Belkin Wireless Networking Solutions|
Wireless Access Point
The Belkin 11Mbps Wireless Access Point (WAP) is designed to act as a "bridge" between your existing wired network, and your wireless devices. It has been built around the assumption that you already have a wired network in place, be it a corporate sized LAN with routers and switches or just a small office / home network with a couple of routers, hubs, or gateways. This device allows you to add wireless capabilities to your existing LAN, simply by plugging this device into your wired network, and giving it an IP address either by setting it manually, or by allowing your existing DHCP server to assign it an IP address. The wireless access point will then be able to "relay" data from your wireless devices to your wired network, thus acting as a router / gateway for your wireless devices and workstations.
They gray circular area in the image above is called the Basic Service Set (BSS). It consists of the Wireless access point, and all the devices that exist within its coverage area. There are a few other "terms" we need to get out of the way before we proceed, so bear with us for a bit. Once we actually install and begin to configure the WAP on our test network, we'll be asked to set the Service Set Identifier (SSID). This is basically just a name given to the BSS area you are creating. Any name can be chosen for this purpose.
Roaming is a term used to describe what takes place if you have more than one WAP in existence on your network, with workstations that "move" between one BSS and another. For example, if you are in an office building with a very large area you want to have covered by your BSS. You can install multiple WAP's at different locations, assigning each of them the same SSID. By doing this, devices such as laptops or PocketPC devices will be able to roam freely between BSS's without losing connectivity. This type of setup will also create an overlapping area between the two BSS's that is called the ESS, or Extended Service Set. When a device enters the ESS, the device will evaluate signal strength and link quality, and it will choose the WAP with the best quality signal and link. The image below shows what this type of configuration would look like:
We have just one more thing to cover before we can actually get to the point where we install and test this device. Adding a WAP to an existing network in the manner we have discussed so far is referred to as running your wireless devices in Infrastructure mode. There is another type of wireless network that does not require the use of a WAP, called Adhoc mode. Using wireless devices in this mode of operation is designed for people who do not have a wired network already in place. For example, let's say you have two computers at home, and these two computers are not networked together in any way. By installing a wireless network adapter in each computer, and setting them each to operate in Adhoc mode, they will be able to communicate with each other without having a WAP in place to "relay" the data between them. The image below shows what this type of configuration would look like:
All of this jargon may make installing a wireless network sound like a very complicated ordeal - it's really not. We simply wanted to educate you on how wireless networks actually function, so you can better understand the devices we are reviewing. Setting all of this equipment up is really not very hard at all as you will soon see.
The Belkin WAP we're reviewing ships with a power adapter, installation / configuration software CD, a registration card, and of course the Wireless Access Point. I was disappointed they did not include a CAT5 network cable in the packaging, so if you don't have one on hand, you'll have to go out and pick one up. TIP: A standard straight-through cable is required; do not use a cross-over cable.
The WAP is quite small, measuring about three inches wide and about six inches long. Two flexible antennae, each measuring about three inches in length are located at the back of the device. Soft rubber "feet" pre-mounted on the bottom of the WAP, will help keep it firmly in place on your desk. There is also a spot on the back that can be used to mount it up on a wall, which can help extend your coverage area.
LED indicators on the front of the device serve multiple functions and can really help troubleshoot problems if they arise. Power LED: Indicates that the WAP is receiving power. Transmit/Receive LED: Flashing Green indicates data is being transmitted and Flashing Amber indicates data is being received. Ethernet Link/Activity LED: Solid Green indicates a valid Ethernet (wired) cable link. Flashing Orange indicates Ethernet (Wired) activity.
The back of the WAP is where the connection is for the external power source, and the RJ-45 connection you will use to connect the WAP to your existing "wired" network.
To test the Belkin Wireless Access Point, we're going to connect it to an SMC Barricade router. The router / gateway has a built in DHCP server, so if all goes as planned, it should receive an IP address via DHCP from the SMC Barricade. Connecting the WAP to the wireless access point requires three things; the WAP, power cable, and network cable (not provided). Once you get the WAP connected to an open port on your network (in our case, the SMS router) you'll need to install the Belkin Wireless Access Point Management software onto a computer connected your network. I'm usually not too keen on installing a software package onto a machine just so I can configure a network device, but since the Belkin WAP does not have a web-based interface for configuration, installation of this software is a must.
Now that we have the WAP connected to our network, and the software is installed on a computer connected to the network, it's time to launch the application for the first time. During the initial launch, and all subsequent launches for that matter, the management software will attempt to scan your network in an attempt to find WAPs to configure. Assuming the DCHP assignment went smooth from our SMC Barricade, the management software should find our WAP.
