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Belkin N+ Wireless Router

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High-speed wireless Internet routers are about as rare as governments spending money they don’t have, and most of them are almost as easy to understand. Presumably difficult to design, their creators clearly feel that they should be difficult to use as well.

The Belkin N+ router is a cheerful exception to this observation – oozing with features, impeccably built and not unbearably ugly if you catch sight of it, it will likely distinguish itself as the easiest router you’ve ever installed. It certainly did so for us.

Wireless technology is based on an expanding communications protocol called 802.11, of which you’ll no doubt wish to know as little as possible. Most wireless devices, such as the WiFi interfaces in contemporary laptops, use 802.11g. This is reasonably fast – it’s suitable for browsing the Internet at speeds comparable to a good high-speed broadband connection.

Higher speed wireless applications do exist – some users play games over these things, or move video around their digs. To this end, the 802.11 specification was expanded to include 802.11n, blazingly-fast wireless.

It must be said that while we tried the Belkin N+ router with several 802.11n adapters to see what it would do – and the results were unquestionably impressive – our primary interest in this device was as an 802.11g Internet router. An 802.11n device will handle slower 802.11g clients.

It took significantly longer to unpackage the Belkin N+ router and find a place to plug it in than it did to configure it. Its install CD-ROM includes an unusually well-crafted installation function that will ask you a few preliminary questions, scope out your network and then proceed to configure the router. Despite the unusual nature of ours, it nailed it the first time, and the router was good to go before its shrink wrap had stopped crackling.

Like most such devices, the Belkin N+ router has a web-based interface to allow you to log into it with a web browser and subsequently meddle with its more involved settings. You’ll almost certainly want to do so to enable its security functions, and you’ll need to get involved with its user interface to configure some of its better toys as well.

Unlike many of the less sophisticated routers that have dangled from our network of late, the web interface of the Belkin N+ router didn’t include any incomprehensible geek-speak, pigeon English or clickable objects labeled in Sanskrit. Some of the features of the router are by their nature a bit advanced – and some of them are best left undisturbed, lest they rise from their slumbers and eat your cat – but everything therein can be rendered comprehensible upon reading the manual if you just have to know what it all does.

The manual for this device, an extensive PDF document, is remarkably lucid and well written.

The Belkin N+ router supports the newer WPA and WPA2 security protocols, and the albeit less secure but ubiquitous 64- and 128-bit WEP protocols. Unless all the toys in your house are very new, you’ll likely choose the latter. It’s worth noting that unlike some competing routers, the Belkin N+ router only allows for hexadecimal WEP keys. While you can cut and paste these inscrutable strings of digits into Windows and Macintosh WiFi applications, they’re a bit nasty to type into more exotic devices, like smart phones and handheld tablets.

Getting an iPod Touch to talk to the Belkin N+ router with WEP security enabled isn’t an experience we’re anxious to repeat any time soon.

To its credit, the Belkin N+ has a front-panel status light to assist its users in setting up secure connections with it. Normally blue, it turns orange when the router is confronted with an invalid security key. Wireless security being a bit like shooting imaginary rats in total darkness, this will be of immeasurable assistance in working through connection issues.

Actually, the front panel of this router is ablaze with useful status indicators. There’s also a download speed bar-graph in there.

One of the first things we noticed about using the Belkin N+ router is that it has the most amazing range of any WiFi device we’ve encountered thus far. It covered the entire building, the surrounding grounds and well into the woods out back, all without the need for funky repeaters and range expanders. The aforementioned iPod Touch could surf the web from places that hadn’t markedly changed their appearance since the last ice age. It was all decidedly surreal.

The Belkin N+ router has every advanced feature yet devised for one of these things – we didn’t undertake to meddle with all of them. Some of the house favorites included:

  • A USB port, into which one can plug a flash drive or a USB hard drive, to share files among all the users of the router. This will arguably be of more use if the router is running an in-house network.
  • A optional guest access account, which will allow the less-than-wholly-trustworthy offspring of visiting relatives to access the Internet without being able to access your router. Guest access can be configured to present guest users with a hotel-style login page, requiring a password.
  • A connection light – the router will tell you when it’s connected to the Internet. We use a satellite link to the net – not the most reliable form of bandwidth, ‘specially when it rains – and this is a very useful light in this respect.
  • A “first line of defense” firewall, to nail most of the really vicious brute-force attacks that turn up on the net.
  • Access control that will enable or disable specific network applications, like web access or e-mail, for selected users, at selected times.
  • An “eco mode” that will disable the WiFi radio at selected times, and save the power it consumes, for those periods when you’re reasonably certain no one will need it. The user interface screen in our N+ router appears to have had the Start and End time selection boxes interchanged, making this one a bit confusing ‘til we spotted the problem.

In addition to its wireless functionality, the Belkin N+ router provides a four port Ethernet switch, allowing up to four wired computers to be connected to it. You can expand this by attaching additional multi-port switches to it if you have lots of hardware to wire up.

One thing you’ll want to pay attention to if you decide to spring for one of these boxes is its warranty. The PDF documentation file for the Belkin N+ router states that it comes with a somewhat thin one-year warranty. The packaging for ours said it has a lifetime warranty.

The Belkin N+ router is easily among the best of the current high-speed wireless routers. Its extreme ease of use, along with facilities to configure every aspect of its behavior for genuinely unusual applications, makes it an ideal choice for both the technologically stunned and for cyber-mutants who count their socks in hexadecimal. Its ability to maintain a fat connection with wireless devices well beyond shouting range is a treat.