Networking X-Micro Style - IntroductionIntroduction
I love internal computer networks. So many companies depend on them these days in their infrastructure for employees and day-to-day operations. They make transferring files around the house between computers quick and painless. They give computer fanatics the ability to kill their mate sitting next to them without physically holding any illegal black market weapon of any kind. Oh, and then there's the little thing about surfing the Internet on more than one computer at home and at work.Now with the rollout of 802.11x products from quite a hand full of different manufacturers, improving your internal computer networks by removing the need for wires has made things only more joyful - if we forget for a minute about how insecure many wireless networks can be and the obvious reduction in transfer speeds of transferring data through the air over radio signals.Today we've taken a whole bunch of X-Micro wireless products for a spin including their 4-port 10/100 switch with built-in DSL router and 802.11b wireless LAN as well as USB and PCMCIA 802.11b wireless LAN adapters. If you're considering networking your house, X-Micro may just have the perfect product for you. Read on and find out if this is the case or not.
Networking X-Micro Style - WLAN 11b Broadband RouterFeatures
Firstly we'll talk about the product which runs the show, the 4-port 802.11b wireless broadband router which comes packaged inside a fairly small box. The light weight 10/100 switch is made out of plastic and has an overall stylish grey look to it.This unit allows you to share an ADSL or cable modem Internet connection with 4 or more computers on the LAN with hardware routing which helps keep hackers and other like kinds of people off your network and computers. Though, with that being said, never consider your LAN totally safe from the outside world. Hackers can always find a way in.As well as hosting the Internet connection for all connected computers, the switch also acts as a wireless access point for computers with 802.11x adapters in the near vicinity. This can be used to share the Internet and communicate with other wired computers. While wireless LAN is indeed very cool, it has one major downfall - and that is security, or lack thereof in most cases. Without any encryption, anyone can freely pull up outside of your house with their notebook, wireless adapter, "war driving" software (or even one of your neighbors if they are that sneaky) and connect to your LAN and use your Internet connection or browse and copy your files through the air waves. Thankfully though, this router from X-Micro, like many now, includes 64-bit and 128-bit WEP to help keep intruders off of your network.Yet even despite security warnings by many experts, most companies still do not enable WEP on their wireless networks. Instead they leave settings as default, which most of the time means no WEP being enabled. We found by once driving (or "war driving", as they
call it) through the city of Melbourne in Australia for no longer than 15 minutes that out of the 30 or so wireless networks found, only around a quarter of them had WEP enabled and we were free to login in to the ones which didn't in under 30 seconds and use their Internet connections without paying a single cent. Consider this our own warning for the uneducated. We'll look more into the security features of the router shortly.
Included inside the package is the router, AC power adapter, installation CD (which includes drivers for all versions of Windows) as well as manual and paper version of the small manual.
As you can see from the image above, on the front of the switch we have a whole bunch of activity LED's which let you know what the switch is doing and if wireless LAN and WAN (Wide Area Network aka the Internet) are active or not.
On the back of the switch from left to right we have the WAN port for Internet connections through ADSL or cable modem. Then we have the four numbered 10/100 ports, AC power jack and then the wireless antenna which sends out a 360 degree signal for wireless-capable computers around the house or work.Now let's take a look at the web-based admin part of the switch.
Networking X-Micro Style - WLAN 11b Broadband Router ContinuedWeb-based Administration
Like the majority of current day switches with routing features, you have the ability to manage the switch through an Internet browser, making life very easy. This switch from X-Micro is no different - you have the ability to manage quite a few different options for the switch as well as monitor connections and so forth. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
When you first login to the router, you are presented with screen above which gives you a summary of the status of various aspects of the switch.
We'll first look at the options available to us in the "Wireless Basic Settings" area. Here you are able to change what your wireless network is called through the SSID. This is the name which is given to your network which shows up in Windows. You've got a few other options here but will likely not need to be changed unless you have more than one wireless network in the same vicinity.
