Belkin Wireless Cable/DSL Router

Model Number: F5D6230-3, $179 street price

With the proliferation of 802.11-based networking products over the past year
or so, there is no question that the devices required to set up a wireless network
are now generally plentiful and quite inexpensive.

However, that’s not to say that all 802.11 products are created equal, because
many products emerge from their boxes rougher than five-o-clock shadow — with
documentation ranging from poor to non-existent as well as half-baked software
installation routines that can make setting up a wireless network much more
of a chore than it needs to be. I’ve seen my share of products that may have
good technical capabilities, but whose supporting materials leave much to be
desired.

This Belkin Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router is different. Belkin seems to
have gone out of their way to create a product that is exceedingly easy to set
up. Frankly, tying my shoes presented more of a challenge.

The F5D6230-3 unit combines a broadband router, three-port 100 Mbps switch,
and 802.11b access point in one sturdy unit.

Call us me old fashioned, but I particularly like Belkin’s low, flat footprint
(won’t knock over) and dual rotating antennas. It’s not as Jetsonesque-looking
as some of the stuff out there, but I’ll take it.

It’s also noteworthy that in an era where product documentation usually consists
of little more than fold-out sheet, a quick-start card, or a PDF on CD-ROM,
Belkin saw fit to include an honest-to goodness printed and bound manual. The
manual is well-organized and written (as opposed to hastily translated from
a foreign tongue), with step-by-step instructions and lots of screen shots.
Not that you’re likely to need it (except perhaps for reference for some of
the advanced features), but I’d rather have it than not, and I commend Belkin
for including it.

If you just want to get up and running and would sooner drink chlorine bleach
than read a manual, a step-by-step fold out is provided as well, including information
relevant to the Macintosh’s OS X, with which the product is (obviously) compatible.

Pros:

  • Brain-dead setup and administration
  • Great documentation
  • Macintosh compatible

Cons:

  • Considerable performance hit with 128-bit WEP
  • Limited security alert features

BASIC FEATURES

The Belkin Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router provides a wide range of wired
and wireless networking capabilities. It can be set up to use either a static
or dynamic address from your ISP, or to utilize the hated (by me, anyway) PPPoE
on some DSL connections.

The router supports a DMZ and virtual servers, so you can poke through certain
addresses or network services if you want to run, say, a web server or game
server from your home.

Like most broadband routers, the Belkin can act as a DHCP server to allocate
IP addresses; in fact DHCP server is the default setting. I liked that I was
able to configure DHCP lease duration, something I am accustomed to from working
with DHCP in Windows NT and 2000. With nine choices ranging from a half-hour
to "forever," the settings are not very granular, but many products
with DHCP don’t give you any choice at all.

In the area of security, the Belkin router’s NAT feature provides some level
of protection from nefarious passers-by on the Internet, and MAC filtering lets
you specify which (wired or wireless) clients get access to your network.

The Belkin also provides internal security features, like the ability to restrict
LAN client access by day, time, or type of traffic, which is pretty nice. This
feature could come in extremely handy in both a home and small business environment.
The router does not, on the other hand, provide any content filtering capability,
either manually or by subscription, making it better suited for home offices
than to share a family broadband connection.

The router is administered completely by the browser, and by default any computer
on your internal network can administer the router (provided the password is
known, of course). The router also lets you specify one IP address that will
be able to administer the router remotely (on TCP port 88). This is a nice feature,
but you don’t always have a static address, so we would have rather been able
to specify a subnet, or at least a range of addresses, so we could remotely
administer from more than one machine.

One item on my security wish list for this product is better reporting. The
router will log attempts to access your network, but you must access the router
through the browser to read the log; no provision to e-mail the alerts is provided.

On the strictly wireless side, the Belkin provides both 64- and 128-bit WEP
encryption.

SETUP/INSTALLATION

Setting up the Belkin Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router was a simple affair.
The only thing that was out of the ordinary was that the default address was
192.168.2.1, instead of the more common 192.168.0.1.

No matter, though, because once I put a PC on that subnet, we were able to
access the router through my browser, and I was on the Net in the time it took
for the router to talk turkey with my DSL gateway…about three minutes.

Aside from the browser, you don’t need any software to configure the router,
even initially. It comes with some utilities on CD called NetSetup and NetShare,
but these are little more than another nod to the neophyte, since they help
you change the network settings on your computer.

Once you connect to the router, you proceed through a series of 17 different
screens where you can very easily configure the myriad features of the router.
After the initial configuration, you can access them individually via a menu
on the left-hand margin. One important note: be sure to set up a password for
router administration access; it doesn’t come with one from the factory.

The configuration screens are generally very well laid out and easy to work
with, but there are a few areas I found particularly noteworthy.

Many of the settings you can modify have an "Enable" check box associated
with them.

In other words, if you want to turn off the feature (for example, a virtual
server or a DMZ machine), you can simply clear the check box, and check the
box again to re-enable the feature. This sure beats clearing the information
out off all the fields (and then possibly re-entering it again later), which
many routers require. The enable check box comes in very handy if you’re not
the "set it and forget it" type, and instead often make configuration
changes on your network.

PERFORMANCE

I tested the Belkin router with their Wireless PC Card NIC, and the performance
was more or less in line with my expectations. I did notice a significant drop
in performance in TCP and UDP throughput (about 50% and 30%, respectively) when
128-bit encryption was turned on, something that the Belkin’s
stand-alone access point
did not suffer from.

This performance degradation is due to the fact that the router’s CPU is more
heavily loaded with routing and switching activities on top of providing the
encryption, whereas the processor in the access point need not concern itself
with such matters.

On the other hand, response time and streaming performance did not suffer with
encryption enabled, and the unit certainly didn’t "feel" any slower
when it was.

SUMMARY

In a market now flooded with dozens of competing products, the Belkin Wireless
Cable/DSL Gateway Router distinguishes itself not only with its features and
performance, but also with its excellent documentation and the fit and finish
of the entire package. Notwithstanding a few minor niggles, if you’re looking
to get a wired/wireless network off the ground as quickly and easily as possible,
I don’t think you could do much better.

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