As you can see from the above screen cap, the DHCP assignment from our SMC Barricade router was a success, and the WAP was successfully detected during the network scan. At this point you we're ready to connect to the WAP using the management software, to make some configuration changes. Some of these configuration features are much more important than others, and can provide a very good level of security for your wireless network. The following section covers a few of these features in detail:
Connecting to the WAP
Connection to the WAP requires a password to protect both the viewing and modification of its settings. The WAP comes with a default password preset on the device (default password is found in the documentation that comes with the WAP), but I highly recommend you change this to something more secure.
This is simply a 'made up name' you can give to your WAP. If you have more than one WAP on your network, you should give each of them a unique name, so you can identify them more easily.
This indicates the number of wireless client workstations connected to the WAP. A total of 64 wireless clients can be connected at a time.
As we mentioned in the beginning of this review, the SSID is a name you are assigning to your wireless network. This is different from the AP name, in that the AP name is the name for the actual WAP, while the SSID is the name assigned to the BSS created by your WAP. While you can just leave this set to default, I would recommend changing this to something unique - it is always good security practice to change default names and passwords on any device. If you have more than one WAP on your network and you want the client workstations to have to the ability to roam between BSS's, both WAP's will have to have the same SSID assigned to them.
IP Settings (IP / Gateway / Mask)
If you do not have a DHCP server on your network that can assign an IP to your WAP, the default settings will be: IP 192.168.0.254, Subnet Mask 255.255.255.0, and a gateway of 0.0.0.0. These can be manually changed, but you'll have to disable the DHCP function prior to changing them.
There are two forms of security built into the WAP to help keep unauthorized devices off your wireless network. While each has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages, I highly recommend you pick at least one of these features, and use it!
For secure data transmissions, the Belkin WAP is capable of encrypting, or "scrambling", the information that is sent over the air between your computers. The WAP uses a form of encryption called WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy). There are two levels of WEP encryption 64-bit and 128-bit. As the numbers imply, 128-bit encryption is more secure than 64-bit encryption. However, using 128-bit encryption can slow down the rate at which data is sent between the wireless-equipped computers and the WAP.
WEP encryption uses keys to scramble and unscramble the data that is being sent between wireless-equipped computers and the WAP. The WAP and the computers must use the same key to be able to communicate using encryption. Creating the key can be done one of two ways, you can either manually enter the entire key by hand, or you can use the pass-phrase key generator which will create a key based upon a word you select. Keep in mind when you're using encryption, all client workstations will have to have the same key as the WAP, or they will not be able to communicate with it.
The WAP can be programmed with a list of MAC addresses that are allowed to establish a connection. A MAC address is a unique "serial number" that is assigned to every wireless adapter (all wired network cards have a unique MAC address assigned to them as well). For instance, if you own a Belkin F5D6020 Wireless Notebook Network Adapter for your laptop, it has been assigned its own MAC address at the factory. While this is a relatively easy way to secure your network without having to worry about encryption overheard hindering your speed, if you have a large number of client workstations, managing the MAC filter list can quickly become an administrators worst nightmare.
Wireless USB Adapter
In addition to covering the WAP, this review will cover two client workstation options available from Belkin. The first of these two is the Wireless USB adapter. The USB Wireless adapter is the perfect solution for devices you wish to have on your network, that either cannot have wires run to them due to structural barriers or if you're simply looking to expand your existing wireless network by adding wireless clients.
The Wireless USB adapter is physically very similar to the WAP. Included in the packaging, you'll find the Wireless USB adapter, installation / configuration software CD, a registration card, and a USB cable to connect the adapter to your PC. This device does not require an external power source; it is able to get everything it needs to function via the USB connection.
When we said the Wireless USB adapter is very similar physically to the WAP, we weren't exaggerating. The adapter measures about three inches wide, and about four inches deep. Two flexible antennas are mounted on the device, one on each side towards the rear. An activity LED is located on the top of the device: it will glow amber when the device has power, and will flash yellow when data is being transmitted or received. Large soft rubber feet on the bottom of the USB adapter will help keep it securely in place, and there are also screw / mounting holes on the bottom if you want to mount it up on your cubicle wall using the six-foot USB cable (included).
Installation of the USB Wireless adapter is a pretty simply process. Plug the adapter into an open USB port on the back of your machine. When the operating system detects the USB device and asks for a suitable driver, insert the CD provided and load the drivers from it. After the drivers have been loaded, you'll need to install the Belkin USB Management Software package (also found on the CD-Rom) to properly configure all of the available features.