Here we have the "Wireless Advanced Settings" area which allows us to change some of the more advanced options. Unless you have an extensive knowledge in wireless networks, I wouldn't recommend changing any of these settings. The only option you may consider changing is the option to broadcast your wireless network's SSID (the name of your network). For privacy reasons, you may wish to disable it and then your wireless network will go unnamed.
Next up we have the all important "Wireless Security Setup" area which is where we are able to enable and disable WEP which helps secure your wireless network. You can choose from 64-bit and 128-bit WEP. Do remember though, by enabling WEP your wireless network transfer speeds will be reduced slightly. However it is still recommended you have WEP enabled if you consider yourself to be in a vulnerable part of town or just want a little piece of mind.
For even greater wireless network security, we have the "Wireless Access Control" area which allows us to add the MAC address of wireless adapters to what could be considered a "white list" of clients you want to allow to connect to your wireless network. This should effectively stop all intruders right away, but you never know...
Next up we move away from wireless options and get our first taste of LAN options. In the "LAN Interface Setup" area we are able to change the IP address of the router (not advised) as well as being able to adjust the DHCP IP address range. Just quickly, DHCP is a networking method which automatically assigns an IP to a newly connected computer to the network. Instead of manually having to adjust your LAN adapter settings, just enable DHCP and the router will take care of the rest with minimal fuss and will have you on the network, with your own IP, in only a few seconds.
Next up we have the "WAN Interface Setup" area which allows us to make changes to our Internet connection. If you are using a cable modem, all that is required is to choose "Attain IP Automatically" and the rest is done for you. If you have an ADSL connection, you need to choose "PPPoE" and enter in your username and password as given to you by your ISP. Under connection type you are able to choose how the switch connects you to the Internet. I choose "Manual" since we had a few problems initially when first setting up the router. However, the option for "Connect on Demand" works just fine now.The rest of the options of the router are fairly standard. You have a whole bunch of firewall options like you would expect - Port Filtering, IP Filtering, MAC Filtering, Port Forwarding and DMZ (takes your PC out of the Militarized Zone to provide Internet services without sacrificing unauthorized access to other computers on the network).
Networking X-Micro Style - WLAN USB AdapterFeatures
The first of the wireless adapters we take a look at from X-Micro is their new USB adapter. Like the switch, this adapter is made out of plastic and is coated in a desirable black colored paint with X-Micro printed on it. Next to the X-Micro logo is a green LED which shines solid when enabled and flickers when there is network activity.
Like the router, the package is small yet adequate. You have the USB adapter, installation CD with drivers for all versions of Windows and manual as well as Quick Start Guide for help with setup in Windows. It's this type of no fuss packaging which keeps the overall price of the product down and reasonable.The only real down side of the USB adapter is the fact that it does not have native driver support in Windows XP. This means that you cannot simply just plug the adapter into any computer USB port without having to first insert the included CD and install the drivers (which look to be provided by Realtek). The good thing, though, is that you do not need to restart your computer to have the adapter working and the whole procedure takes under a minute.As far as signal quality goes, the USB adapter doesn't provide a bad signal. From one room across from where the access point is located (around 10 ft through walls), we received "very good" (or four bars under Windows XP) signal strength. It's not as good though as the PCMCIA adapter which we look at next.
Networking X-Micro Style - WLAN PCMCIA AdapterFeatures
The WLAN PCMCIA adapter from X-Micro has similar no fuss packaging to the USB adapter. Included in the package is the PCMCIA adapter card, CD with drivers for all versions of Windows and manual as well as Quick Start Guide for help with setup in Windows.This adapter from X-Micro is not different to that of other cards I have used in the past. Although, I've got to say that the card from X-Micro is much more vibrant with all its color. The card includes two LED's on the top face of the card which indicate when the card is enabled and when there is network activity.
Like the USB adapter, unfortunately the card does not have native driver support under Windows XP. This isn't as much as a problem as with the USB adapter since this card will most likely be placed more permanently inside your notebook computer.For whatever reason, the signal quality of this card is better than the USB adapter in the exact same location (10 ft from access point through walls) with no changes in the environment. We go from "very good" quality with the USB adapter to "excellent" (or five bars in Windows XP) which as you will soon see, seems to greatly increase LAN transfer speeds.Now we've taken a look at all three products, let's get onto the testing and see just what they are capable of producing!
