About 2 months ago the 802.11n Enabler for the latest Macs finally became available, releasing the hidden 802.11n capabilities. This is great for us Mac owners with Core 2 Duo Macs as we can jump onboard the .11n band wagon with some of the already available .11n draft equipment. When Belkin offered their new N1 Wireless Router and ExpressCard for review I was quite excited, as 54Mbit 802.11g is really starting to show its age with the high resolution and high bandwidth video streaming and file transfers. But does it live up to its claims? Read on to find out.
The Belkin N1 Router comes in a fairly large box. Included is the router, AC adaptor (110-240V auto switching), several manuals and a setup CD.
The router itself is quite large, considerably bigger than the Belkin 802.11g router that I was using. It is definitely more stylish with its glossy black case, as opposed to the corporate grey of their other routers.
On the back of the unit is 4 10/100Mbit ports, a WAN connection, reset button and power port. I really wish it had 8 ports, as 4 ports aren’t enough in our house anymore (3 desktops plus an network printer). If I want to connect something extra, I have to disconnect something, or hookup an extra hub. Considering the price of the unit, 5 or even 8 ports isn’t much to ask.
On the top of the router is the three antennas which you can point in any direction (except down of course) to get the best reception.
The front of the router is where things get interesting. Instead of your standard port connection lights you have what looks like a Star Trek touch panel. When the router is off the panel is glossy black like the rest of the router top, but when powered on The silence is broken by brilliant blue indicators.
These indicators show you the status of your router, wired and wireless clients, wireless security, broadband modem connection, and connection to the internet. They are actually quite useful for tracking down a problem quickly (eg. No internet connection on any computer).
Like the vast majority of routers today (probably all actually) the N1 has a web interface for configuration. When you enter the IP address of the router into your web browser (the default is 192.168.2.1) the web interface will be displayed with the current status of the router. Here you can view your Internet IP address, DHCP/Firewall/Wireless Security status.
The web interface is very spread out, and consists of a crazy 23 separate panels. A large number of these could easily be combined to make for a simpler interface. With so many panels, you can be sure you can configure pretty well everything. Your usual LAN and Wireless settings are there, along with various other security and firewall features.
Starting at the top is the LAN settings. Here you can set the routers IP address, subnet mask, and enable or disable DHCP IP address assignment.
The wireless panels let you name your network, as well as choose from several security options, and whether your network is 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n or a combination.
Like other routers, you can configure the internal firewall to allow certain traffic in and out over the Internet for applications like remote desktop, games or a web server.
An excellent feature is Dynamic DNS, which lets you signup with DynDNS and have the router automatically update your current IP address with their server. This lets you get web address that will be constantly routed to your IP address, updated whenever your IP address changes. Very nice!! Much better than having to run an application on your computer to update the service.
Down the bottom is the router update and restart panels.
The router also supports UPnP, which allows applications that support UPnP to automatically configure the router firewall to allow traffic in and out on the required ports, and close those ports when not in use. LOVE this feature!
The reason that you would buy the Belkin N1 is obviously the speed boost offered by 802.11n. Along with the N1 Router I received, Belkin sent their N1 ExpressCard which my dad has been using on his Dell XPS M1210 laptop. I also have a MacBook Pro with the 802.11n builtin and the 802.11n Enabler installed, so I was looking forward to seeing some nice speed boosts.
The N1 ExpressCard comes in a similarly styled box to the N1 Router, and includes the card, a driver CD, a Quick Installation guide and a notice that it is incompatible with Windows Vista. There are some beta Vista drivers on their website now however.
The card itself is definitely more compact than your usual PC Card, and the antenna sticks out about 1in of the slot.
I was very disappointed with my results however. At best I saw a marginal increase in speed using the N1 ExpressCard on my dads laptop. Transferring files took roughly the same time over 802.11n that they did over 802.11g either on the internal wireless card or the ExpressCard. I was very disappointed with this result, as the card promises a maximum speed of 300mbit, a far cry from the usual 54mbit, which should under normal conditions provide a considerable boost. Even when only a few metres away the results were similar.
Things were considerably worse when I connected up my MacBook Pro. I simply could not get any networking to work properly when connected to the router over 802.11n. File transfers were very slow and would eventually stop and timeout, and internet access was erratic, and I could not send emails. With the router set to b/g only, the connection was flawless and offered the same performance as the previous router I was using (a Belkin b/g unit). Switching back to .11n again killed it. I called both Belkin and Apple and they pointed the finger at each other, so as it stands I have to use the router in b/g mode. Installing the latest Airport card updates hasn’t helped either.
I also encountered a rather odd problem when unplugging the power from the router then plugging it back in which is how I usually reset my router. It would often not power back on, and would require several reconnects to get it to turn back on. This also happened after a blackout once, and for a while I couldn’t work out why I couldn’t connect to the router. Turned out it was off, and I had to toggle the power cord to get it going.
As an 802.11b/g router the Belkin N1 is excellent, with excellent range and the usual 802.11g speeds. There are also plenty of configuration options to keep most people happy. It does however disappoint where it counts, only offering slight improvements over a standard 802.11g router when using their own 802.11n card. The fact that I couldn’t get my MacBook Pro to work properly with it at all in 802.11n mode just killed it for me. Will I continue to use it? Yes, but I don’t think it offers enough features to justify its rather hefty price tag in the days of cheap 802.11g routers.
MSRP: $149.95 for the N1 Router, $119.95 for the N1 ExpressCard
What I Like: Nice design, helpful indicator lights on the front for quick diagnosis of problems, excellent stability with 802.11g clients
What Needs Improvement: Performance was quite poor in 802.11n mode, could not get it working with my MacBook Pro in 802.11n mode, unnecessarily cluttered web configuration.