The USB Management software consists of six "tabbed" screens that serve a variety of different purposes. Below is a brief description of each configurable item:
Primary configuration of your Wireless USB adapter is done on the monitor tab. It is on this screen where you can change the adapter from Adhoc to Infrastructure mode, change the channel being used, set the SSID, and modify the default Tx Rate. Most users will want to leave all of the settings on this screen as they are, with the exception of the SSID - set this to the same SSID you've assigned to your WAP. Two status indicators are also on the monitor tab, which show the MAC address of the WAP you're currently using, along with your current signal strength.
The statistics tab, shows a running total of all frames sent and received by the Wireless USB Adapter. You can reset them back to zero by pressing the reset button.
Site Survey shows a listing of all the WAP's your particular workstation can currently connect to. If you only have one WAP, you'll only see one in the list, but if you have more then one, and your workstation is currently in an ESS area you could see more than one device on this screen. Double-click on the WAP you want to use for your network connection to utilize it.
We talked a bit about encryption, and key generation during our coverage of the WAP. This tab is where you set the client side key that is required if you have enabled encryption on your WAP. Again, both 64-bit and 128-bit options are available, as well as the ability to manually create your own key or to generate a key based on a typed word or phrase. All computers on your wireless network must use the same encryption rate and pass-phrase, and must match what is being used by your WAP.
The advanced tab is used to change the fragmentation threshold, and the RTS/CTS (Request to Send / Clear to Send) threshold. Belkin recommends not changing either of these from their default settings - and neither do I.
This tab simply shows the version of the driver your USB Wireless adapter is using, the firmware revision, and the configuration utility version.
Wireless PCMCIA Adapter
It's now time to move onto the third, and final device of this review - the Belkin Wireless PCMCIA Adapter. Designed for use in Laptops, the PCMCIA adapter is a standard height card with a small "antennae" extension, making it an extra inch or so longer than a normal sized PCMCIA card.
There isn't much included in the packaging aside from the PCMCIA card itself, installation / configuration software CD, and a registration card. But, what else can you ask for when you buy a wireless PCMCIA card - cables? A diagnostic LED is positioned on the antennae section of the PCMCIA card, which glows amber when the card is powered up, but it does not flash or give any indication of data being transmitted or received.
As with most PCMCIA cards, the installation is quite simple. Plug the card into an open slot on your client device, and when you're prompted for the drivers, insert the CD and load them from it. You'll also need to install the Belkin Wireless Network Configuration Utility in order to configure all of the available features available on this card. The features and options on this card are very similar to those found in the USB verion we talked about earlier. But, instead of six "tabbed" screens with selectable options, this version has everything compacted down into a set of four screens. Here is an overview of the features on available on this device:
The Link Info screen provides several status indicators, showing you the quality of your current connection, the signal strength, which WAP you are currently connected to, and the number of bytes transmitted and received. I found myself somewhat addicted to watching this screen during my testing of these devices, because it gives you a real-time view of how well the device is actually performing.
All configurable features, aside from encryption, are set on this screen. It is where you can select from Infrastructure or adhoc mode, set your SSID, throttle your transmission rate, and enable or disable power saving (to extend your laptop battery life).
We talked about encryption during our discussion of the first two devices - this device is no different in those regards. This tab is where you set the client side key that is required if you have enabled encryption on your WAP. Again, both 64-bit and 128-bit options are available, as well as the ability to manually create your own key or to generate a key based on a typed word or phrase. All computers on your wireless network must use the same encryption rate and pass-phrase, and must match what is being used by your WAP.
The about screen shows you the product version number, along with the version of the configuration utility you are currently using.
To actively test these devices in a "real world" environment, we disconnected the network cable from two of the machines in our lab, and installed one of the Belkin Wireless devices on each machine. Using these machines daily to perform all of the tasks that would normally be done on a "wired" network, gave us a very good understanding of how well these devices performed. After nearly three weeks of continuous testing, along with the feature evaluations noted above, we were able to come to the following conclusions about each of these devices:
Wireless Access Point
One thing I did not mention in my conclusions thus far, is the fact that all of these Belkin products come with a Lifetime Warranty and free 24 hour technical support. I must also commend Belkin for producing a such a high quality set of wireless networking components, and I hope you have learned enough about these products by reading this review to know if they have what it takes to become a part of your network.
The Wireless Access Point has been marketed towards people who already have a wired network in place, and would like to add wireless connectivity to their remote devices. With this simple goal in mind, the Belkin Wireless Access point definitely hits its mark.
The ability to run multiple access points makes this device even more attractive to those in a large office area, or those who have too many barriers blocking the signal range of a single device.
