Netgear HE102 802.11a Wireless Access Point plus HA501 CardBus Adapter

By Joseph Moran

June 27, 2002

Tired of life in the slow lane of wireless networking? The Netgear HE102 802.11a Wireless Access Point and the HA501 802.11a CardBus adapter will move your data through the air with much more alacrity, but expect some configuration trial and error to get the best performance.

Model Number:
HE102 (Access Point, $389 MSRP)
HA501 (CardBus adapter, $159 MSRP)

After a couple of years of propagation, 802.11b-compliant routers, access points, and network cards are plentiful, reliable, and cheap. So why in the Wide, Wide, World of Wireless would you want to consider buying 802.11a equipment? Here are some reasons: increased bandwidth (54Mbps), a higher frequency range less susceptible to interference from microwaves and cordless phones, and you can use 802.11a products along side older 802.11b equipment because of that fact.

Enter the Netgear HE102 802.11a Wireless Access Point. At a price of $389, it is admittedly well over double the cost of an 802.11b model. If you feel that 54Mb/sec is too pokey, the HE102 offers a "turbo" mode that boosts bandwidth to 72 Mb/sec (more on this below). Factor this along with the myriad benefits mentioned above and you'll likely find it well worth parting with a few more of your dead presidents.

Of course, you'll need an 802.11a-compatible CardBus NIC as well, which will set you back $159, which again, is considerably more than what an 802.11b card would cost you. I put both products through its paces, so read on. (Incidentally, the obligatory USB and PCI adapters were not yet available from Netgear at press time, but they should be soon.)

Pros:

  • Fast, fast, fast

Cons:

  • More expensive, shorter range than 802.11b
  • Optimal placement of access point takes experimenting

BASIC FEATURES

The exterior of the HE102 Access Point is typical Netgear, which is to say, metal, dark blue, and sturdy. Dual swiveled flat antennas protrude from each end of the chassis. It supports three levels of WEP encryption: 40-, 128-, and 152-bit.

The HE102's array of indicator lights--power, Ethernet link/activity, and WLAN link/activity, in that order, looks simpler than it really is. For example, the WLAN indicator has four states--off, very slow blink, slow blink, and fast blink.

Huh? Slow and very slow? Seems needlessly complex to me, and in any event, it doesn't exactly lend itself to quick, at-a-glance information gathering. It's arguably a minor nit, though.

On a more positive note, kudos to Netgear for not only including a long 25-foot Ethernet cable, but also providing the mounting hardware needed to secure the access point to a wall.

Netgear also includes something you rarely if ever find in a residential or SOHO networking product--a DB9 serial port for console access. It seems superfluous in this type of product, but it can't hurt.

At first glance, the HA501 looks more or less like your garden-variety CardBus card, with one important exception. The antenna portion is not flush with the card; not even close (probably owing to more complex electronics required by 802.11a). As a result, put this card in the top PCMCIA slot; if put in the bottom, the top slot will be unusable.

The card, like the access point, subscribes to the "blinking means its working" philosophy. Call me old fashioned, but I'm accustomed to "blinking means you ain't connected". I've complained about this in products before, and I'll keep doing it. Vendors should get together and standardize indicator light behavior across all their products.

SETUP/INSTALLATION

Setting up the access point was uneventful. No software is required, and initial access in done through the browser, by specifying a character string (NETGEAR followed by six numbers) located on a label under the unit. This is the NetBIOS machine name, which is broadcast by the HE102 when it's first powered up.

Configuration is simple and straightforward, as there are only seven subsections to be concerned with. The main screen lets you specify most of the major parameters, including frequency, data rate, SSID, and whether or not Turbo mode is enabled. As expected, the unit can act as a DHCP client, and it is set that way by default.

Sadly, I did have a bit of difficulty getting the HA501 wireless adapter working with my Windows XP Home client.

Although the installation of the drivers and related software went off without a hitch, and the card was receiving a signal from the HE102 Access Point, I was unable to get the card to the SSID I had defined. Rather, I received a dialog box instructing me to disable a setting in Windows XP's Wireless Network Connection Properties.

The problem was that there was no such connection displayed in the Networking area. Ultimately, after a couple of reboots, the issue was cleared up, the connection icon appeared, and the network was joined.

Lesson learned? If you have a similar issue, reboot early and often, even though you may not be prompted to do so.

PERFORMANCE

As an 802.11a device, the HE102 supports a theoretical top speed of 54 Mbps. The access point also supports a "turbo" mode. This mode is specific to the Atheros chipset, and it boosts the top-end speed to 72 Mbps (though range drops about 30% in this mode according to Netgear). In fact, you give up range overall for the advanced throughput of 802.11a.

For example, in 54Mbps mode outdoors, maximum range is a mere 100 feet, compared to more than 800 feet for 802.11b. Indoors the degradation is less precipitous, but still significant--60 feet for 802.11a, versus 175 feet for 802.11b.

In addition, 802.11a radio waves are far more sensitive to obstructions (i.e. walls and ceilings) than 802.11b. When the signal strength declines, the data rate is adjusted, so the available bandwidth and signal strength can fluctuate a great deal, even when both you and the access point are stationary.

As a result, I sometimes experienced erratic benchmark performance. At one moment, a benchmark run produced excellent results, and the very next instant, they might be mediocre or even poor. Still, even at its slowest, the Netgear ran rings around any 802.11b-based product. Streaming performance was always good, and the signal strength never got so week as to drop my connection to the network.

TCP throughput when in the same room as the access point remained consistently just above 21Mbps, even with 152-bit WEP turned on (encryption overhead sometimes slows things on a WLAN). Turbo mode only brought things up to 23Mbps. Even across the street, the worst performance was still 13.5Mbps, and that was with 152-bit WEP without turbo mode.

The bottom line is that you'll need to experiment with various physical locations for the access point-- as well as different settings like frequency, data rate, and so forth--to get the optimal performance out of the unit.

ACCESS CONTROL AND SECURITY

These are two of the most paramount concerns when dealing with a wireless network, and the HE102 delivers in both areas. As mentioned earlier, the unit adds a third level of WEP encryption, 152-bit, to the customary 40- and 128-bit varieties, and you can use either Open System or Shared Key authentication methods.

The HE102 also offers MAC address-based access control, and a station list screen can show you what wireless clients are associated with your network at any given time.

The HE102 does not support SNMP for monitoring like some competing 802.11a products. You can upgrade the access point's firmware via the browser, but the access point firmware I tested (1.3) requires users to run an FTP server. This requirement will be dropped in an upcoming firmware revision.

SUMMARY

Wired or wireless, you can never have too much bandwidth. If you value speed over range, the Netgear HE102 Wireless Access Point and HA501 802.11a CardBus adapter are excellent ways to turbo-charge your wireless network.



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