ZyXEL ZyAir B-100 Wireless LAN PC Card and B-400 Wireless LAN Ethernet Adapter

Price: $69 (B-100); $119 (B-400)
Rating: 4 of 5

The ZyXEL ZyAir B-100 and B-400 are two new WLAN adapters in a line that also includes the B-1000 access point and the B-2000 router. The $69 B-100 is a PC Card adapter, while the $119 B-400 is a wireless Ethernet adapter, commonly known as a bridge (though it doesn’t bridge between networks, just between an Ethernet-capable product and the wireless LAN).

My installation of the Intersil PRISM 3-based B-100 occurred without major drama, but there was a minor issue. Most vendors recommend that you install the utility software prior to inserting the PC Card, but in the case of the B-100, doing this caused my test system to repeatedly hang and blue screen. Uninstalling the utility and inserting the card before reinstalling it quickly rectified the problem.

Interestingly, neither the installation wizard nor the resultant application icon references the ZyXEL name; both are simply labeled “IEEE802.11b WLAN Card Utility.” Only after launching the utility does the ZyXEL name finally appear (in the utility’s title bar), implying that the application carries over only lightly modified from the chipmaker’s reference design.

This isn’t to say that the software is wanting in any meaningful way. The tabbed interface is easy to use and puts all the configuration choices of the card close at hand. Wireless profiles are supported for those who need to retain configuration info for multiple networks.

For its part, the B-400 (based on the older Prism 2.5 chipset) has a stylish, functional two-tone chassis with a wide base. This wide base precludes using the device in any other mode besides upright and vertical. Then again helps the device’s desktop stability and vertical height is always desirable for the best possible reception.

Whereas many similar devices in this class require the use of a crossover cable, kudos to ZyXEL for including a straight-through/crossover switch on the B-400. Anyone who’s had to go frantically hunting for a crossover cable will appreciate the presence of the switch, for maximum flexibility.

The B-400 uses its own configuration utility which is designed to only provide basic connectivity and functionality (like changing the IP address or upgrading the firmware). The majority of the B-400 configuration chores are done via its Web-based interface.

I tested the performance of both the B-100 and the B-400 against the B-1000 access point on my standard Windows 2000-based notebook test bed. Both wireless adapters performed well enough, but the B-100 PC Card had a modest edge in throughput across a range of distances.

For example, at 10 feet, the B-100 turned in 4.78 Mbps compared to 4.41 for the B-400. Similarly, at 125 feet, the B-100 posted 5.01 Mbps, while the B-400 could only manage 4.53 Mbps. The delta was similar at all the distance increments in between.

The difference in throughput between the two products is understandable given that the B-100’s PC Card antenna provides 19 dBm of output power, compared to only 16.5dBm for the Ethernet-based B-400. The slightly blunted performance is the price to be paid for the added convenience of the Ethernet interface.

To take advantage of the 802.1X or RADIUS capability of the ZyAir B-1000 access point or B-2000 router requires either Windows XP, which has built-in 802.1X support, or an additional piece of 802.1X client software for other operating systems. An 802.1x client– AEGIS from Meetinghouse software– is bundled with the ZyXEL B-100. A version of the software for the B-400 will be available soon.

Because 802.1X only authenticates the user and doesn’t encrypt the transmission of wireless packets, there’s no performance implication associated with its use. Also, because 802.1X or RADIUS authentication capability is inherent to a WLAN router or access point and corresponding client software rather than the client hardware, its worth noting that you could any type of 802.1X client software with hardware from any other vendor to utilize 802.1X with the ZyXEL or similarly-equipped products.

Both the ZyXEL ZyAir B-100 and B-400 are competent if somewhat run-of-the-mill WLAN products. Aside from the B-400’s welcome inclusion of the cable select switch, they don’t significantly distinguish themselves from the pack, though they’re both a logical choice for use if you want to take advantage of the capabilities of the other products in the ZyAir line and keep your hardware consistent with one vendor.

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