Testing fast wireless routers

If you’re still running an 802.11b network, now’s a good time to upgrade

To readers who bought a wireless router last year, prices have dropped and features improved to the point where it might make sense to upgrade. To those who’ve been waiting for the market to settle down, it’s time to jump in.

First, the caveats. Speeds listed by vendors are never achieved in the real world. Your best result will be half that at best. Second, compatibility across vendors remains somewhat of a crapshoot. Sure it’s better, but vendors add new features so quickly that compatibility sometimes slides down the priority list. Buying access points and client hardware from the same vendor usually makes life easier — but not always, as most vendors use chips from a variety of manufacturers.

Doesn't sound great, does it? Realistically, you'll get better speeds, range, and security with current wireless network products than ever before. And what’s it matter if you get only 16M bit/sec throughput on your laptop because of distance limitations if your Internet connection gives you less than 3M bit/sec?

 Netgear has a cool little product with a big name: the 108M bit/sec Wireless Firewall Router WGT624 (about $100), an 802.11g router with four 10/100 Ethernet ports. I've been playing with it mainly so my teen-age daughter can IM her friends with my old Pentium 166 laptop while she watches TV. On the client, I installed the companion Netgear 108M bit/sec Wireless PC Card (WG511T). Through two walls, the configuration utility shows a strong signal and typically a 48M bit/sec connection, with Wired Equivalency Privacy (WEP) enabled.

The VPN works with little setup trouble (between my DSL and cable networks), the firewall offers good default settings and extra features include a DMZ for servers publicly viewable, and easy port-forwarding for applications such as remote control software or games. A three-paneled configuration screen for the router, viewable through a browser, offers excellent help information on the right, menu options on the left and configuration settings in the middle. There’s also an Attached Devices page, so you can see who's on your network at a glance.

Netgear has an upgrade of this product (WGT634U) that includes a USB connection to add external storage for a quick transformation into a wireless network-attached storage/router/firewall. With external USB storage devices getting down close to $1 per gigabyte, that's an interesting option.

Zyxel's ZyAIR B-2000 router supports 802.11b only, but I plugged it in and configured it to match the Netgear 802.11b/g PC Card, including WEP, and it worked great with the laptop — no compatibility problems. The ZyAIR's start-up wizard includes only three set-up screens. I set it up on my Yahoo/SBC DSL line because that requires more configuration (username and password) than my Comcast cable modem.

When a wireless client sends traffic through the B-2000, the big blue logo on the box pulses to show the activity. As with the Netgear router, each of the four ports blinks to show traffic. The ZyAIR has two antennas, improving the connection distance. The full 11M bit/sec throughput and full signal strength were available at the same distance as the Netgear router.

Zyxel will soon introduce two 802.11g routers; the ZyAIR G-2000 and the ZyAIR Prestige 334W Home Gateway. Pricing for the former is not announced; the latter will cost $89. When they hit the market, the B-2000 will likely drop in price, so you can save money if 802.11b works for you or go with 802.11g. Either way, and either vendor, will provide a quality wireless router with firewall and security.

PS: I'm getting complaints about rebates at Buy.com. Please let me know your experience with them.

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