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What is it? The latest series of home network wireless routers from Cisco's Linksys brand are called "Smart Wi-Fi," offering users the ability to configure and manage settings through smartphones and tablets or across the cloud through Cisco's new Connect Cloud services. The EA4500 model is the high-end version (at least until later this summer, when the 802.11ac-based unit ships), providing dual-band N900 (450Mbps on two frequencies) wireless functions. This particular model aims to provide the optimal range for Wi-Fi connectivity, while also providing faster streaming for video apps from tablets, TVs and other devices within your home network.
IN PICTURES: Apps Come to the Router
Why it's cool: The addition of apps to the router is very cool -- Cisco provides several easy-to-use modules within the router "dashboard," which can be accessed through a regular Web browser or via smartphone/tablet app (on both iOS and Android platforms). For example, parental controls, guest access and adding new devices to the network can be achieved through the dashboard. A nice speed test app lets you know how fast your broadband connection is (in my case, a nice reminder that my upload speeds via cable were horrible). I also loved the Media Prioritization module, which tells the router to give high priority to specific devices as well as services. In my case, I could give priority to my wife's MacBook Pro, the Xbox 360 game console and Netflix app (across any device).
The Cisco Connect Cloud service gives users the ability to make changes to the router across the Internet, something that previously was not possible. From my office, I can monitor the home router without being on the same internal network. If you set up routers for friends or family members, you can add their equipment to your Cisco Connect Cloud account -- so the next time your father-in-law calls with a question, you can check his network from your smartphone or computer without having to drive over to his house to troubleshoot it. This feature alone makes getting a Smart Wi-Fi Router worth it.
In addition, Cisco has opened up its app platform to third-party developers, which create their own apps for use with the router. One of my favorite apps was Block the Bad Stuff, which can block objectionable content at the router (spam, phishing, pornography and malware sites) at the turn of a dial (three levels of blocking available). Controlling this at the router means that you don't have to block those sites at the individual client level (smartphone, TV, tablet, etc.).
Some caveats: I had a horrendous time trying to install the router via the included "Easy CD" -- I think Cisco sometimes takes the assumption that the user is setting up a network for the first time, and not replacing an existing router or network system. In my case, I had several powerline adapters and even a secondary wireless network (a wireless-enabled storage drive) that kept interfering with the Easy CD setup. The software didn't recognize this, and just kept failing, rather than trying to figure out what was going on or offering other suggestions. In addition, the software required an up-and-running Internet connection -- it wasn't until I discovered that I needed to reboot my cable modem that I could finally get the router to finish its setup. In the end, the reliable method of accessing the router via IP address was more useful than the Easy Setup software.