Review: CradlePoint CTR500 Cellular-Ready Travel Router

Virtually every notebook sold within the last five years has come with built-in Wi-Fi, but just because hotspots are commonplace today doesn’t mean there’s always one around when you need it. That’s why people who need ubiquitous Internet access tend to supplement Wi-Fi with a data connection from a cellular carrier.

With CradlePoint Technology’s $180 CTR500 Cellular-Ready Travel Router, those folks can enjoy the best of both worlds. Plugging a cellular modem or compatible mobile phone into the CTR500 instead of your PC, makes your cellular data connection available, and sharable, via Wi-Fi. 

The Hardware

You can use the CTR500 with a wide range of ExpressCard and USB-based cellular modems using either EVDO (used by Alltel, Sprint, and Verizon) or HSDPA (used by AT&T) 3G technology. If your phone supports data tethering ‑ i.e., you can use it as a modem, it may also work with the CTR500. (Check this comprehensive list of supported devices.)

The pint-sized CTR500 won’t add much to a traveler’s load. The glossy black rectangular device weighs less than four ounces and measures 4.7- x 2.8- x 0.8 inches, giving it a footprint only slightly larger than an iPhone. One end of the unit sports the ExpressCard slot (along with a switch to keep the card securely locked in) and the other has USB and 10/100 Ethernet ports. The top of the CTR-500 has lights to indicate connected devices and a meter to indicate cellular signal strength.

An AC charging adapter (that includes five international plug connectors) provides standard power for the CTR500, and you can purchase an optional car cigarette lighter adapter for $24.99. (The CTR500 has no provision to accommodate a battery pack, though this would be a welcome feature.)

The CTR500 is an 802.11g/b Wi-Fi device, and for the sake of compactness and durability the CTR500 uses an internal antenna. We didn’t have any trouble picking up a strong signal at distances as long as 50 feet, but if you need greater range, you can buy an optional connector for an external mast antenna ($19.99). A switch on the side of the CTR500 conveniently lets you turn off the wireless network without having to unplug the device.

The Setup

We tested the CTR500 using two devices, beginning with a UTStarcom UM100 USB modem from Alltel. After powering up the CTR500 and plugging in the UM100, we found the CTR500’s wireless signal, and once connected to it, we were immediately online with Internet access. We achieved the same results upon replacing the UM100 with a tethering-capable Sprint Blackberry 8830 phone. (If your cellular carrier requires you to login to the network with a username and password, you can provide that information via the CTR500’s browser-based administrative console.)

Upon logging into the CTR500’s browser interface, a setup wizard walks you through configuring a new admin password, setting the time zone and setting up wireless encryption. Oddly enough the wizard doesn’t include the option to set the current time and date, so you need to hunt down and configure that manually (otherwise it will default to January 2004). The default password for administrator access is the last six digits of the MAC address found on the underside of the unit, and while that’s not as convenient as the customary “password” or “admin”, it’s a heck of a lot more secure.

 CradlePoint CTR500 Cellular-Ready Travel Router
The CradlePoint CTR500 Cellular-Ready Travel Router is a full-featured, if pricey, travel companion.

Like almost all wireless routers, the CTR500 broadcasts an unencrypted signal out of the box, so you probably won’t want to simply power up, plug in and start surfing. The CTR500 supports WPA, WPA2, and even the antiquated WEP to secure your connections. If you’ve got systems compatible with WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup) the CTR500 supports that too. 

Advanced Configuration

Although configuring the aforementioned basics will be the extent to which most people need to modify the CTR500’s default settings, anyone looking for a higher level of configurability will not be disappointed. In fact, when it comes to features and the ability to tweak settings, the CTR500 gives up little if anything when compared to a typical full-size router.

Like its larger brethren, the CTR500 has an integrated firewall and supports mainstay router features like Dynamic DNS, DMZ, and port forwarding to facilitate connections by certain servers, applications or games. The CTR500 also maintains several logs and can be configured to periodically send them to an e-mail address. It’s minor, but we like the fact that the CTR500 lets you queue up multiple setting changes before you have to reboot the router to put those changes into effect ‑ most routers force a reboot (thus disconnecting users) after each modification.

Through its filtering and access control features, the CTR500 will let you decide who uses your Wi-Fi network, when they use it, and for what. Basic Web site filtering is provided through OpenDNS, which lets you choose from four broad content categories to filter for all users. If you want even more control, you can define rules to allow or deny various kinds of network access by specific systems.

Connectivity Options

Although the CTR500’s primary focus is on cellular and Wi-Fi connections, the device’s Ethernet port, which can be set to LAN or WAN mode, affords additional flexibility when using the device. The default LAN mode allows you to connect a desktop computer– or any system that lacks Wi-Fi support—to your network.

If you switch the Ethernet port to WAN mode, you can use the CTR500 with any DSL or cable modem connection just as you would a conventional broadband router. Although probably not a crucial capability for a travel router, it’s a handy feature to have, and when using the LAN port for Internet access, the CTR500 supports failover so that if the wired connection goes kaput, it will to switch over to an attached modem. When we pulled the plug on our wired Internet connection, connectivity was restored via the backup cellular link after about a minute of down time.

The CTR500 will also let you connect both ExpressCard and USB modems and use them together for maximum performance. We couldn’t try this feature for ourselves, however, since both of our cellular devices were USB-based. 

At $180, the Cradlepoint CTR500 Cellular-Ready Travel Router’s a bit pricey, especially considering the lack of accessories (even a carrying case is a $14.95 option). But for your money you get a powerful and versatile device that helps you get the most out of cellular data access while on the road.

Price: $179.95

Pros: Extremely compact; easy setup; can load-balance multiple modems

Cons: Pricey; carrying case, car adapter, external antenna are all optional accessories

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He’s also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he’s currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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