The setup / installation was a very simply process, and we did not encounter any problems at all getting it up and running. The documentation is very helpful, but is not geared towards a "noobie user". As long as you have a basic understanding of how your current network is setup, you shouldn't have a problem getting the access point up and running in a matter of minutes. While I wasn't very keen on installing a software package just to configure a network device (I would have liked to have seen a web-based configuration interface), the configuration software worked flawlessly and provided an easy straightforward interface for setting all the available features to our liking.
I really liked having the ability to setup MAC address filtering to secure our test network instead of using encryption. But, if you have a large number of wireless devices connecting to your network, the administration of the MAC address filtering table could be painful to manage.
Both the 64-bit and 128-bit encryption methods worked without a problem, and the pass-phrase key creation function made both very easy to implement. During normal surfing and file browsing, we did not notice much of a decrease in speed with the encryption enabled, but when transferring large amounts of contiguous data (files larger than 5 megs) we did notice a slight decrease on speed. However, I do not consider this to be the fault of any of the devices involved - the 802.11b wireless networking standard was not designed to transfer large amounts of data very fast to begin with. It was designed with convenience (no wires) and security (encryption) as its primary goal - not speed. If you're looking to get wired network speed from a wireless device, you'll want to either consider running traditional cables to the device, or spending the extra cash and getting a device that uses the 802.11a wireless networking standard (802.11b operates at max speed of 11Mbps - while 802.11a operates at max speed of 54Mbps).
With a retail price of around $149.00 dollars, the Belkin Wireless Access point definitely deserves a look if you're looking to add wireless capabilities to your current network. The installation is simple, the security options are excellent, the documentation is good, and the performance is on par with its competition. In short, this product does exactly what the manufacturer claims it will do - add wireless capabilities to your existing wired network.
USB Wireless Adapter
As far as the installation of the USB Wireless Adapter goes, it doesn't get much easier than this. Just plug it in, give it the drivers it needs, and you're up and running in a matter of minutes.
Signal quality with the USB Adapter was more reliable than what we achieved with the PCMCIA adapter for several reasons. Having a three-foot long cable lets you position the device in the best location to achieve optimal reception - and the protruding antennae also improves reception quality.
The Wireless USB Adapter is definitely worth considering if you have devices machines without an open PCI slot available, and no open PCMCIA slot. The Belkin Wireless USB Adapter retails for $89.00 dollars on the Belkin website.
PCMCIA Wireless Adapter
Designed primarily for use in laptops, the PCMCIA adapter from Belkin can turn your laptop, into a roaming network device. Sounds silly I know - after all, they are called laptops for a reason - but in many offices today too many laptop users are tied to their desks by cables or docking stations in order to have network connectivity. Adding wireless networking capabilities to your home or office laptop can really expand its use and give you the freedom to use that three thousand dollar paperweight on a string you have sitting on your desk in places you've probably never even considered.
Installation of this device is quite similar to any other PCMCIA card. Plug the card into an open slot on your laptop, and "give" your machine the drivers it needs once your operating system detects the device. The required configuration utility gives you straight forward access to all of the features available on the card, and provides an excellent set of monitoring tools to help troubleshoot performance problems and link quality issues.
Documentation provided with the Belkin PCMCIA Wireless Adapter is similar to that of the others. While it's not geared towards an "induhvidual", it does provide detailed instructions that can be of great assistance if you run into any problems.
Even though the card "sticks out" on the side of a laptop a good inch or so, the signal quality you'll get may not be the best in the world. For example, using the configuration utility signal strength meter to monitor my link quality, I could increase the signal strength by 15-20% simply turning the laptop on its side (with the end of the card pointing straight up into the air). By the way, it's not very easy to work with your laptop in this position. We can't hold this drawback against this particular card - all wireless PCMCIA cards will have the same problem with the exception of those that feature a pop-up antennae.
On the speed front, unless you're transferring very large contiguous files, you probably won't ever notice you're running a wireless card. Browsing the internet, network browsing, streaming media, and opening / editing documents should all run at about the same speed you would get if you were using a wired 10Mbps setup. This is assuming that you're within a reasonable distance from your Wireless Access Point. I didn't start to notice a slow down in speed, until I put about 50 feet (including three walls) between my laptop and the Wireless Access Point.
Once again, I'm going to recommend you consider the Belkin Wireless PCMCIA Adapter if you're in the market for one. It is a very solid performing product, delivering everything it promised. The card we tested retails for $89.00 dollars on the Belkin website.
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Published on: 2004-02-01 (41167 reads)[ Go Back ]