Networking X-Micro Style - TestingTesting
To test all of the networking equipment, we used Performance Test version 4.0 by PassMark Software. This piece of software is perfect for our networking tests here today. It gives us the ability to transfer data over any set amount of time from one computer to another on the network with any kind of network adapter. It outputs such information as CPU load, average transfer speeds and so forth.To give you an overall idea of the type of performance you'll get from the hardware, we used a standard Dell Inspirion 8200 notebook (with Windows XP Home and the drivers included in the package) for both USB and PCMCIA adapter tests as well as wired 10/100 tests for comparison purposes. To gain an average transfer speed rating, we set the network section of Performance Test to operate for two minutes for each test where for every test the notebook was sending
data. The notebook was placed roughly 10 feet away (through walls) from the access point which was in the next room across sitting on the floor with no obstructions in its way, apart from the walls - of course.For interest sakes, we also included tests with 128-bit encryption enabled to see if we have much of a performance drop from having the added security feature on.Let's see how the wireless products from X-Micro compete with the onboard 3Com 10/100 controller chip on the Dell notebook.- Average Transfer Speed
In the first of our tests we can see that the wired network on average is a little over 8 times faster than the quickest wireless adapter, PCMCIA Wireless. We can also see that with 128-bit encryption enabled, there is only a sight drop in performance which is certainly good news!For whatever reason, the USB adapter was considerably slower than the PCMCIA adapter - on average about 65% slower. As well as being slower, being USB and CPU driven, the USB adapter chews up CPU usage as high as 95% at times but mostly stayed around 20% for the majority of the two minute test. On the other hand, the PCMCIA adapter used hardly as much CPU power since it is not driven by the processor. The most CPU usage the PCMCIA adapter used was 25% and mostly stayed around 13% for the majority of the two minute test. PCMCIA is looking better and better than USB by the minute.- Time to copy 660MB
For our second and final test, we calculated how long it would take to copy a 660MB file over the network based on the two minute testing which the 3Com Wired Ethernet was able to achieve in the set time - that being 660MB. The calculations are based on averages and not highest speeds, so in certain cases you may be able to copy the total amount quicker.It is clear to see that this is where the lows of the 802.11b standard lie - fantastic in theory but not so good (as far as transfer speeds go) in practice. However with that said, this is only a problem if you want to copy large files over a wireless network. At most, you only need around 10KB/s to play LAN games and you've got enough bandwidth to stream most movies over the X-Micro powered wireless network.This is the sacrifice you need to make for the convenience of wireless LAN.
Networking X-Micro Style - ConclusionConclusion
X-Micro should be congratulated for producing a range of networking products which are relatively cheap, definitely very stylish and simple to use and setup.These combinations of networking products from X-Micro would be perfect for a home environment where you are looking to connect a few computers by CAT5 cable and have one or two other portable computers (such as notebook) which you want as part of your network, without spending a truck load of one hundred dollar notes on the project.As far as the wireless adapters go, the PCMCIA adapter is far better than the USB - as proved by our testing results today. If you want to add wireless LAN capabilities to your notebook, you would be silly to choose the X-Micro USB adapter over the PCMCIA adapter. On the other hand, if you want to add wireless LAN capabilities to a non-portable computer, you are dead out of luck. While I've painted the picture of the X-Micro USB adapter as being useless, it will do the trick but with a few cons compared to the PCMCIA adapter - those specifically being reduced transfer speeds and higher CPU usage.If you're looking to formulate a solid and cheap yet stylish home network with wireless LAN capabilities, the three products we looked at today from the Taiwanese X-Micro company should be given some serious consideration and thought for your home.- Pros
StylishCheapEasy to Use802.11b Wireless CapabilitiesWeb-based Admin- Cons
No Gigabit EthernetNo 802.11g SupportUSB adapter slower compared to PCMCIA adapterRating - 9 out of 10 and TweakTown's Best Value Award