Virtually every major Wi-Fi equipment vendor now offers network routers and adapters based on version 2.0 of the 802.11 Draft N standard. SMC Network, which sometimes gets unjustly overlooked, is no exception.
SMC last year introduced the Barricade N ProMax Draft 11n Wireless 4-port Gigabit Broadband Router (about $160), an all-in-one device that can function as a router connected to a DSL or cable modem, or as an access point. It includes four Gigabit Ethernet ports.
The company says it's targeting both small business and home users, but appears to be marketing the product mainly on the Internet through business outlets rather than at retail.
The router (its model number SMCWGBR14-N) works with SMC's Wireless EZ Connect N line of adapters, which include Cardbus (PC card), PCI card and USB 2.0 models. (The last was introduced at the same time as the router.)
Both router and USB adapter have been certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance as backward compatible and compatible with certified products from other vendors.
SMC also has the SMCWEB-N EZ Connect N Wireless Access Point, which can function either as an access point in a multi-access point network implementation it differs from the router in lacking WAN and printer connections or as a bridge to wirelessly connect client devices that don't have wireless adapters but do have Ethernet ports.
Wi-Fi routers are pretty much a commodity item, but the SMC product has some nice extras. The StreamEngine intelligent stream handling technology supposedly reduces response lags when playing games over the network, and helps improve voice quality with VoIP. The ProMax router also has a push button for launching automatic set-up of WPA security.
I tested the SMC router with the USB 2.0 adapter. The out-of-the-box experience was for the most part uneventful.
Both products ship with multi-lingual Quick Installation Guides that describe the hardware set-up process in very simple terms. The fact that the guides are printed in 15 languages including Hungarian means the type is devilishly small, though.
The router uses an external antenna design unlike some Draft N products which means you can experiment with positioning the three antennas to improve performance. Beyond the obvious measure of pointing the antennas out from the shelf on which the router sits, I was unable to significantly affect performance by moving the antennas.
As with most wireless network gear, you configure the SMC equipment using a browser interface. There is a wizard that will walk first-timers through the basic set-up process, but most users will eventually have to get their hands dirty with the browser interface.
It's logically enough organized, and therefore reasonably intuitive. The home screen displays four tabs across the top: Basic, Advanced, Tools, Help. When you select a tab, submenu items appear in a panel on the left. It's a fairly standard design for this type of interface.
I did have to resort to the manual to find where to change the default IP address and SSID (network name). This is something I do routinely to avoid having to change network settings on every device in my network when installing a new product. I change the default SSID (usually the manufacturers' name) and IP address on the new router to match the one it's replacing. (Note: it may also confuse hackers they'll think they're dealing with a Netgear router when in fact it's an SMC.)
I assumed these settings would appear in the Advanced section since it's not something most users do. Wrong. It's in the Basic section.
Like most Draft N equipment makers, SMC claims up to 300 megabits per second (Mbps) data rates and up to 300 meters of coverage. The utility software that comes with the network adapter also reports a data rate based on signal strength. It never showed less than 140 Mbps in my network.
Real-world testing indoors, as always, tells a different story.
I measured data rates on mass transfers using my two-year-old dual-core Dell laptop, first using the laptop's integrated 11g adapter and then doing the same transfers with the SCM Draft N USB adapter plugged into the Dell.
I did three sets of tests in my suburban bungalow one with the laptop in the same room as the router (so with an optimum connection), one with the laptop in another room on the same level where I've frequently had poor wireless connectivity in the past, and one on the lower level as far from the router as it's possible to get in a very small house.
I timed the transfer of a 500 MB file with a stop watch, then divided the number of bits transferred (approximately eight times the number of bytes) by the number of seconds it took to transfer them.
When using the laptop's integrated 11g adapter, transfer rates were respectable and varied little based on location in the house - 19, 20 and 21 Mbps. When I switched to the SMC Draft N adapter, transfer rates went up, as expected, but by nothing like the five to six times often claimed for 11n.
Transfer rates also differed significantly from one location in the house to another 37 Mpbs in the same room as the router, 32 Mbps in the other room on the same level, and 26 Mbps downstairs. So despite boasts about range, data rates indoors falls off rapidly as you put walls, ceilings, doors and in the case of my downstairs test, a furnace pipe between router and client.
It goes without saying that results will differ in different environments. However, it's worth pointing out that other router products have performed slightly better in exactly the same tests. For example, I recently recorded data rates for the Belkin N1 Vision Router ($180) of between 28 and 50 Mbps on the same set of tests.
Still, the data rates from the SMC product are enough to handle multiple VoIP conversations and video streams. And the SMC router has so far proven more reliable than the Belkin, which developed a tendency to drop the Internet connection. The SMC adapter is also significantly less bulky than the Belkin adapter.
The StreamEngine technology gives priority to gaming traffic coming over the Internet connection. The browser interface lets you set up rules to give priority to specific computers (your gaming buddies) on the particular ports used by the games you play with them.
SMC also supports WISH (Wireless Intelligent Stream Handling), a technology that lets you prioritize traffic from specific applications including, by default, Windows Media Center traffic on the local wireless network. I tested a high definition (HD) video stream over the wireless network and it played flawlessly.
This router lets you set up a Virtual Server on the local network. When users on the Web surf to your Internet address either a static address or a dynamic DNS address, which the product also supports - they're automatically redirected to a specific computer on your LAN where you have a public access service such as an FTP site set up. This is unique in a consumer-grade router so far as I know.
Bottom line: The SMC router and USB adapter performed reasonably well, though not quite as well as some I've tested. It does, however, provide more security, traffic management and remote access features than many routers in fact, possibly the most complete suite of such features I've seen.
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