Belkin 802.11g Wireless DSL/Cable Gateway Router
June 24, 2003
Our first look at a fully 802.11g-compliant product shows a well designed unit that competes well in terms of price, features, and performance.
While the Belkin 802.11g Wireless DSL/Cable Gateway Router does not contain absolutely every feature one might want in a broadband router it comes close, and does offer a compelling mix of capabilities for its reasonable $129 price tag. Though many similar products may be equally appropriate in a home or small office environment, the Belkin is clearly geared primarily for use in a residential (read: family) environment.
This router is an 802.11g device, based on the Broadcom BCM9402 chipset. Usually, the word "draft" is included in the aforementioned sentence, but on the day I began working on the product, the final 802.11g specification was approved and a new firmware version was provided (via a helpful automatic feature I'll discuss later) which conforms to the final standard. The new firmware also added WPA encryption support.
The ease-of-use focus is apparent upon opening the box, by virtue of the 90-plus page bound and printed manual, a rarity in products today. If you don't subscribe to the philosophy of "RTFM," an included Quick Installation Guide will get you off the ground. The manual doesn't delve into technical esoterica but it does a good job outlining how to configure the various features of the router, making liberal use of diagrams and screen shots.
For those who desire (or require) maximum setup assistance, an included "Easy Installation Wizard" application automatically configures the router and attached PCs (essentially by configuring them as DHCP clients).
Connecting to the Belkin's browser-based configuration reveals a very user-friendly design. It uses a familiar tabbed interface, but the large tabs list all the features in each category, obviating the need to cycle through tabs looking for something in particular.
Other convenience features include a status page which offers at a glance info on all major aspects of the unit, including LAN/WAN configuration, firmware info, and which features are turned on or off.
The interface's help system is a little lame, however. Clicking the help button doesn't give you context-sensitive information, but rather a semi-complete glossary of terms. (Good thing for the manuals, eh?)
One interesting and somewhat unique characteristic of the F5D7230-4 is its auto firmware update feature. The name is something of a misnomer, since it doesn't actually update the router firmware automatically. (Good news, since this probably wouldn't be desirable in most cases.) What it does do is check Belkin's support site (upon logging into the router's configuration pages) and let you know when a new firmware version has been posted.
I didn't think I'd have the opportunity to try this feature. But sure enough, while I was working with it a new firmware version was posted, and I was given direct link to the download as well as a link to an updated manual in PDF format. The latter in particular is a nice touch.
The router has a basic logging feature (it actually maintains separate logs for system and firewall events). As it turns out though, the feature isn't terribly useful, because the firewall log tended to fill up with meaningless entries referencing my WAN gateway IP address (on the ISP side).
You can download the logs to a file for offline viewing, but clicking the save button summarily pours the current log into a Notepad file that's almost impossible to comprehend. As it turns out, the log doesn't record much useful information anyway. The entries are very generic, offering simply a time/date stamp, offending IP address, and a vague description like "Blocked by DoS Protection."
Lamentably, the Belkin doesn't offer any way to e-mail notification of system events or logs to the administrator.
The Belkin's Virtual Server settings page has one of the most comprehensive lists of pre-defined application I've yet seen in a router. Over a hundred games and utility profiles are available to choose from, so chances are the one you're looking for is on the list.
The WLAN configuration area reveals three wireless performance modes. Two are the common '54g only' and 'mixed-mode' settings, the latter of which will accommodate 802.11b hardware. A third mode, LRS (Limited Rate Support) is available to help mitigate certain issues with specific, older 802.11b devices.
You can of course do other things like set WEP encryption, disable SSID broadcast, or choose a wireless channel. Belkin doesn't offer any other advanced WLAN settings like the ability to force a data rate or modify transmit power, but it does on the other hand, offer Broadcom-based WDS (Wireless Distribution System), a.k.a. bridging.Interestingly, you can disable the router side of the unit and use it solely as an access point. You can also turn off the unit's firewall (or NAT support, for that matter) though it's unlikely anyone would want to do so.
