LinkSys Wireless Networking – Review

I’ve been steadily watching the price of 802.11b wireless LAN gear drop over the last 18 months. Like most other technology, its cost is on a downward spiral. Access Points that used to cost a grand are now available at under £200 while PCMCIA cards appear to have dropped below £100. It’s at this level that I have “bought in”.

I have had a few LinkSys NICs and have always found the price/performance to be good. I also considered the Netgear package but as the AP only does 40bit WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) I went for the LinkSys. However it now seems even the 128 bit encryption is broken (see AirSnort). In reality though we are in the countryside and access is pretty non-existent outside the house so security isn’t a big issue. However, living close to other neighbours may be cause for concern. Especially if your HA setup allows control of your security system for example!

Rather than being purely about this set of hardware, this review hopefully gives an idea of some of the things you can do with a wireless LAN setup and what the implications are for home automation

The Access Point – The (WAP11 Access Point) is a nice looking unit. It can be setup via Ethernet or USB (you need to use USB to change its default IP address though). Its dual removable aerials can be swivelled about to get best coverage. Apart from upgrading the firmware to the latest version this unit is pretty plug and forget. Having a “proper” access point rather than 2 cards working in adhoc (peer to peer) mode means you can position the AP where it’s going to give best coverage in the house. From what I’ve read that should be upstairs (if there is one) and central to the area you want to cover (all pretty common sense stuff).

The Card -The (WPC11 PCMCIA Card What can I say, it’s a pretty ugly beast with that very square aerial sticking out. I think it would be quite easy to damage one of these cards – especially in the laptop as the aerial looks very vulnerable. The LinkSys card isn’t supplied with Windows CE drivers but the Compaq WL100 drivers work (good information at this site as to which cards do and don’t work with CE – CE Windows.

Range -Disappointing!! I can JUST get coverage at the extremes of my house, but the AP is placed pretty centrally upstairs so I though I would have got good coverage everywhere. In fairness it does appear that the PCMCIA card is the problem rather than the AP. I have read a lot of comments on www.practicallynetworked.com (a great site) that suggest the LinkSys AP coupled with a different PCMCIA card will give much better range. The card utility shows that packets are still being received long after it has ceased to be able to transmit back to the access point which would support this. Other members of the UKHA_D Mailing List have had good results with the Lucent Orinoco cards (available from UK on-line retailer www.un-wired.co.uk) which are compatible with the LinkSys access point.

Use – I have tested the wireless network with my laptop, iPAQ and Epod. The iPAQ is the most portable and holds most promise as a home automation controller. Although it is much fatter with its PCMCIA sleeve it isn’t really much bigger than the Philips Pronto. For “roaming” about your home with a handheld device like this the Home Automation possibilities are huge! Control of existing HA setups through the wireless iPAQ is relatively straight forward. Any existing product that has a web server interface (like HomeVision, Comfort, HomeSeer etc) can easily be controlled. The disadvantage then becomes the PocketPC’s screen size. With utilities like Jimmy’s Landscape you can squeeze some more information on the the screen, but it does effect the legibility of the text quite noticeably.

iPAQ (running Jimmy’s Landscape) Logging in to Windows 2000 Server Terminal Service

Of the three I think the Epod is the most impressive. Running Terminal Services on my Windows 2000 Server machine I browsed the BBC News site for a good couple of hours and it was an excellent experience. The Mrs also loves the wireless Epod. She is currently using it to surf recipe sites which gives wireless LAN a great WAF in our house. The combination of wireless and TS turn the Epod into a near perfect browsing device (battery life allows several nights worth of browsing between charges!). The arrival of my 802.11b setup quickly followed by my laptop power supply blowing up has meant that lately nearly all of my bedtime email/surfing/TVGuide/Instant Messaging is now done on the Epod (shown below is Digiguide running in a TS session).

There’s an ACE Epods client available from HoneSoftware which was specifically created for this device. ACE is a product that was initially designed to allow control of home automation systems via touch screen PCs so it lends itself well to these devices. It puts a series of buttons on the screen that are made for fingers rather than a stylus. These buttons can be configured to send X10 commands, fire off HomeVision macros (for example) or show Caller ID logs etc.

The Epods ACE client has been made the size of the iPAQ screen so it should be suitable for it as well (however Hone have yet to built a Strong Arm version of the exe to test on the iPAQ).

There is also a web client which can be used on the iPAQ, Epods or Windows Laptop. This platform independent simplicity may result in the web client taking over from the other ACE clients for future development.

Conclusion – With all this wireless LAN stuff about it is tempting to scrimp on hard wired network points in a new home. However, the overall performance on speed, reliability, security and price of a hardwired LAN point will always be better than the wireless equivalent.

802.11a is due later this year. It will increase the 11Mbps bandwidth of the current standard up to a maximum of 54Mbps and will move away from the 2.4Ghz frequency to 5Ghz, thus sidestepping the interference current systems can suffer from microwave ovens, DECT cordless phones and BlueTooth. Obviously 802.11a will initially be expensive and aimed at the commercial market. This should help to bring the price of 802.11b down even further, and as dual frequency chipsets have already been announced you will have the option of moving to the new standard later whilst retaining the cards from your initial investment.

To me, cutting the wires and freeing handheld devices (like those above) must be the future! Approximate Price £300.00 for both (Inc VAT)

Available From LinkSys [Now cisco.com]

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