Sputnik Wi-Fi Hotzone Kit

Price: $595
Pros: reasonable cost, centralized control of multiple APs
Cons: control software only runs on Linux, only 30 days of free support

When you hear the name Sputnik, you probably think of the world’s first artificial satellite, launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union. Times change. It also happens to be the name of a contemporary firm that makes Wi-Fi hardware and software. While the technology in the Sputnik’s Wi-Fi Hotzone Kit may not be quite as revolutionary as that of its namesake, it is pioneering it its own way.

Most hotspot kits in this price range include a single radio, but the $495 Sputnik Hotzone Kit consists of two separate access points. One is the rather conventional-looking AP160 WLAN router/access point. The other is an AP200, an AP designed for outdoor use featuring a rugged metal chassis that’s sealable against the elements. (The AP200 happens to be built by ValuePoint networks, and the unit is essentially a branded version of the company’s SuperAP 500 product reviewed here last year.)

More interesting than the hardware though, is the Sputnik Control Center software, which promises to allow administrators to centrally monitor, configure, and update the individual hotspot APs from a single point of access.

In its current iteration, the Sputnik Hotzone Kit exhibits a lot of potential, but some rough edges and a lack of certain features may be a problem in some cases.

Manual Labor

One of the aforementioned rough edges of the Sputnik kit is weak and inconvenient documentation; if you’re the kind of person prefers to “RTFM,” you likely won’t be satisfied with what Sputnik provides. Documentation included with the Hotzone kit was sparse in the extreme: Only a four-page Quick Start Guide was provided with the equipment, and there is no CD with any product manuals or similar materials.

Manuals for the individual kit components can be found online, but some are available only in HTML format and not as PDFs, which makes it a hassle to download and read the documents offline. This HTML format also makes printing entire manuals highly inconvenient. Sputnik says that addressing these issues is on the company’s agenda.

In terms of basic features, the AP160 is not unlike other similarly-priced wireless routers. The unit uses a Conexant Prism GT 802.11g/b chipset and provides a removable reverse-SMA antenna. It offers four switched LAN ports and a variety of security and administrative capabilities. The unit supports WPA encryption and RADIUS authentication, a WAN firewall, bridging via WDS, as well as more mundane features like a DHCP server and port forwarding.

The AP200 on the other hand is a stand-alone access point and a straight 802.11b device. Capable of being powered by 802.3af Power over Ethernet (PoE), the AP200’s 200mW transmitter should help it cover wide distances, especially in outdoor and quasi-outdoor areas. (You’ll need to provide your own antenna, though.)

You’re In Control

Anyone who intends to maintain a large hotspot of more than a few access points knows that individually monitoring and maintenance is a huge hassle. The big benefit Sputnik offers with their kit is centralized command and control of multiple access points. The Control Center communicates with hardware running the Sputnik agent. Right now, that’s only Sputnik hardware, but the company says it’s working to add support by third-party vendors.

The software provides customizable portal pages and this is also where an administrator creates and maintains all user accounts. Currently, Control Center doesn’t integrate with any third-party billing systems, but it does let you generate pre-paid account access.

A big strength of the software is its data reporting capability. It can provide administrators with a great deal of information sliced and diced a number of different ways. For example, it can provide reports and graphs on various network statistics sorted by time, user, or AP.

Viewing of this type of information is what Control Center is best used for, at least for now. You can also change the portal page, update firmware and reboot the units, too. But you will have to wait for the next version (due sometime this summer) to manipulate any actual AP settings, like change the SSID, radio characteristics, or encryption scheme used.

The Control Center software does impose a couple of requirements which may or may not be significant depending on your situation. For starters, the software runs only on Linux–currently Red Hat v9, and a Debian version is also in the works. (I worked with an Internet-accessible Control Center system the company maintains for testing purposes, see below.) The software also locates its constituent hardware by a fully qualified domain name (FQDN) and not simply an IP address, so you’ll need to run a DNS server on your own network, or at least have your ISP resolve names for you.

I didn’t install the Control Center since I only run a Windows shop, but rather made use of an instance of the software Sputnik maintains via the Internet for testing purposes. Upon entering the FQDN of the Control Center server into the AP160 the AP was almost immediately accessible through the software.

If the two access points included in the HotSpot Kit proves insufficient, you can add additional units a la carte or buy kits with 3, 5, or 10 access points ranging in price from $695 to $2195.) The Control Center software is licensed for up to 20 access points, though it can support more if additional licenses are obtained.

A caveat — as I was finishing up my evaluation, the AP160 began to get rather flaky on me. After leaving the unit in proper working order one evening, I returned the next morning to find it unresponsive. It did not respond to pings via LAN, and a couple of WLAN clients confirmed that it was not emitting radio signals. Multiple attempts at rebooting the unit proved unfruitful, though I was ultimately able to bring it back to life by restoring factory settings via the reset button. Then, two days later the same thing happened again; this time even a factory reboot wouldn’t resuscitate the unit.

This is troublesome in and of itself, but even more so considering the difficulty in accessing documentation. Worse, Sputnik only provides 30 days of free support. Afterwards, you must pay $185 for a support incident or $895 for a pack of 5.

Then again, Sputnik does promise a 30-day money back guarantee, and $495 (the site says only through May, so it may have gone up to $595) is still a bargain for an indoor/outdoor hotspot kit that’s expandable and provides centralized control.

[After the review was published, Sputnik informed us that they have lengthened their free support period from 30 days to 90 days. They are also reworking their documentation into PDF format to make it customer-downloadable, and will provide overnight replacement for malfunctioning hardware during the warranty period.]

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