As previously mentioned, the F5D7230-4 is one of the first products out of the chute to support WPA encryption. (WEP is still there for backwards compatibility). The Belkin makes WPA pretty easy to set up. Unlike WEP, which requires a specific-length key in either ASCII or Hex, all WPA asks of you is a passphrase between 8 and 63 characters long. Both TKIP and AES are supported as encryption methods (because Broadcom's chips include an AES chip), and you can also configure it to authenticate users to a RADIUS server. (For more on WPA and the Belkin, consult the review of the companion F5D7010 PC Card.)
Continuing the subject of security, the cornerstone of the Belkin is undoubtedly its parental control, which provides Web site filtering. As a subscription-based service, this feature goes a step further than the content filtering typically found in similar products. You can subscribe to the parental control service for six months gratis, ($19.95 annually thereafter) and Belkin is to be commended for allowing you to do so without having to provide a credit card when you first sign up.
When the parental control feature is enabled, each Web request generates a simultaneous query by the router to a content database (which is maintained by partner Ceberian) that Belkin says contains over 2.5 million sites. For those sites that may not be in the database, a "Dynamic Real-Time Rating" kicks in to rate the content on the fly. If after analysis your account settings deem the site acceptable, then the router supplies the user with requested page. If not, an admonishing screen is served in its stead.
One extremely convenient feature is that this "denied" screen lets you override the settings for one hour by entering the administrative password. But you can also configure the service to e-mail you whenever an override is performed as a guard against the possibility of pilfered passwords.
There are over 50 content categories you can filter on, broadly divided into two categories. One is "Potential Liable and Objectionable" which deals with sites featuring things like adult, drug-related and gambling material The "Non-productive" category is much broader, including such listings as travel, auctions, and news.
I didn't notice any appreciable lag time associated with having the content-filtering service enabled, though Belkin warns that dynamically rating a site could cause a delay of up to 10 seconds. One glitch I did notice was that after shutting off the parental control feature (and receiving an e-mail confirmation to that effect), the feature turned itself back on again later in the day, even though it wasn't supposed to unless explicitly re-enabled.
If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can ante up an additional $10 for the optional reporting feature, which serves up detailed reports of aggregate or per-user activity, complete with graphs and charts. Belkin also says that it plans to add an e-mail filtering feature to its service in the future.
Given that the Belkin marks the first product that uses the final 802.11g specification (though no 11g product has successfully undergone WiFi Certification yet), I was understandably eager to gauge the unit's throughput performance, and I can report that it was good--very good, at least in 802.11g mode.
In our distance tests (which are conducted in '54g only' mode) conducted with the Belkin F5D7010 PC Card adapter, the throughput ranged from 22.05 Mbps at close range to 12.19 Mbps at a 125 foot range. This being the first of many final 802.11g I'll look at in the coming weeks and months, I hesitate to draw any strong conclusions on the Belkin's relative performance, but its numbers were better than virtually every draft 802.11g product tested by 802.11 Planet over the past six months.
Turning on the Belkin's "Turbo" mode, which is a form of WLAN chipset-proprietary frame bursting, boosted the throughput minimally--to 23.22 Mbps. Belkin says that this particular feature (which is outside the 11g spec) is still being tweaked and that they expect the performance to improve over time.
Running the 802.11g client simultaneously with an 802.11b client yielded throughput of 8.43 for the former, and 2.56 for the latter. Based on past experience, I would have expected the g client to perform a bit better than that and for the b client to post a score closer to its maximum potential of around 4.5 Mbps, but I'll reserve judgment on this until I have seen more comparable products. This test exposed an interesting anomaly in that the 802.11b card did not show up in the Belkin router's list of DHCP clients, even though it had been assigned an address and was working correctly. Belkin says this is a known issue and will be fixed in a future upgrade.
Finally, I didn't perform a testing run with WPA enabled, since my test bed is Windows 2000-based which lacks built in support for it. For what its worth, Belkin indicates that no WPA-related performance penalty is expected. In future tests, the test bed will be updated to Windows XP and a run with WPA enabled will become a standard test.
Overall, the Belkin F5D7230-4 is well designed, and it competes well in terms of price, features, and performance. Only time (and more reviews) will tell how its performance in particular will stack up with the myriad updated products now hitting the market. But performance issues aside, the comprehensive nature of the parental controls are probably the router's most unique feature, and I would expect that this will be the primary selling point for many people whose primary concern is restricting access to certain types of content.