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Reviews of the latest tech products.

Belkin’s new Pre-N wireless networking line encompasses a router/4-port switch, a PCI card for desktops, and a PCMCIA card for laptops ($160, $130, $110 respectively).

Dipping into the alphabet soup for a moment, “Pre-N” signifies that it’s being launched in advance of the impending IEEE 802.11n specification, likely to be ratified in early 2007 as a 108Mbps successor to the familiar 802.11b (11Mbps) and 802.11g (54Mbps) wireless specs. Using multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) radio technology-the Pre-N has three receivers and two transmitters-multipath, or the tendency of signals to bounce around and arrive at different times, is turned from a problem into an advantage.

By sending and looking for data simultaneously in two or more streams, MIMO provides greater wireless range and throughput than its predecessors-particularly indoors, where walls and metal objects both attenuate signals and bounce them around.

The Pre-N is compatible with earlier b and g gear, but full MIMO benefits require Pre-N end-to-end. Because there are several approaches to MIMO (to be resolved in the final spec), you may not get MIMO performance if you mix Pre-N with other manufacturers’ MIMO units-or final 802.11n gear, for that matter.

All of the Pre-N units come with good installation wizards for PCs. The router allegedly includes a Mac wizard, but it was missing from the CD, and I had to download it from Belkin’s support site. Unfortunately, only the router is Mac-compatible at this point, but Belkin claims to be working on Mac drivers for their PCI and PC cards.

Installation was straightforward, though it still required the usual incantations and restarts of the various boxes to get everything talking and connected to the Internet through my cable modem. My most serious problem was with the PCI card, whose transceiver (a PC card identical to the laptop version) had to be plugged in 180 degrees opposite of both logic and instructions, resulting in much cursing and a couple of bent pins before I tried upside-down. Like most routers these days, the Pre-N has full configuration and security features and can be managed from a web browser; the interface and instructions are good.

I did a lot of testing, comparing the Pre-N with earlier b and g routers. Belkin’s claims of a 20 percent improvement when used with older gear proved accurate, and unlike many routers, mixing b and g in the network doesn’t slow everything down to b levels. End-to-end Pre-N was gratifyingly speedy-under good conditions not much slower than my wired 100Mbps Ethernet. And range was notably improved; I can finally get a usable signal nearly everywhere in my three-level house and half-acre yard.

Equally impressive, from most spots the Pre-N punched through microwave oven interference with barely a slowdown–this brought my b and g networks to their knees. –Ken Henningsen


As a look at the ads in any Sunday newspaper will demonstrate, the growing phenomenon of multiple-computer homes with broadband Internet connections has led to a similar explosion of wired and wireless networking gadgets at much lower prices than only a couple of years ago.

However, in spite of great improvements in installation ease and general user friendliness, home networking still means descending into a geeky underworld of impenetrable acronyms and sometimes plug-and-pray setups. And particularly with wireless, wizard-driven installations and a “What, me worry?” attitude may result in a network that’s dangerously susceptible to outside misuse and attack unless one learns the meaning of some of those acronyms and takes some precautions. So how to navigate safely and competently through these often poorly mapped and sometimes dangerous shoals?

One way is to start with a good primer on the subject, and I’ve just worked my way through one such book: “Home Networking: The Missing Manual,” by Scott Lowe (O’Reilly

ogue Press). A worthy addition to O’Reilly’s Missing Manual series, Lowe’s approach combines a breezy writing style with clear and accurate descriptions and instructions.

He starts with the basics and builds to some fairly sophisticated operations, such as interfacing a network with home entertainment gear. A welcome departure from many similar tomes, Lowe describes networking procedures in Mac OS 9 and X as well as in Windows. He also has good chapters on both firewalls and wireless security, helping you make sure you don’t become a target of all those miscreants out there.

Bottom line, while this is a fairly basic book that won’t satiate Geek Squad types, it’s just the ticket to get us mere mortals started. –Ken Henningsen

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