Review: FON Fonera 2.0n
November 03, 2009
Do a chance to make some money from spare bandwidth, a reasonable price and polished UI offset some technical limitations and inconvenient quirks with FON's entry into the 802.11n world? Joe Moran reviews.
Like every other Wi-Fi router under the sun, the Fonera 2.0n from Madrid-based FON will provide you with wireless access to your broadband Internet connection. What makes the Fonera different is all the other stuff it can doautomatically upload photos, videos, and other files from a connected storage device to popular online services, act as a BitTorrent client so you don't need to dedicate a PC to the task, and easily set up a separate public hotspot from which to offer paid or free Internet access to passers-by.
All of these capabilitiescombined with a reasonable $109 price tagarguably give the Fonera 2.0n one of the best blends of versatility and value in a Wi-Fi router these days. On the other hand, the Fonera 2.0n also has a number of limitations that can make using it a bit more of a hassle than it should be.
The Fonera 2.0n is a 2.4 GHz, 802.11n device with a pretty old school physical design— a low-profile rectangular shape and a pair of mast antennas at the rear of the unit. Between those antennas are the obligatory WAN port and four LAN ports (which aren't Gigabit-capable, only 100 Mbps), plus a WPS configuration button and radio/on off toggle switch. Next to the array of indicator lights on the front of the Fonera is a USB port for connecting storage and other devices; you can connect several USB devices at a time by linking them through a powered hub.
How FON Works
Before we go any further into the particulars of the Fonera 2.0n, let's take a quick look at how FON's business model works. When you register your FON account, you must decide what kind of "Fonero" you want to be—either a "Bill" or a "Linus". The difference between the two is that Bills take a 50 percent cut of the net revenue from people (known as "aliens" in FONspeak) that use their FON hotspot while Linuses opt to forgo receiving any lucre. Whether you choose to be a Bill or a Linus, you get free access at all other FON Spots; FON claims there are over 700,000 worldwide, but in the US most seem to be in or around San Francisco (along with a smattering in other major cities). Both Bills and Linuses can also create up to five accounts to give family and friends free access to their own FON Spots.
Going Public ... and Private
When you first access the Fonera's browser-based administration interface, a wizard takes you through the basic setup process, which consists of assigning an administration password and configuring the router for the myriad online services supported (YouTube, Picasa, Flickr, Facebook, RapidShare, and Megaupload). Next you must create a FON community account and register your router, which requires that you provide your physical address so your public hotspot can be found via FON's online (and Google Maps-based) lookup tool.
After you've taken care of the initial router setup and registration, you're dropped into the Fonera Dashboard, an attractive and well-organized management UI. Here you'll find virtually all the Wi-Fi and LAN configuration options you'll expect from a garden-variety router, ranging from Dynamic DNS to QoS. (The Fonera uses firmware heavily based on OpenWRT.) You can also access many Fonera device functions remotely (and get network statistics) by signing into your account at www.fon.com.
In most cases, getting the Fonera functional will require little configuration beyond the initial setup wizard. It comes out of the box set to mixed b/g/n/ mode and broadcasting two SSIDsone for your public hotspot, and the other your private Wi-Fi signal, which is on a separate subnet. The private SSID is pre-configured for WPA, and the requisite ten-character, mixed-case, alphanumeric passphrase can be found on a sticker affixed to the side of the device. We wish all routers came similarly configured with encryption turned on by default, though it's particularly important when you're effectively advertising the existence of your adjacent hotspot.It's important to note that the Fonera only has one radio, so although public and private users are on isolated IP networks, they're all using the same wireless bandwidth. Moreover, the single radio means that you can't do things like configure your public network for backward 802.11b or g compatibility while running your private network in pure-N mode. You can put a limit on how much of your ISP connection bandwidth your FON Spot can use, however.
Visitors to your public FON Spot are greeted by a browser welcome page that you can customize to a certain degree and which offers ten minutes of trial access for free, an hour for $2.00, 24 hours for $4.90, and five days of access for $14.90. (FON handles all transactions and accepts payment via credit card.) Those rates are somewhat lower than what most commercial hotspot networks generally charge.
