RealTime IT News

Belkin 802.11g Wireless Notebook Network Card

Model: F5D7010
Price: $79.99
Rating: 3 out of 5

The $79.99 Belkin 802.11g Wireless Notebook Network Card F5D7010 Wireless is the company's 802.11g offering for laptops (you might have guessed that from the name). Shortly after getting the card, the 802.11g specification was finalized and I was able to download compatible drivers from Belkin's Web site (though official 802.11g compliance must wait until the card is certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance).

One useful physical aspect of the Broadcom chipset-based card is that the power and link indicator lights are located close to the outer edge of the antenna rather than the inner edge, so they're not obscured when the card's in the PC Card slot.

Given the ease-of-use focus of the Belkin router, I expected the card to be its equal in that regard. Indeed, the card includes a lucidly designed printed manual. Delving deeper, however, revealed that there were some rough edges here.

For example, the installation could have been a bit simpler. Most of us who have installed countless WLAN clients are accustomed to installing the software first, followed by the card. But in the case of the Belkin, doing so causes the installation wizard to fail. So, you must first install the card, then load the drivers from the CD, and then go back and install the configuration utility separately.

Once the software is installed, all the information you want is there, but I found it to be far less intuitive that many other utilities I've used. One example is that link status is expressed in terms of decibels rather than a percentage, and the monochromatic strength bar doesn't convey information at a glance the way a multicolor one would. Some of the pop-up windows are large, horizontally oriented, and unsizable, making their use a frustrating exercise in scrolling. One gets the impression that the utility made its way from the chipset vendor with little or no modification.

One notable plus, though is that the utility includes a noise level bar, so you can gauge how much interference you might be experiencing.

The throughput figures with the final 802.11g-compliant drivers were good, ranging from 22.05 Mbps at close range to just over 12 Mbps at 125 feet. (See the F5D7230-4 review for full performance results.)

For those (like me) who have been itching to show WEP the door in favor of WPA, I have three words--"not so fast". It's not because WPA doesn't work, it does--but actually implementing it on a WLAN may not be feasible in all circumstances; at least not feasible yet.

Not all WLAN access points will run WPA and WEP running at the same time. The Belkin F5D7230-4 is one example of a product that will run WPA or WEP, but not both simultaneously. Therefore, unless you have a WLAN AP that can do so, you will need to pick one or the other technology and then make sure all of your clients support it.

If that doesn't seem like much of a hurdle, consider that the Belkin card's drivers and configuration utility don't yet incorporate WPA natively.

This means if you want to use WPA, you must use a third-party client or Windows XP. And, unlike 802.1x, Windows XP doesn't support WPA natively, so you will have to download a patch to get it. (Simply search for "WPA" on Microsoft's site and you'll quickly find the link, or use the Windows Update link in the Internet Explorer browser.)

Belkin says they're investigating bundling a third-party client or incorporating WPA directly into the configuration utility, but for now, the company is recommending that users who want WPA encryption use Windows XP.

Needing to install -- or possibly even purchase -- third party WPA utilities or have all clients running (a patched version of) Windows XP will ensure that implementing WPA will require a lot more forethought than using WEP.

Having said that, after downloading the Windows XP supplement, I was able to select WPA as my encryption method and successfully connected to the F5D7230-4 router using it.

The Belkin F5D7010 is a solid card, but it's not nearly as user-friendly as the router in the line. The card's configuration utility could use some work, and a bundled WPA client (or better yet, inclusion in the utility) is needed.