Price: $276 (MSRP)
Pros: Includes USB print server AND modem backup
Cons: Relatively expensive
Even among the best WLAN routers out there, there are always features missing that would be useful. Perhaps that isn’t the case any longer. The new Netgear ProSafe 802.11g Wireless Firewall with USB Print Server (FWG114P), may be the first WLAN router that has essentially every feature one could possibly want or need in a broadband wireless router.
Two things typically missing were support for broadband failover via dial-up modem and/or an internal USB print server. Happily, this $276 unit (it can be had for about $200 online) provides both.
The latter feature has been particularly slow in coming. Routers with parallel print servers are somewhat common, but let’s face it–what home, home office, or even small business is still using a parallel printer? (Please, no letters if you are. It’s time to upgrade.)
Netgear’s Web site lists about 60 compatible printers for the FWG114P, mostly from Canon and Epson, but also including HP, Lexmark, and even one from Compaq. As it turns out, my printer, an Epson Stylus Color CX3200, was not listed. When using the print server utility to set up the port and detect and identify the printer, it was initially displayed as an unknown printer. After selecting it though, the application displayed a window to confirm I was in fact installing an Epson Stylus Color printer. Netgear lists the utility as being compatible with Windows versions from XP all the way back to 95; I tested in with an XP client.
After successfully setting up the printer to use on the FWG114P, I was quite happy to discover that the Epson bi-directional printer status software popped up during print jobs. However, most of the information it’s designed to provide — ink levels, for instance — was grayed out or otherwise unavailable.
This is an unfortunate and unavoidable side-effect of sharing a bi-directional printer via a network print server, as printer status information is no longer correctly passed back to the device.
In most cases, this will also affect your ability to conduct printer maintenance via the utility software–most tasks will need to be performed via the printer’s physical control panel. This is inconvenient to be sure, but the ability to share your printer independent of a PC makes up for the sacrifice.
Sadly, the FWG114P sticks with the archaic 9-pin serial port to accept a modem connection. One could make the argument that this port, too, should have ceded to USB, given the ubiquity of inexpensive USB modems.
However, I’ll cut Netgear a bit of slack on this point, since serial modems are still quite common (whereas trying to find a parallel-based printer, especially in the under-$500 SOHO laser and inkjet segment, is often an exercise in futility). Beyond that, the serial port is more likely to be compatible with ISDN hardware as well.
The failover feature will cause the router to initiate a dial-up connection of your choice after a defined period. It worked fine in my test, promptly connecting to my Earthlink account after pulling the plug on the cable modem link. I only wish there was an option to send an immediate alert upon broadband failure.
In addition to providing failover capability, you can also configure the FWG114P/modem combo to provide dial-in access to users, as well as LAN-to-LAN connectivity.
The FWG114P provides a feature few routers have: a handy diagnostics page that lets you view the routing table as well as initiate pings and DNS lookups. Certainly most of this can be done from a PC’s command prompt, but doing so from within the router can save some time when trying to isolate connection problems.
The FWG114P uses an 802.11g radio based on a GlobespanVitara’s Prism GT chipset. Since the unit is a member of Netgear’s metal-chassis ProSafe product line — those that look like a rectangular blue metal box — it uses a removable reverse-SMA antenna rather than the captive antenna of the company’s lesser products. Both WPA and RADIUS authentication are supported.
In my opinion, Netgear’s three-column configuration interface continues to set the usability standard for the industry: categories on the left, context-sensitive help on the right, and the selected category settings in the broad middle. This layout makes features exceedingly easy to find and configure.
Close range wireless performance of the FWG114P was top-notch, posting 23.61 Mbps throughput at 10 feet. Throughput held up reasonably well with WPA turned on, with 18.43 Mbps at the same distance.
The FWG114P’s wireless performance fell off much more quickly than most other products I’ve tested in my environment though. High throughput was maintained until 50 feet, but then it dropped roughly in half to 11.02 Mbps, where it stayed until falling sharply again at 100 feet to 5.66 Mbps, and then finally to 2.59 Mbps at 125 feet.
I think the FWG114P’s poor throughput at that distance was somewhat hamstrung by its low-profile design and single antenna, which put it at a disadvantage in my testing environment. Products with more altitude and diversity antennas fared better. You might have to experiment more with placement of the FWG114P to achieve best results, and the unit is wall mountable.
As is true of previous ProSafe products, it’s strong on security and related features. You can block sites by domain name or keyword, and the FWG114P is one of the very few products in the class that can also block things like cookies and ActiveX and Java code. By disabling them you effectively disable browsing to the vast majority of sites however and there are times when that capability might prove useful, so use that feature with caution. Rules to restrict both inbound and outbound traffic can also be defined, and a scheduling feature can limit restrictions to specific hours and days.
The FWG114P offers extensive logging capabilities, with the ability to record (and/or output to syslog) nine different parameters from attack activity on the WAN interface to LAN access of Web sites and newsgroups. Periodic e-mailing of the logs can be scheduled, along with immediate notification of attacks on the router.
In retrospect, the FWG114P is a somewhat pricey and doesn’t have absolutely every feature you could possibly want–WDS bridge/repeater support comes to mind. On the other hand, WDS is not something everyone needs, and the modem failover and certainly the USB printer feature will be worth the price premium for most.
In short, the FWG114P is probably the most full-featured WLAN router I’ve seen to date, and it should satisfy the needs of the majority of users.