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Special Reports


Seeking a Simple, Safe Connection


Linksys WRT54GS Wireless-G Router with SpeedBooster (Courtesy Linksys)

_____WiFi Special Report_____
Here, There, WiFi Anywhere (The Washington Post, Apr 25, 2004)
Flexibility Comes Relatively Cheap (The Washington Post, Apr 25, 2004)
_____Finding WiFi Spots_____
Getting Online, On the Road (The Washington Post, Apr 25, 2004)
Getting Connected With the Hot Spots (The Washington Post, Apr 25, 2004)
_____The WiFi Effect_____
Share the Word . . . (The Washington Post, Apr 25, 2004)
Murky Was Clear Choice (The Washington Post, Apr 25, 2004)
Nice Presents, but Some Assembly Required (The Washington Post, Apr 25, 2004)
_____Live Online_____
Monday, 2 p.m. ET: Personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro will be online to talk about The Post's special report on WiFi.
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By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 25, 2004; Page F07

Can you connect your computers with WiFi, or will the effort involved in setting up a safe, secure wireless network disconnect your sanity first? We recently tried out four WiFi access points from D-Link, Linksys, Microsoft and Netgear.

Any of them can be had for about $100 in stores -- the list prices cited here are higher -- all support the newer, faster 802.11g flavor of WiFi and all can also plug in to a nearby desktop computer via conventional Ethernet cable. Because of that last capability, these devices are best described as wireless routers, not just access points.

All four routers allowed us to get a wireless network online in 20 minutes or less, usually with the help of a step-by-step wizard interface that automagically copied over our broadband settings. But not all of these wizards were equally smart, and all let us down in one way or another when it came to security -- a WiFi router broadcasts every bit of Internet data you send or receive over the air, so you should encrypt its transmissions.

While each made it simple enough to turn on the more compatible but compromised form of encryption called WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), none made it equally simple to select a newer, much more secure standard, WPA (WiFi Protected Access).

The Linksys WRT54GS Wireless-G Router with SpeedBooster ($129) includes a CD-ROM with a user-friendly wizard (Win 98 SE or newer) that starts by asking you to change the router's password, an important step to keep out strangers. An experienced user can, however, dispense with the CD, by plugging the router directly into the PC with Ethernet cable and using the Web browser to log into the router and configure a variety of settings.

The manual, alas, goes directly from telling you to pop in the CD to describing the manual-configuration process, which might lead a user into doing the whole install the hard way.

Unfortunately, the rest of its security setup procedure is sloppy and confusing. It's simple to set up WPA encryption for your network, but the wizard doesn't recommend you do this -- and if you later decide to enable WPA using Linksys's regular software, you'll have to know to look under a Wireless menu, not the Security menu, then select a Preshared Key option before you can even see the option of WPA.

This model advertises faster-than-802.11g performance, but this SpeedBooster mode will rev up file transfers only between computers with SpeedBooster hardware instead of standard 802.11g WiFi gear.

D-Link's DI-624 AirPlus ExtremeG (Courtesy D-Link)

D-Link's DI-624 AirPlus ExtremeG ($119) employs a CD-free setup; you just plug the router into your computer -- any operation system capable of running a Java-enabled browser will do -- and are greeted with a setup wizard.

As with the Linksys setup, this one begins with a change-password prompt, but the rest of the process is short and sweet, assisted by a setup guide that describes every click in the already streamlined process. The only drawback is that this wizard lets you enable only WEP security; selecting WPA requires running a different, difficult configuration utility, full documentation for which is available only on D-Link's Web site.

As with the Linksys router, this model offers a faster, proprietary mode that most people can't use.

Microsoft Wireless Base Station MN-700. (Courtesy Microsoft)

Microsoft Wireless Base Station MN-700 ($99) is the only router we tried that required a full software install (Win 98 SE or newer) before use, including the addition of broadband-networking programs that we thought would have been included in Windows XP Home already. But despite the extensive software load, you can't get your network configured without keeping the manual handy, since the setup routines keep telling you to consult the printed documentation.

This approach seems more elaborate than necessary, but its greater variety of options does not extend to an easy setup process for WPA encryption -- it's not set up by default, it's harder to switch on than WEP and information about it is absent from the printed manual.

The Netgear WGR614 (Courtesy Netgear)

The Netgear WGR614 ($90), like the D-Link model, features a browser-based setup that eliminates the need to use the setup CD. Netgear's wizard walks you through the first steps of the install process. Its manual configuration interface does not contain all the options of the Linksys, but is better laid out, and includes a context-sensitive help menu that frees you from having to look up jargon in a separate help viewer.

But this, too, starts with WEP encryption disabled, and no option for WPA. The company says it will ship a firmware patch to add WPA to existing WGR614 routers and will add this feature to future models.

Overall, the D-Link offers the simplest install, but Linksys does the best job of ensuring that the strongest possible security protects your network. And whenever Netgear adds WPA support to its hardware, it will pose tough competition to those two companies. Home

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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