A New Vision for Wi-Fi

By Gerry Blackwell

November 16, 2007

Belkin adds an LCD display to its new 802.11n draft router.

Product: Belkin N1 Vision Router 
URL: www.belkin.com
Price: $180
Pros: Good performance, supports Wi-Fi Protected Set-up, includes three-inch LCD
Cons: Screen is hard to read

Every Wi-Fi equipment maker on the planet is now offering new, faster gear based on the unratified draft version of IEEE 802.11n, but only one, so far as we know, Belkin, is offering a draft 11n router with an LCD screen on the front panel for monitoring network activity and accessing set-up and configuration menus.

The innovative Belkin N1 Vision Router ($180) works with the company’s N1 Wireless Notebook Card ($100), ExpressCard (new laptop expansion card format), Desktop Card, and USB adapters ($120 each). I tested it with the USB adapter. Belkin also has another router in the line, the N1 Wireless Router ($150)--no screen, just blinking lights.

How useful is the N1 Vision’s screen? It depends who you are in your organization--CEO, CIO, propeller head, Mom--and where the router will sit in your home or office. If it will sit within view and easy reach of the person who functions as network administrator, it could be moderately useful. Otherwise, not so much.

Features

The N1 Vision is no one-trick pony, though. It’s also a solid draft-n router promising link rates to 300 Mbps (in non-standard 20/40 MHz channel mode) and a range of up to 1,600 feet. It provides four Gigabit Ethernet ports (1,000 Mbps) and supports multiple security protocols, including WPA2-Personal and 64/128-bit encryption.

It also supports Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) which simplifies security set-up--if you have WPS-compliant client devices. The N1 Vision allows multiple SSIDs so you can isolate different LAN segments and set up a guest access service. And it supports incoming IPSec pass-through and PPTP VPN connections.

The three-inch (diagonal) monochrome LCD is the product’s primary differentiator. The home page, which appears on boot up, shows icons that are either visible, invisible, or blinking to indicate the status of the Internet connection (connected/not), modem connection (connected/not), wireless state (enabled/disabled), wired computers (present/not), wireless computers (present/not), and security (on/off).

Other routers show most of this basic status information with rows of lights on the front panel. Once you memorize their position, you can see at a glance what’s going on. I installed the N1 Vision on the same shelf six feet from my desk where my router always sits. I found it more difficult to see basic status at a glance with this router because a) the icons are too small and similar and clustered too closely together to see clearly, and b) contrast and resolution on the screen aren’t quite good enough. 

But the N1 Vision shows you more than just basic network status. In addition, there are pages showing download and/or upload speedometers, with current speeds measured against the fastest recorded since activating the router. Other pages show current download/upload speeds for each connected user, usage per user in the last 24 hours--useful for getting a handle on who’s hogging bandwidth--and the current time and date.

To move between pages, you use the six-button control panel to the right of the screen--up, down, right (forward), left (back), menu, and OK. This is fine if the router sits on your desk within reach. It’s less useful if you have to get up from your desk or even go to another room to use the display features. The buttons are also not very sensitive. I found I had to push so hard it was necessary to hold the router steady with my other hand to avoid knocking it over.

A remote control for the screens or a PC client utility that let you switch between pages without actually pressing buttons on the router would have been useful.

It’s also possible to do some set-up and configuration tasks directly on the router using the screen and control panel--although there is also a full browser-based management interface.

You can turn the Guest Access feature on or off and show the WPA key the guest will need to input to use the service. You can activate the Push Button Security feature that lets you use Wi-Fi Protected Set-up to configure security on compatible client devices. And you can access a Help and Tips menu (not terribly useful) or enable the Power Save feature that turns the display off after two minutes.

About the only status item you cannot get in the browser interface--and this goes for most router browser interfaces--is the upload/download speedometers. They could be useful if you were trying to gauge performance of your Internet connection or troubleshoot network bandwidth issues. The ability to turn on Guest Access from the router could also be useful.

The LCD feature will only pay real convenience dividends, it seems to me, if the router is sitting on the right person’s desk, within easy reach. Otherwise, why not just use the browser interface?

