Belkin N1 Wireless Router, Desktop, Notebook, and USB Cards

skinny - 2007-06-14 19:52:48 in Networking
Category: Networking
Reviewed by: skinny   
Reviewed on: July 8, 2007
Price: TBA

Introduction:

When I was asked to review the full slate of N1 MIMO products from Belkin, I was excited.  First, because my wireless setup was admittedly getting a little old, but second, because I had heard good things about Belkin, and felt that this would be a major upgrade for my system in a number of areas.  This review had me happy with some features to begin with, but as I went on, I was reminded of something my parents said to me when I was a kid and had failed a test: “We aren’t mad at you, but we sure are disappointed.”  Boy, does that hurt.

Belkin, a California company founded in 1983, provides a wide variety of computer and electronic accessories and peripherals, including wired and wireless networking, USB hubs, surge protectors, and audio/video cables.  The company claims to have experienced over 20 straight years of growth, with over $1 billion in sales.

 

Closer Look:

The Belkin N1 products come in very attractive, professional looking packaging.  This packaging includes a picture of the product on the front, a quick install guide on the side (only three easy steps!), and right below this is their toll free, 24/7 Tech Support number.  Remember this point; it will come in very handy later on.  The back of the package offers an explanation of what this product can do for the user, including a claimed 300 mbps link rate.

 

 

Inside each box, you will find the product, the Quick Install Guide, installation software, and a user manual.  The box for the router also includes the AC power supply, a Wireless Security Setup Guide, and a Network Status Display guide.  The items in the router packaging are labeled with large letters, which will be covered in the installation section.

 

Installation:

Installation of this product should be super easy.  Step 1 of the router installation includes 5 sub-steps:

a) unplug your modem’s power cord, put your router next to your modem, and raise the antennas on the router
b) unplug your network cable running from your modem to your computer, and plug the modem end into a grey port on the back of your router
c) open the package labeled “A” (yellow network cable), and plug it into the yellow port on the back of the router, and the other end to your modem
d) plug in the power to the modem, wait 60 seconds for the modem to start; plug in the power cord to the router, then to the wall
e) give the router 20 seconds to start up, then make sure the “wired” and “router” icons light up on the display in blue

 

 

This is where things got interesting.  Step 2 says to insert the Setup CD into your computer, and to simply follow the onscreen directions.  So, I put the CD in my computer, but every time I tried it, it froze.  No installation took place.  I undid everything, and tried again.  And again.  And again.  After seven tries, I called the Tech Support number, and the technician ran me through several tests before deciding that the modem was defective, and that it would be replaced under warranty.  The nice gentleman on the Tech line also advised me that the software on the setup CD does not work, and that the router would have to be manually setup anyway.

 

A short time later, my second router showed up.  I followed the exact same instructions that came with this one, with the exact same results.  Once again, after multiple installation attempts, I called Tech Support and went through the same steps as the previous call, plus a few more.  We finally got the router working through a manual installation, not using the included CD.  This gentleman also advised me that the included software does not work, and that as Tech Support, he did not know why the CD was included in the packaging, as the installation was not possible the way it is set up.  Oh well, at least the router was now working.  Once it is working, it displays several items on its face that show system status.  There are icons for Internet connectivity, modem, router, radio waves (indicating wireless is enabled), wired (indicating that a hardwired system is connected), and wireless (indicating that a wireless system is connected).  If these icons are flashing amber, they have issues.  If they are solid blue (a very pretty blue, I might add), they are working properly.  

Installation of the wireless notebook card worked well.  Once again, the included Quick Setup instructions were followed, but this time they worked.  Quite simply, install the CD, put the card into the proper slot on your laptop, use the “Found New Hardware” wizard, select an available wireless network, and you are done.  

 

 

The USB card, which I installed on my desktop, installed cleanly as well.  It uses the same instructions as the wireless notebook card, except you plug in the USB cable instead of the notebook card.

 

 

And now for the Wireless Desktop card.  If my mood after dealing with the router was described as mildly frustrated, the wireless desktop card took me well beyond aggravated.  Again, the quick installation guide makes installation look quite simple, with only four main steps.  First, install the CD and run the installer.  When the installer is done, there is a button marked “finish” that you click to shut down your computer.  It did not shut down my computer.  Minor issue, I simply shut it down manually.  The next step is to install the card into your computer.  Remove your side cover, and firmly press the card into an available PCI slot.  Either screw the card into place, or lock it in with whatever tool-less retention system your case uses, and replace the side cover.  Then, look at the back of your computer, and attach the antenna cable to the back of the card by pressing it into place.  Next, place the antenna in an unobstructed location, such as on a shelf.  When I did this, I heard a clunking sound from the back of my computer, and looked to see that the antenna had come unplugged.  I plugged it in again, and again it fell off.  I had to leave the antenna sitting much lower, as the plug would not firmly attach to the card.

 

 

The next step in installation is to run the “Found New Hardware” program again.  So, I turned on the computer, allowed Windows to boot up, and promptly received a “Fatal Error” blue screen.  I restarted, and got through the Hardware Wizard before the next blue screen appeared.  I uninstalled, reinstalled, and got the same screen.  I tried again (slow learner, I guess), and got the same result.  I uninstalled and did an internet search for this issue.  Belkin had no reference to a problem like this on their site, and I found a few other consumer reviews reporting similar issues.  So, for the third time on this review, I called the Tech line.  

