Holiday Buyer's Guide 2005

Wireless Wonder - Belkin's MIMO AP

No network would be complete these days without a wireless component, and we have a couple of suggestions for your shopping needs.

At home, wireless solutions are still relatively new and immature, typically leaving something to be desired in terms of feature sets and capabilities. Limited coverage areas, sometimes spotty reception, and insufficient security protocols plague many home-oriented WiFi offerings.

Belkin's release of the F5D9230-4 revision of its flagship Wireless G Plus MIMO router seeks to make some changes to this status quo. The F5D9230-4 version offers numerous improvements over its predecessor, the F5D8230. Most noticeable is a change in package design: Belkin transitioned from an orange-on-white to a blue-on-white package, and the newer model has two antennas instead of three. (For those not already in the know, MIMO stands for multiple input, multiple output, and effectively explains that it works by combining multiple wireless channels. To be a little more specific, MIMO is a smart radio technology that seeks to increase overall wireless networking speed, coverage area, and operational reliability.)

Many of the original features rightfully remain present in the latest Belkin revision. These include VPN support for the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), IPSec pass-through - no VPN client should be without it - easy-to-configure Web-based management, and more. The unit also continues to accommodate up to 253 maximum users on a subnet, with no more than 14 clients on any single wireless LAN (WLAN) segment. Out of the box, the router also supports Wireless Protected Access (WPA) with 64 bit or 128 bit encryption keys, a standard Stateful Packet Inspection (SPI) firewall, and native Network Address Translation (NAT) capability, to permit multiple many internal computers to share a single external IP address.

However, Belkin took its flagship device one step further. Even though this is not mentioned on the retail packaging, the company implemented WPA2 functionality in the firmware in two forms: WPA2-Personal (PSK) and WPA2-Enterprise (RADIUS). The Belkin G Plus MIMO notebook card works seamlessly with the F5D9230-4 Belkin router, except that it apparently doesn't yet support WPA2. A word to wise wireless Xmas elves: if you plan to give the gift of MIMO, be sure to advise recipients to buy wireless interfaces from the same vendor that makes the router (if you're not including some of same in your own gift basket, that is).

The G Plus MIMO router is also highly configurable through its Web-based management interface. For example, it can be used as an access point, to bypass all routing and firewall functions. You can also enable MAC-based filters to narrowly restrict access to the device. This is highly recommended, because MIMO's greater range puts the router's broadcast range beyond the nearest streets in most suburban settings.

You can tell the appliance to route Internet-originated requests to separate internal machines based on destination port number (virtual servers). You also have the ability to employ built-in parental controls to protect children from objectionable content, complemented by Internet access restrictions that may be set at specific times of day or days of the week.

One oft-requested but seldom available feature in many routers is Dynamic DNS support (though be warned that this feature is hidden deep inside the Belkin's multi-faceted menu system. This allows users with dynamic host assignments from DHCP to provide a single visible name to the outside world that always maps to ever-changing dynamic IP addresses.

While the Belkin G Plus MIMO enables quick and efficient sharing of large files, printers, and disk drives like any standard router, its strongest and most unique offerings fall within the realm of enhanced and extended security. Properly configured, this router can close most common wireless security holes all by itself.

The Belkin G Plus MIMO Notebook cards were also a pleasure to use. Easy to install and configure - a driver CD is conveniently included with each card - we observed astonishingly high wireless throughput of up to 95 Mbps in routine use of the card and the router. It was far too easy to get used to quick, easy wireless connections when working with this gear.

The router's product packaging specification boasts a 1000-foot coverage area outdoors (150 ft indoors), but we couldn't get far enough away indoors or out to put those claims to conclusive tests. Inside and outside our test lab, however, we had no trouble picking up clear signals anywhere in the building or even at the outside edges of our property.

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