Worth the investment
At $389, the NetGear is competitively priced when compared to access points from Intel and Proxim, which range from $350 to $400. Of course, these prices don't include the cost of wireless adapters, which you'll need to purchase for each computer you want to network. For example, NetGear's HA501 802.11a Cardbus adapter for laptops will cost you an additional $169 each. In return for your investment, though, you get blazing speeds of up to 54Mbps (72Mbps in Turbo mode), making it possible to share high-quality audio and video wirelessly. Plus, because it operates in the unlicensed 5GHz band, the NetGear is free from interference from other devices, such as cordless phones and microwave ovens.
Always in control
The HE102 wireless access point is extremely easy to set up. It's about the size of a paperback novel and has two antennas that stick up in the back on either side. It comes with an informative installation booklet, a registration card, and a resource CD bearing an online manual and software. Connecting the access point, which involved plugging it in and running a simple Web-based interface, took about 10 minutes. All the key parameters are contained in the access point's Web-based configuration routine, which takes a few minutes to run. You can change basic settings, such as SSID, channel, frequency, data-rate and transmission power, and WEP security.
It took us only a few more minutes to load the drivers and the utility for NetGear's HA501 802.11a Cardbus adapter on a client notebook. Once set up, the Cardbus Adapter Configuration utility takes over. The adapter's Status screen shows general information, including connection condition, signal strength, and the access point's MAC address. The Status screen also keeps you apprised of the adapter's network mode, encryption level, frequency channel, and current send and receive rate; the only thing it doesn't do--although it should--is tell you whether Turbo mode is enabled. A colorful and visually intuitive signal-strength gauge rounds out the data. Click the Configuration tab, and you can update the SSID; power-conservation mode; and the WEP security level, which includes 64-, 128- and 152-bit protocols. The Statistics screen shows network activity in a horizontal bar-graph format on a black background; the numerical transmit data is noted at the top in packets per second.
Plenty of bandwidth
In CNET Labs' tests, the access point was given a full workout using NetIQ's Chariot benchmark. It set the pace with a strong throughput score of 23.2Mbps, which is 5 percent faster than that of the Intel Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point. The NetGear really shined in Turbo mode, with a throughput speed of 32.1Mbps, or about 30 percent faster than the next-best device. Like other 802.11a systems, the NetGear's throughput slows quickly when walls intervene, gradually dropping off from a peak of 54Mbps to 48Mbps, 36Mbps, 24Mbps, 18Mbps, 12Mbps, 9Mbps, and eventually 6Mbps, depending on distance. In hands-on testing, the NetGear's data flow slowed to a trickle at 75 feet and was limited to 97 feet--a little short of its peers' general range but still acceptable. Overall, the device reliably distributed audio, video, and a broadband Internet connection in a 5,000-square-foot area with several walls; beyond that, extra access points were needed.
The NetGear access point also comes with good security. Out of the box, both the access point and the cards came with WEP security disabled and the SSID set to Wireless. This is a step forward in terms of security from vendors that leave the SSID set to accept any client, but we strongly suggest you immediately change the network and encryption parameters.