Getting on the air
As with most routers, to set up the $250 Belkin, you must first connect it to your computer via an Ethernet port and to your DSL or cable modem via its WAN port. Next, fire up the browser-based setup utility by typing in the provided IP address. Unfortunately, despite Belkin's reputation as a cable company, you won't find an Ethernet cable in the box, so remember to buy one. The setup utility is a little thin on explanation, but the unit's printed manual (also included in electronic form on the CD-ROM) provides a good 30 pages of setup info and a glossary of terms. The utility offers MAC address cloning, a must-have feature if your broadband ISP prefers to talk to only the Ethernet card you used when setting up your account.
In addition to the gateway, you'll need a wireless Ethernet adapter for each computer you want to include in your network. Belkin sent us its $110 wireless notebook network card and its $110 wireless USB network adapter for testing. Both adapters installed easily and worked perfectly. Belkin also offers a wireless desktop PCI network card and, uniquely, a $50 wireless desktop PCI network adapter that acts as a socket for the notebook card--a good way to save some money if you don't need all your computers to be connected all the time. The bundled CD makes it easy to configure computers on the network using Belkin's SOHO Networking software--but only if they're running Windows 98 or Me. For Macs and PCs that run other versions of Windows, generic instructions are provided.
Tuning into security
The Belkin offers plenty of security for your network, but some components have to be enabled manually after setup. By default, no password is required to access the setup utility. And while the gateway supports both 64- and 128-bit WEP encryption, the feature comes disabled by default. While this results in faster performance and simpler setup, it increases the risk of snooping. We recommend enabling both features once you've finished your installation. Other security features include network address translation (NAT), which hides your networked computers' IP addresses. You can also block computers from accessing your network by allowing only a predetermined list of MAC addresses to connect or to have full network access. When unauthorized computers attempt to intrude, the built-in firewall pops up alerts and keeps a log of the disruptions. Finally, as with most routers, the Belkin lets you designate one computer as the DMZ--open to the world for multiplayer computer games, malicious hacking, or other applications normally foiled by NAT.
Speed and more
In CNET Labs' tests, the Belkin posted an excellent 802.11b throughput score of 4.9Mbps--on a par with that of the Siemens SpeedStream wireless DSL/cable router. Using an Ethernet cable, the Belkin was a bit slower than some competitors, but unless you plan on copying big files across your network all day long, you're unlikely to need more than 79.5Mbps. During hands-on testing, the Belkin's range and penetration were typical of those of 802.11b wireless solutions.