Storage and Online Services
We didn't try every one of the Fonera's extensive list of supported services, but we did use several, including uploading videos and photos to YouTube and Picasa, respectively, via the router. Plug a storage device into the Fonera, and it will automatically upload any files it finds in an appropriately named folder (photos in a folder named picasa, videos one named youtube, etc.) to your account on the corresponding service without you having to lift a finger. Alternately, you can use the Fonera's built-in Filebrowser utility to peruse the contents of a storage device and select what to upload, and where. The utility will also auto-create all the named folders you need, and you can map the Fonera's attached storage as a Windows drive for simple data transfer. Another nice feature is that Twitter users can configure the Fonera to send tweets notifying them when files have been uploaded/downloading or users have connected to your FON Spot.
While using the storage and uploading feature we also became aware of some of the Fonera's limitations in this area. For starters, you can only mark individual files for upload. If you want to upload an entire folder of photos to Picasa for example, you can't do it from the Fonera. Also, the Fonera can't upload multiple files concurrently. And while you are able to queue up lots of files to upload to different services, there's no global queue where you can view all the files waiting to go up and reorder the list (e.g. to make sure small photos don't get stuck in line behind large video files).
The Fonera can read and write to drives formatted with the FAT32, NTFS, non-journaled HFS+ (MacOS), or ext2/ext3 file systems. The Fonera Wiki (which is the sole documentation) advises against using NTFS due to poor performance issues (particularly when dealing with torrents) and recommends using ext2/ext3 instead. Fair enough, but it would be nice if the Fonera could format storage devices directly. Since it can't, Windows users—who can't natively format an ext2/ext3 drive—are on their own to find another way to do so, either by either finding a Windows utility that can (there aren't many) or running Linux from a LiveCD. (Using FAT32 may not be practical—especially for BitTorrent usedue to 4GB file size limits.)
Another complaint is that after viewing our uploaded files on the aforementioned services, we noticed that the Fonera had annoyingly replaced the file names with generic labels—every uploaded Picasa snapshot was named "fonera", and every YouTube video, "Fonera Upload". You can of course rename files to restore the originals post-upload and it's not a huge deal to do so, but you really shouldn't have to.
The Fonera 2.0n is capable of getting its Internet access from a 3G modem plugged into its USB port in lieu of standard broadband, but at least for now the feature probably won't be of much use to residents of North America. The list of compatible modems is limited and lacks a single US or Canada device/carrier. We tried setting up an Alltel/Verizon UT150 just for grins, but the Fonera wouldn't recognize it. A FON representative told us that the company plans to add additional countries and carriers.
In addition to all the capabilities that are inherent to the Fonera, the device also supports plug-in applications that enable added features like the ability to share a printer or stream from a webcam. Since the Fonera 2.0n is open source, third-parties are free to create their own FON plug-ins.
You won't find the Fonera 2.0n on sale in stores or at regular online retailers; you can only buy it directly from FON for $99 plus $10 shipping. That price seems like a minor bargain compared to the 79 Euros European users need to shell out for the unit, which works out to about $119 at the exchange rate current as of this writing. While you can find bare-bones 802.11n routers for as little as half the price of the Fonera 2.0n, you can also pay a lot more than $109 for a router that does a lot less.
In spite of some of its drawbacks (which we hope will be addressed by future firmware), we think the Fonera 2.0n is well worth a serious look for anyone who likes the idea of handling their file transfer chores from a router instead of a PC. It will also be of interest to those wanting to operate a hotspot for fun or profit, or who want to be part of the FON community to take advantage of FON Spots when they travel.
- Price: $109 (including shipping charges)
- Pros: Handles file uploads and downloads to multiple online services (including torrents) sans PC; creates separate private and public Wi-Fi networks; FON handles hotspot billing and offers revenue sharing.
- Cons: Public and private networks share a radio