running, it prompted me to check for a firmware upgrade. There was none, but it was efficient of the router to do this, as this is the kind of thing that most users are either not aware of, or probably would put off indefinitely.
Feeling confident that now I had my Belkin wireless router up and running, I now turned my attention to installing the Wireless Pre-N Notebook Network Card. This was also a no brainer. I inserted the installation CD. When prompted, I slid the Pre-N Card into the slot. In five minutes, from start to finish, the card was installed, and connected wirelessly to the internet. I think someone must have pushed the “easy button” like in the Staple’s commercial.
Now deciding to push my luck, I connected my Windows ME machine to Belkin’s router with a length of Ethernet cable. I clicked on Internet Explorer, and Iwas on the web. In short, no drivers, no hassle, no settings, and I am connected. This was no challenge whatsoever, and everything else in life should be so simple. (Whoever pays the “Geek Squad” for setup is clearly wasting their money with Belkin’s wireless networking gear). In general, you should always use the shortest length of cable as it will be neater, and faster as the signal traverses less wire. However, I used a 25 foot Belkin cat 5e Ethernet cable, which I owned from another project, and it worked just fine.
The desktop, running Windows XP Pro, with a USB wireless adaptor also connected right away to the Belkin router. It was very quick and painless. And once it the desktop connected, it never lost the signal and had to reconnect! In a little over ½ hour I had a network of three computers set up. I was starting to feel like a maven of wireless networking.
Just a word about the documentation that Belkin provided. In this era of “the manual is on the CD,” it’s refreshing to see that both Belkin’s router and card came with a quick start guide, and a user manual. The quick start guide, true to its name, had just enough information to get you up and running with a minimum of reading, supported by excellent illustrations. Each manual was well written, comprehensive, and covered every scenario in a well organized fashion. I applaud Belkin in providing such excellent printed documentation for these products (this is unfortunately exceedingly rare these days).
Here at Live Digitally, we pride ourselves on “real world” testing; in other words, not some pristine conditions that an end user will never actually use the device in. To that end, the Belkin Pre-N Router was placed in a basement, along a cement wall, on a table. Above the wall, is the pictured ductwork, crossing at right angles just above the router (remember: metal reflects radio waves). There are also a variety of wires (electrical, telephone, alarm, and Ethernet), fluorescent lights and pipes that run along the basement ceiling. I intend to use my notebook on the main floor of the house. There are also two of my neighbor’s wireless networks that get transmitted into my house to the point that my 2.4 GHz cordless phone cannot be used in portions of the house. This is as real world as it gets! I was putting this MIMO technology to a real test of its abilities. If it can get through all the metalwork and electricity between my basement and room, it could get through just about anything.
Pictured is the notebook wirelessly connected to the Belkin Pre-N Router using two different wireless adaptors. In the first configuration, I am using the notebook’s built in wireless, and in the second the Belkin Wireless Pre-N Notebook Network Card. The notebook is in the identical spot, and detecting two of my neighbor’s networks, one of which is quite strong, registering 47%. The notebook is about 50 feet away from the router, with a floor in between, and the myriad of metallic and electric obstacles mentioned before.
The notebook’s internal wireless has a link quality of 95%. It can receive data at 54 mbps (the theoretical maximum of 802.11g), and transmit at a respectable 36 mbps. This is very good, despite the noise level of 60%. Bear in mind that my notebook, an Averatec 3250, has one of the better internal wireless setups available. The connection is fine, with no reconnects needed. But why settle for good enough?
The Belkin Pre-N card performs even better than the notebook’s internal wireless. The link quality comes up at 97%. Both transmit and receive speeds are 108 mbps, which is the theoretical maximum for the Belkin Pre-N technology. This is twice as fast as the 802.11g standard. This is especially amazing considering the number of obstacles in the way, and the other networks that provide interfering signals. Therefore, in order to have the best signal between the router and notebook, the Belkin card needs to be used. I was able to stream internet radio, and surf the web simultaneously, with no interruption of the music. Also, Quicktime movies played very smoothly, like I was on a wired, not a wireless connection.
The Belkin Pre-N Router and Card allow the fastest transfer of data wirelessly today. Even at a distance, past multiple obstacles, they are able to keep a fast connection with no dropouts. There was nowhere in the house I could go that the notebook cannot be connected to the router. This includes the garage, which is built over a concrete slab, and not over the basement. Users wishing more range would just need to place the router in a higher location. The MIMO technology definitely takes advantage of the radio waves bouncing that foils regular routers. For the maximum range and thoroughput, the Belkin Pre-N Card (with MIMO technology) completes the system.
Strengths & Weaknesses
– printed user manual is very well written and comprehensive
– class leading wireless range and speed
– idiot proof installation
– wide range of options for power users
– color coded ports in rear for easy installation
– power supply only takes up one outlet when plugged in
– built in 4 port wired switch
– informative LED’s on router and card
– quick start guide for card and router
– supports WEP and WPA encryption standards
– lifetime warranty
– no case for notebook network card
– less than ideal for vertical mounting
Who should buy this?
I wholeheartedly recommend Belkin’s Pre-N Router and Wireless Pre-N Notebook Card to anyone who needs to setup a wireless network featuring simple installation, stable function, and class leading performance. I’m truly not sure why anyone in the market for networking gear would buy anything else for routine household use.
It’s real easy to award Belkin’s Pre-N Wireless Router and Pre-N Wireless Notebook Card our “LD Approved” distinction. Installation is a breeze, even if all you know about networking is how to plug a cable into a slot. The MIMO antenna technology works very well to give class leading range and throughput, even in environments with plenty of interference, and obstacles. In short, everything I tossed at this hardware it chewed up, and spit right back. For those that read my other reviews, you know it’s rare for me to find so little fault about any device. While there are other MIMO routers and cards available from other companies, most for more money, Belkin is clearly the leader in the current generation of household wireless networking gear.