ADSL 10/100BaseT ethernet routers

Introduction

If you use the Internet for more than email, a broadband connection should be on your wish list. If you live close enough to an ADSL-equipped telephone exchange (www.bt.com/broadband), now’s a great time to switch to a fast Internet connection. ISPs (Internet Service Providers) charge approximately £23-30 per month for a residential ADSL service. If you’re paying call charges for the time you’re connected via dial-up modem, or have had to install a second line so you can use the phone while online, then getting ADSL will likely save you money. ADSL is alwayson – you don’t pay a penny more if you’re browsing the Web for 24 minutes or 24 hours. And you can use a standard telephone line at the same time, so no need for the second-line’s rental fees. In the past, to install ADSL you had to pay BT to send an engineer to your house. Since April, the "wiresonly" solution allows you to pay BT a one-off activation fee (about £60), buy your own modem and fit it yourself – saving over £100 in charges. For more information, see the ADSL features in Macworld’s June and July 2002 issues; or visit www.macworld.co.uk/adsl. Some ISPs – most notably BT Openworld – don’t offer "wires-only". BT forces you to buy its own choice of USB modem or Ethernet router. And this might not be the best choice for Mac users. Many Macworld readers are saddled with the modem they purchased from their ISP. Often, this is Alcatel’s SpeedTouch USB – a hideous green blob that’s a constant source of problems thanks to its Mac drivers. USB modems require drivers to connect with the computer, and so you’re at the mercy of the manufacturer when a new version of the operating system comes out. ADSL routers (which include a built-in DSL modem) connect via ethernet, rather than USB, and do not require drivers. Theoretically, an ADSL router will work with Mac OS X, XI and XII, whenever they come around. Once installed and configured, an ADSL router should not require your attention ever again – apart from an occasional firmware upgrade, and they’re optional. Routers are also truly always-on – unlike ADSL modems, which require you to click to connect. They’re less hassle, allow you to connect multiple Macs to one ADSL line and offer more-advanced security features. For peace of mind, dump the modem, and get a router. Macworld tested eight of the latest ADSL routers. Aside from security features, there’s not much in the operation to distinguish between them. We therefore looked specifically at: ease of installation, cost, security and design. Ease of installation Once up and running, an ADSL router shouldn’t cause any problems. Very occasionally, you might need to switch it or your computer off and on again. That’s about it. But configuring an ADSL router can be a nightmare – enough to drive some back to the frequent hassles of a USB modem. Actually, the configuring of most is extremely simple – once you know what you’re doing. All the routers on test are configurable by entering details into a series of Web-browser pages. All you really have to know is the router’s IP address, and your login name and password agreed with your ISP. It’s easy, and takes about five minutes. Trouble is, if you’re not scratching your head in confusion, you’ll be pulling your hair out. All the blame lies with the manufacturers’ instructions – which are often written by techno-fascists with no idea what it’s like not to know the difference between relayed PPPoA and DHCP-to- PPP spoofing or UPnP Internet gateways and NAT. Most of the router’s user guides are heavily Windows based, leaving Mac instructions to the appendix or buried somewhere you’d never think of looking. Alcatel’s SpeedTouch routers are excellent, but the installation process – although relatively simple when you know what you’re doing (see above) – is practically impenetrable for Mac users. The company promises us a simple install wizard – like the one supplied for Windows users – in "the next six months or so". This will make them much more attractive to Mac users. You can follow our instructions overleaf, but it would have been easier if Alcatel had made the browser-based configuration process more apparent in the first place. Zyxel’s routers are also top-notch, but the printed manuals and PDFs hide the required information. Follow the simple rules (right) for Alcatel and Zyxel, however, and you’ll be fine. Solwise’s instructions are painstakingly exact, but the whole process is extremely long-winded, and requires you to set-up a manual connection before you can switch to a more secure DHCP connection. We awarded extra marks to those routers that came with clear, concise configuration instructions. ADSL Nation wins here, with a doublesided sheet of A4 leading both Windows and Mac users through the simple Web-based configuration. Perfect. Netgear’s instructions were equally straightforward and simple. If Alcatel or ZyXEL had followed suit, their routers would have been easier to recommend. Hermstedt’s OneClick configuration software actually requires five or six clicks, but is especially simple for network novices. Design As Mac users, we expect our peripherals to look a certain way. Over the past few years, printers and scanners have got better looking, and no longer have to be hidden under the desk. Many routers haven’t really caught up with the trend. Admittedly, this is the least important aspect of choosing hardware, but it can matter at home. Most of the routers here are dull looking; the SAR705/15 is just a black box. The AMX-64 tries to look stylish, but fails miserably on the practicality side of design by having an uneven top. Its front fascia is awful – definitely worth throwing a tea-towel over when guests arrive. But, Alcatel’s SpeedTouch routers are very stylish, as is Netgear’s DG814 – which looks superb atop a Quicksilver Power Mac G4. Hermstedt’s NetShuttle will look good next to a white iMac or iBook.
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