Price: $98 MSRP
Have you ever been with a group of notebook-equipped people (say, co-workers perhaps) and found yourselves fighting over who was going to get the only available LAN port? As common as wireless networks are today, they’re still far from ubiquitous, and it’s entirely likely that say, in a conference room or hotel suite, a group of people can find themselves with a shortage of available network ports.
The $98 MSRP (about $70 on the street) ZyAIR G-220 aims to solve this problem. From all outward appearances, the G-220 appears like a garden variety USB-based wireless NIC. But the ovoid-shaped G-220 is more than simply a client adapter– through its included software it also can function as an access point that lets a user create a wireless network from any wired connection.
Because plugging directly into a computer’s USB port may not always be possible (and often isn’t ideal for optimal signal strength in any event), a three foot USB extension cable is included with the device. The G-220 doesn’t have a clip or anything similar that can act as a temporarily mount point, and the only indicator on the G-220 is the bright blue blinking logo.
The ZyAIR G-220’s included utility software is optional if you plan to use the device as a client adapter, but it is mandatory to operate the G-220 in AP mode–the software is actually the access point, the hardware is really just a radio and antenna.
In client mode, the utility provides all the basic WLAN client settings including power management and network profiles. Unfortunately, the only form of encryption supported by the client is WEP (up to 256-bit). To use advanced forms of encryption and authentication, ZyXEL bundles the Funk Odyssey supplicant which supports all important forms including 802.1x, RADIUS, and WPA.
Switching the G-220 into AP mode is simple matter of changing a setting in the software utility. When used as an AP, the G-220 isn’t exactly full featured, but it lets you configure the most useful settings like wireless channel, transmit rate, and four levels of radio output power. You can get some rudimentary security by enabling MAC filtering, but like the client, the only encryption method supported is WEP, and this time, there’s no way around that limitation. In truth though, this is probably not a major issue, since chances are that security will not be of paramount concern for G-220 users.
Once you’ve got the G-220 operating as an access point, you need to bridge that connection with the wired connection. Windows 2000 and XP in particular make this pretty simple. One way is to use the Internet Connection Sharing feature that’s built-in to most versions of Windows. Alternately, you can select both adapters and enable network bridging in the OS (by highlighting them and right-clicking for a context menu). Both methods worked for me and didn’t require any additional tweaking.
However, the latter method is probably preferable in most cases, since the act of enabling Internet Connection Sharing activates an internal DHCP server which can cause problems if another DHCP server exists on the network (as is likely in a corporate environment). The bridging feature of Windows allows DHCP address requests to traverse the bridge (normally broadcasts don’t), so you can still use dynamically assigned addresses on clients communicating with the G-220.
Aside from the lightweight AP WLAN features of the G-220, there are some inherent limitations to the soft AP approach. Like any device shared via an individual PC, the G-220 relies on the computer to be on and working properly in order to function (and puts the onus on said PC to act as the firewall). As a result, it should not really be considered a permanent alternative to a “real” access point, and instead should only be used in temporary situations where quick wireless access is needed.
For setting up quick wireless networks on the road, there are alternatives. A new crop of small and light access points are available today from companies like D-Link and Apple, and some are even designed explicitly for travel (the Netgear WGR101 in particular comes to mind). But while such devices are usually much smaller than the typical access point, they’re still considerably larger than the G-220, which could easily fit into a breast pocket. Unlike the G-220, these access points also require their own AC power, and could leave you in the lurch should the power adapter go AWOL.
If you’re looking to set up long-term or semi-permanent wireless networks where administration and security may be important, you’d probably be better served getting the smallest and lightest conventional access point that still provides the features you’re looking for.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to provide “quick and dirty” wireless access and don’t want or need a lot of frills, the ZyXEL G-220 is a good solution to a common problem and you will probably find it worthy of your consideration.