One thing I must say is that Belkin’s Tech Support line is pretty good.  For some reason, I get the feeling that they get a lot more calls than they really should, so they have lots of experience.  Again, I was told to avoid using the setup CD that was included with the product.  The card and antenna were installed, and the Windows hardware installer was used, without installing a single Belkin program.  I was then able to connect to the network.

Typically, the next step in this installation process would be to go in and setup the included Wireless Network Security features that Belkin includes with these products.  However, as the router and wireless desktop card were not set up with Belkin programming, I did not have access to these features.  After being told by Belkin Tech Support to not use the included programming, they should maybe stop advertising these features being available, since they can not be accessed.

By this point, I was thinking I was finally done with installation issues.  I soon realized I had set myself up for more disappointment.

Specifications:


N1 Router

N1 Wireless Notebook Card


System Requirements
    o    PC-compatible computer with an available 32-bit CardBus slot
    o    Windows 2000 or XP
Interface
    o    32-bit CardBus slot
Standards
    o    IEEE 802.11g
    o    IEEE 802.11b
    o    IEEE 802.11n draft
Security
    o    WPA
    o    WPA2-Personal 64-bit
    o    128-bit WEP encryption
Operating Range
    o    Up to 1,400 feet
Link Rate
    o    Up to 300 Mbps in 40 MHz Channel Mode


N1 USB Card


System Requirements
    o    PC-compatible computer with an available USB port
    o    Windows 2000 or XP
Interface
    o    USB 2.0
Standards
    o    IEEE 802.11g
    o    IEEE 802.11b
    o    IEEE 802.11n draft
Security
    o    WPA
    o    WPA2-Personal 64-bit
    o    128-bit WEP encryption
Operating Range
    o    Up to 1,400 feet
Link Rate
    o    Up to 300 Mbps in 40 MHz Channel Mode


N1 Wireless Desktop Card

System Requirements
    o    PC-compatible computer with an available 32-bit PCI slot
    o    Windows 2000 or XP
Interface
    o    32-bit PCI
Standards
    o    IEEE 802.11g
    o    IEEE 802.11b
    o    IEEE 802.11n draft
Security
    o    WPA
    o    WPA2-Personal 64-bit
    o    128-bit WEP encryption
Operating Range
    o    Up to 1,400 feet
Link Rate
    o    Up to 300 Mbps in 40 MHz Channel Mode

Testing:


Testing Setup:

Desktop -


Laptop -

 

Testing was fun (/sarcasm off).  In attempting to test the Desktop card, I found that I lost my network signal on average once every hour of active use, and if I left the computer for more than a few hours, the signal was always lost by the time I came back.  Once the signal was lost, no matter what I did, I could not get the signal to work without restarting the entire system.  Speed tests were useless, as the signal was intermittent, and changed strength constantly.  It did not matter if I had the antenna 3 feet or 20 feet from the router, I had the same issues.  Also, the antenna was constantly coming unplugged, to the point that I was ready to duct-tape it in place.  The cord for the antenna is only about three feet long, so if your computer is placed on the floor like mine usually is, you will find it to be impossible to place the antenna “in a high, unobstructed location”, as stated in the installation instructions.

Both the Notebook and USB cards performed well, with minimal connectivity issues at first.  Speed tests showed a slight improvement over my old notebook card (a five year old Dell Truemobile 1150 PC Card), but nothing earth-shattering.  

I did not have a feasible way to test the range on the desktop card, but by the time I got to this stage of testing, I was so frustrated with the issues with it, that it had already been uninstalled.  I went to test the range on the Notebook card, and found that I had lost the signal.  Every fix I had tried before, failed to fix it this time.  I attempted to uninstall and reinstall the card, and found that even though the Belkin programming said that it had completed its uninstall, everything was still there.  Repeated attempts to fix, remove, and even change to my old card, have had zero success.  Short of formatting the hard drive, I am running out of ideas.  I sense another call to Tech Support coming up.

Conclusion:

To quote my parents again, “This is going to hurt me, more than it hurts you.”  Belkin, claiming to be a leader in this area, should be deeply ashamed of themselves.  To continue to ship not just one product, but an entire product line, with installation instructions telling people to use software that their own Tech Support people say does not work, is just wrong.  

While the products appear to be well built, there are some pretty significant issues.  The antenna for the Desktop card will not stay attached, no matter what I did to it.  The USB card, while appearing to be quite solid, is also very large and bulky.  If used without the stand, you better make sure that nothing catches on it, as it sticks well out from the computer (farther than any other peripheral I have used before).  The cable attached to the stand is about six feet long, allowing it to be placed on a desk, but the design of it does not strike me as being the most space-efficient.  As my desk tends to be quite cluttered at the best of times, I need space saving devices as often as possible.  I had no issues with the build of the notebook card.

As stated, I can not comment on the security aspect of these products, as it is part of their included software that does not work.  I can not really comment on the speed of these products, as the connections were so intermittent that I could not do a proper test.  And, as I hope I made clear earlier on, installation of these products was an absolute nightmare.  If you are a computer and small network expert, have fun.  If you like to press the “on” button and have everything work perfectly, this is certainly not the product for you.

I was always taught to say nice things about people, or say nothing at all.  So, I did manage to find some positives with these products.  First of all, the packaging and product appearance is quite professional looking (I especially liked the fancy blue lights on the router).  Second, Belkin’s tech support is good.

In conclusion, unless Belkin issues a public apology to the computer world for the fiasco with this software, the only way I can recommend that anyone buys these products, is if they really like to look at pretty objects, or if they are lonely and just want to talk to someone.  Belkin Tech Support will be awaiting your call.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: