Belkin 802.11g Wireless DSL/Cable Gateway Router

Price: $129.99
4 out of 5

While the Belkin
802.11g Wireless DSL/Cable Gateway Router
does not contain absolutely every
feature one might want in a broadband router it comes close, and does offer
a compelling mix of capabilities for its reasonable $129 price tag. Though many
similar products may be equally appropriate in a home or small office environment,
the Belkin is clearly geared primarily for use in a residential (read: family)

This router is an 802.11g device, based on the Broadcom BCM9402 chipset. Usually,
the word "draft" is included in the aforementioned sentence, but on
the day I began working on the product, the final 802.11g specification was
approved and a new firmware version was provided (via a helpful automatic feature
I’ll discuss later) which conforms to the final standard. The new firmware also
added WPA encryption support.

The Belkin unit’s dark grey and charcoal plastic chassis sits flat and low,
with dual, non-removable dipole antennae in the rear. If you want to use the
unit in a vertical position, a stand is provided.

The ease-of-use focus is apparent upon opening the box, by virtue of the 90-plus
page bound and printed manual, a rarity in products today. If you don’t subscribe
to the philosophy of "RTFM," an included Quick Installation Guide
will get you off the ground. The manual doesn’t delve into technical esoterica
but it does a good job outlining how to configure the various features of the
router, making liberal use of diagrams and screen shots.

For those who desire (or require) maximum setup assistance, an included "Easy
Installation Wizard" application automatically configures the router and
attached PCs (essentially by configuring them as DHCP clients).

Connecting to the Belkin’s browser-based configuration reveals a very user-friendly
design. It uses a familiar tabbed interface, but the large tabs list all the
features in each category, obviating the need to cycle through tabs looking
for something in particular.

Other convenience features include a status page which offers at a glance info
on all major aspects of the unit, including LAN/WAN configuration, firmware
info, and which features are turned on or off.

The interface’s help system is a little lame, however. Clicking the help button
doesn’t give you context-sensitive information, but rather a semi-complete glossary
of terms. (Good thing for the manuals, eh?)

One interesting and somewhat unique characteristic of the F5D7230-4 is its
auto firmware update feature. The name is something of a misnomer, since it
doesn’t actually update the router firmware automatically. (Good news, since
this probably wouldn’t be desirable in most cases.) What it does do is check
Belkin’s support site (upon logging into the router’s configuration pages) and
let you know when a new firmware version has been posted.

I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to try this feature. But sure enough,
while I was working with it a new firmware version was posted, and I was given
direct link to the download as well as a link to an updated manual in PDF format.
The latter in particular is a nice touch.

The router has a basic logging feature (it actually maintains separate logs
for system and firewall events). As it turns out though, the feature isn’t terribly
useful, because the firewall log tended to fill up with meaningless entries
referencing my WAN gateway IP address (on the ISP side).

You can download the logs to a file for offline viewing, but clicking the save
button summarily pours the current log into a Notepad file that’s almost impossible
to comprehend. As it turns out, the log doesn’t record much useful information
anyway. The entries are very generic, offering simply a time/date stamp, offending
IP address, and a vague description like "Blocked by DoS Protection."

Lamentably, the Belkin doesn’t offer any way to e-mail notification of system
events or logs to the administrator.

The Belkin’s Virtual Server settings page has one of the most comprehensive
lists of pre-defined application I’ve yet seen in a router. Over a hundred games
and utility profiles are available to choose from, so chances are the one you’re
looking for is on the list.

The WLAN configuration area reveals three wireless performance modes. Two are
the common ’54g only’ and ‘mixed-mode’ settings, the latter of which will accommodate
802.11b hardware. A third mode, LRS (Limited Rate Support) is available to help
mitigate certain issues with specific, older 802.11b devices.

You can of course do other things like set WEP encryption, disable SSID broadcast,
or choose a wireless channel. Belkin doesn’t offer any other advanced WLAN settings
like the ability to force a data rate or modify transmit power, but it does
on the other hand, offer Broadcom-based WDS (Wireless Distribution System),
a.k.a. bridging.

Interestingly, you can disable the router side of the unit and use it solely
as an access point. You can also turn off the unit’s firewall (or NAT support,
for that matter) though it’s unlikely anyone would want to do so.