As a pre-n router, the N1 Vision performed as well as any I’ve tried and better than some. The set-up wizard that you launch from the included CD also makes configuring the router very easy. Rebooting the router after a configuration change seems to take a little longer than with some, but the plus is that you can clearly see reboot progress on the screen.

Set-up and performance

I set up and tested the Belkin gear in two stages. First, I installed the router and tested it with existing adapters--one Dell laptop with a built-in 11g adapter, one home-built desktop connected by Ethernet cable and one Dell desktop with a pre-n PCI card adapter from Netgear.

The Dell laptop associated with the Belkin router automatically. The Dell desktop did not, and would not connect until I used the Netgear adapter utility to search for and select my network. On the whole, though, it was an uneventful set-up.

Only after I’d done some speed tests using the non-Belkin adapters did I install the N1 USB adapter. It installed on the laptop and associated with the network without any problems. However, I did experience problems--still-unresolved--when I installed it on the Dell desktop. The adapter appeared to install okay, but would not associate with the router, even though it could see the network and signal strength was reported as good.

Belkin technical support initially suspected interference from the already existing Netgear adapter, which I had simply disabled before installing the Belkin N1 adapter. But, even after uninstalling the Netgear hardware and software, reinstalling the Belkin adapter, and rebooting the machine, I experienced the same problems.

To test local network throughput, I copied large files from my main PC to each of the non-Belkin adapters in different locations and timed the transfers using a stop watch. After installing the Belkin N1 USB adapter, I repeated the tests and compared the results. I tested both using the 11n standard 20MHz channel mode and the non-standard (but supported by these products) 20/40MHz mode. Although the latter is supposed to, in some cases, give better results, it did not in my testing.

It’s worth noting that results in this kind of real-world testing never come close to matching the top speeds claimed by manufacturers. They may not give you an accurate indication of how the products will perform in your environment, but they do give a better indication than the published specs.

When sending data from my main PC to the laptop, with the laptop in the same room as the router and using its built-in 11g adapter, I measured throughput of about 18.5 Mbps. When I moved the laptop downstairs and about as far as I could get from the router in my small house--with a ceiling and large furnace manifold in the direct line of sight to the router--I measured about 15 Mbps.

When sending data to the Netgear Pre-N adapter on the Dell desktop, which is on the same floor as the router but in a room where, for whatever reason, I have traditionally had poor coverage, I measured a fairly impressive 19 Mbps. So, while using mismatched Pre-N components did not deliver the kind of performance you would hope for from five-times-faster network equipment, it did appear to provide some additional benefit.

After installing the Belkin N1 USB adapter, in initial tests with the laptop in the same room as the router, the results were puzzling--slower than using the built-in 11g adapter. The problem turned out to be interference from another very nearby Wi-Fi radio.

When I moved the Belkin adapter--which can plug directly into a laptop or sit in a cradle at the end of a cable plugged into the computer’s USB port--speeds shot up to an impressive 50 Mbps, more like what I expected. When I took the laptop downstairs, the speed dropped to a less impressive 28 Mbps--a more rapid fall-off, you’ll note, than in the tests using the laptop’s built-in 11g adapter. I measured about the same 28 Mbps when sending data to the laptop in the coverage-challenged room where the Dell desktop sits.

This is still more than adequate performance and a huge improvement over 11g. But my tentative conclusion is that pre-n connections, at least with the Belkin gear, are more susceptible to interference, and speed drops off more rapidly as you move away from the router.

A final test

One reason you may want to switch to 11n is to get adequate bandwidth to move HD video streams--perhaps from a Windows Media Center PC--around the house. The Belkin gear also supports 802.11e QoS which helps ensure that latency-sensitive data transfers, such as video, get priority.

The real test would be to have two or three HD streams moving over the network. I couldn’t test that scenario, but was able to transmit one short HD stream from my main PC to my laptop in another room. For what it’s worth, it played flawlessly.

Bottom line: the N1 Vision’s LCD screen offers some convenience, but unless the router sits on your desk within easy view and reach, it’s not a huge advantage. On the other hand, the N1 Vision generally performed very well as a router.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology writer based in Canada. His work currently appears on five Jupitermedia channels as well as in major technology, business, and consumer publications in Canada.

Originally published on .

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