Compex NetPassage Enhanced Wireless Access Point with MC-Card Connector

Model: WP11A+
Price: $89.99
4 out of 5

At first glance, the $89.99 Compex WP11A+ NetPassage access point doesn’t look particularly noteworthy. After all, it’s only an 802.11b-based device, and doesn’t seem very glamorous given all the higher speed 802.11g products continually hitting the market.

However, the WP11A+, which is based on the Agere WaveLAN chipset, reveals itself as having several unique features and abilities, most of which convey real benefits to users and administrators.

Printed documentation comes in the form of a foldout pamphlet. It’s sparse compared to the voluminous manuals that some products provide (though not always in printed form) but it contains all the information you’ll need to get the WP11A+ up and running. If you want more reading material, the Japanese, French, German and Russian versions of the pamphlet are also included.

Physically, the WP11A+ has such a flat profile that you may be tempted to use it in a horizontal orientation. Compex advises against this, since doing so could obstruct cooling vents on the bottom of the unit. (It would also likely curtail the antenna’s range.)

Something else you should not do, no matter what the temptation, is remove the WP11A+’s antenna. It eschews the more common dipole antenna design in favor of a PC Card. And, unlike a PC Card on a computer, this one is not designed to be removed or adjusted. In fact, a sticker on the underside of the unit warns you that your warranty becomes null and void upon removal of the card.

As curiosity beckoned, I proceeded to open the Compex’s case, which revealed two rows of gold pins coming up from the PCB at a right angle and sans any type of guide rails or surrounding bracket that you might see on a PC motherboard. Suffice it to say, if you pull out the PC Card, even a millimeter, you won’t get it back in without bending at least one pin–so don’t even think about it. Trust me on this one.

The attempt to set up the WP11A+ began somewhat inauspiciously.

The CD’s autorun file was written to launch a start.exe application, though the file was actually start.html. So the disc was unable to launch automatically, but this issue was easy enough to get around by manually accessing the CD’s directory (imagine the confusion for a PC neophyte trying their first network, however…).

On that CD comes one of the most convenient setup utilities available on a wireless product. When you get in the habit of setting your PC to match whatever the IP default subnet of your WLAN equipment, you appreciate an application like the Uconfig utility that Compex provides.

Despite a crude layout, this handy software obviates the need to make that kind of modification, by automatically connecting you to the WP11A+ Web-based utility, even if your PC is on a completely different subnet. It does this by issuing a broadcast packet on the LAN, receiving a response from the connected Compex device, and then updating your ARP table with an entry for it.

Compex recommends that you connect the WP11A+ directly to your PC (with the supplied crossover cable ) when initially setting up the access point. I decided to roll the dice and plug the WP11A+ into my switch along with everything else, and it still worked without a hitch.

Once you’ve connected to the WP11A+, you’ve got a choice of several different operating modes. In addition to operating as a straight access point, the unit can also serve duty as a WLAN client adapter, bridge, or as even a router.

This last mode is the most interesting. Because the WP11A+ has only a single LAN port, using the device as a router ensures that only WLAN clients, and not wired ones, will be able to access the broadband connection. This setup will not make sense for most environments, but in some cases it may not be a significant limitation. (More on the WP11A+’s router mode later.)

When operating as an access point, the WP11A+ doesn’t offer access control in the form of straight MAC filtering the way many products do. On the other hand, it does offer some interesting access control capabilities in the guise of what they deem “Pseudo VLANs,” which are technically a form of MAC filtering anyway.

Common on wired switches– especially in the enterprise space– virtual LANs (VLANs) , can be used to create security boundaries within a single subnet. Computers within a particular VLAN can communicate with each other, but not with other subnets.

In the case of the WP11A+, you can set up three types of access control–per node, per group VLAN, and tagged VLAN. In per node mode, each WLAN client can communicate with the access point but can’t communicate with other WLAN clients. (This mode would be particularly useful in a public hotspot scenario.) Per group mode extends this by letting you specify groups of clients (by MAC address), which can communicate within their own group, but not with clients in other groups. Finally, tagged mode lets you add clients on the wired LAN to your access control groups.

Depending on how many clients you’re using, designing and defining your VLAN groups may involve more up-front work that simply enabling MAC filtering, but the Compex will reward the effort with much more granular and flexible network security.

I tried all three modes of access control using several wireless and a wired clients, and in all cases the feature worked correctly, preserving connectivity to the access point while preventing communication with other LAN clients.

Tested as an access point with Compex’s WL11A+ PC Card adapter, the WP11A+ turned in throughput results that were more than respectable for an 802.11b product — at least at short to moderate distances. Throughput measured 4.88Mbps at a 10-foot distance, and remained solidly in the mid-4Mbps range through 75 feet. Beyond this point though, the WP11A+’s PC card antenna had its hands full. It was only able to muster 1.3Mbps at 100 Mbps and a meager 0.7Mbps at 125 feet.

As it turns out, that same PC Card antenna includes an MC-style connector for an external antenna, and Compex provided me with one in the form of its $29.95 iWavePort WA-HGA-5+. Compex claims the external antenna doubles the indoor range of the WP11A+. I couldn’t verify that claim, since my environment limits how far I can get from the access point (at 150 feet I’m out of the building) On the other hand, re-running the throughput tests with the iWavePort connected exhibited a clear performance benefit. Doing so, resulted in stronger signal strength across the range of distances, and the actual throughput improved markedly at 100 and 125 feet, to 4.77 and 3.93 Mbps, respectively. Suffice it to say, given the nominal additional cost of the external antenna I’d highly recommend using it in order to assure maximum signal strength and range in all circumstances.

Once I put the WP11A+ through its paces in its access point guise, I switched it to its router configuration. There’s no setup wizard, so you have to manually enter all of the configuration parameters for your type of WAN connection.

In this mode, the device is a mixed bag when it comes to included features. It provides many of the basics in terms of WAN-related features, including DMZ support, port forwarding, and remote management (via HTTP or Telnet). On the other hand, the unit lacks such features as logging or e-mail alerting as well as some staples like VPN pass-through and the ability to disable an ICMP response.

As an access point, the Compex WP11A+ distinguishes itself from a crowded field with a convenient setup program and better-than-average access control capabilities in its Pseudo VLAN feature. The range of the standard antenna leaves something to be desired, but the inexpensive external antenna does mitigate that problem satisfactorily. Being able to use the unit as a router is another plus in the flexibility column, but as a router the WP11A+’s lack of switched LAN ports and slimmed-down WAN-related features mean it’s probably not the best choice for a typical home or small office environment.

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