As previously mentioned, the F5D7230-4 is one of the first products out of
the chute to support WPA encryption. (WEP is still there for backwards compatibility).
The Belkin makes WPA pretty easy to set up. Unlike WEP, which requires a specific-length
key in either ASCII or Hex, all WPA asks of you is a passphrase between 8 and
63 characters long. Both TKIP and AES are supported as encryption methods (because
Broadcom’s chips include an AES chip), and you can also configure it to authenticate
users to a RADIUS server. (For more on WPA and the Belkin, consult the review
of the companion F5D7010 PC Card.)





Continuing the subject of security, the cornerstone of the Belkin is undoubtedly
its parental control, which provides Web site filtering. As a subscription-based
service, this feature goes a step further than the content filtering typically
found in similar products. You can subscribe to the parental control service
for six months gratis, ($19.95 annually thereafter) and Belkin is to
be commended for allowing you to do so without having to provide a credit card
when you first sign up.

When the parental control feature is enabled, each Web request generates a
simultaneous query by the router to a content database (which is maintained
by partner Ceberian) that Belkin says contains
over 2.5 million sites. For those sites that may not be in the database, a "Dynamic
Real-Time Rating" kicks in to rate the content on the fly. If after analysis
your account settings deem the site acceptable, then the router supplies the
user with requested page. If not, an admonishing screen is served in its stead.

One extremely convenient feature is that this "denied" screen lets
you override the settings for one hour by entering the administrative password.
But you can also configure the service to e-mail you whenever an override is
performed as a guard against the possibility of pilfered passwords.

There are over 50 content categories you can filter on, broadly divided into
two categories. One is "Potential Liable and Objectionable" which
deals with sites featuring things like adult, drug-related and gambling material
The "Non-productive" category is much broader, including such listings
as travel, auctions, and news.

I didn’t notice any appreciable lag time associated with having the content-filtering
service enabled, though Belkin warns that dynamically rating a site could cause
a delay of up to 10 seconds. One glitch I did notice was that after shutting
off the parental control feature (and receiving an e-mail confirmation to that
effect), the feature turned itself back on again later in the day, even though
it wasn’t supposed to unless explicitly re-enabled.

If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can ante up an additional $10
for the optional reporting feature, which serves up detailed reports of aggregate
or per-user activity, complete with graphs and charts. Belkin also says that
it plans to add an e-mail filtering feature to its service in the future.

Given that the Belkin marks the first product that uses the final 802.11g specification
(though no 11g product has successfully undergone WiFi Certification yet), I
was understandably eager to gauge the unit’s throughput performance, and I can
report that it was good–very good, at least in 802.11g mode.

In our distance tests (which are conducted in ’54g only’ mode) conducted with
the Belkin F5D7010 PC Card adapter, the throughput ranged from 22.05 Mbps at
close range to 12.19 Mbps at a 125 foot range. This being the first of many
final 802.11g I’ll look at in the coming weeks and months, I hesitate to draw
any strong conclusions on the Belkin’s relative performance, but its numbers
were better than virtually every draft 802.11g product tested by 802.11 Planet
over the past six months.

Turning on the Belkin’s "Turbo" mode, which is a form of WLAN chipset-proprietary
frame bursting, boosted the throughput minimally–to 23.22 Mbps. Belkin says
that this particular feature (which is outside the 11g spec) is still being
tweaked and that they expect the performance to improve over time.

Running the 802.11g client simultaneously with an 802.11b client yielded throughput
of 8.43 for the former, and 2.56 for the latter. Based on past experience, I
would have expected the g client to perform a bit better than that and for the
b client to post a score closer to its maximum potential of around 4.5 Mbps,
but I’ll reserve judgment on this until I have seen more comparable products.
This test exposed an interesting anomaly in that the 802.11b card did not show
up in the Belkin router’s list of DHCP clients, even though it had been assigned
an address and was working correctly. Belkin says this is a known issue and
will be fixed in a future upgrade.

Finally, I didn’t perform a testing run with WPA enabled, since my test bed
is Windows 2000-based which lacks built in support for it. For what its worth,
Belkin indicates that no WPA-related performance penalty is expected. In future
tests, the test bed will be updated to Windows XP and a run with WPA enabled
will become a standard test.

Overall, the Belkin F5D7230-4 is well designed, and it competes well in terms
of price, features, and performance. Only time (and more reviews) will tell
how its performance in particular will stack up with the myriad updated products
now hitting the market. But performance issues aside, the comprehensive nature
of the parental controls are probably the router’s most unique feature, and
I would expect that this will be the primary selling point for many people whose
primary concern is restricting access to certain types of content.

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