Almost a decade ago, I setup my first wireless network along with the purchase of my first laptop. Boy, technology was expensive back then. In total, the laptop and network cost nearly $2,400 in all. Today, a much faster and secure wireless network and laptop could be had for a fourth of that cost. And it would last a whole lot longer too. The $2,000 laptop lasted a full two years if I recall correctly before the hard drive got fried. But it was partly my fault too as I did put it through some intense use as a frequent user of Adobe Photoshop.
Once upon a time, I used the Linksys BEFW11s4 v.2
In 2001, I purchased the Linksys BEFW11S4 v.2. When my first laptop faltered, this router would lie dormant in my basement.
A few short years ago, I finally purchased a new laptop after relying on several desktop computers and this gave me reason to dust off the Linksys and bring it back to life. It surprisingly had good signal strength, better than I remembered; all 5 bars would be lit from about 15 feet away and behind walls and other equipment that could possibly create interference. My internet would be surfable in the farthest corners of my basement and in the backyard. Playstation 3 games, like Uncharted 2, would be lag-free during online play.
It was unfortunate when the router’s wireless capabilities just stopped functioning properly a few weeks ago. Signal strength would drop to 2-3 bars, no matter the proximity to the router. Speeds would slow to a crawl or sometimes the network would not show up at all, the latter more often then not. Wired connections still worked perfectly though.
I tried all the tricks in the book: power cycle, soft resets, hard resets, 30-30-30 resets, upgrading firmware, router flashing, etc. At one point, I thought I had turned the router into what is commonly known as a ‘brick’ in the networking world when even the wired connection failed and I could not ping the router. Although I managed to resolve it, the initial problem of poor wireless connectivity would just not go away.
The search was on for a new router.
There are no perfect routers
Finding a router is not easy. If you have looked up reviews for routers, you may find it puzzling how most routers can garner both rave reviews and absolute disgust. You often can see a ‘C-curve’ in the ratings–lots of 5-star ratings, several 4s, a few 3s, and then, surprisingly, more 2s than 3s and a lot of 1s. In fact, if you disregard the routers that mainly got dismal reviews, this seemed almost the case for nearly every single router sold in North America. (I researched every single router sold at Futureshop.ca and BestBuy.ca, that is, those whose reviews could be found. I would think their selection of routers is representative of routers sold in the average North American store. I will post the results of my research in this blog later on.)
Why is this the case? You may be thinking how a lot of technology today can be almost stupidly easy to use. Or it can be a miserable piece of crap. It’s hit or miss, it works or it doesn’t. But routers fall into that gray area. The reason is there’s always a chance that the router will not work with your specific computer. And that’s why you see reviews of the opposite extremes for a single router–there are so many different configurations and possibly ways in which a computer can be built that it’s almost impossible for compatibility issues to be nonexistent.
Unfortunately, this theory held partly true for me.
Cisco Valet Plus, the perfect router?
The Cisco Valet Plus (M20) entered my life yesterday. It had pretty decent reviews and I felt it would be a great router that could be setup in minutes. I recalled all the frustration and hassles while setting up the Linksys BEFW11S4 before I could get it to run properly on my old school laptop. But technology was quite primitive back then, plus I was young and all my peers didn’t run a wireless network let alone own a laptop!
Everything about the router screams simplicity, from the packaging with it’s 3-step instructions printed within to the aptly named Easy Setup Key. The Key is a USB that configures the router’s settings and, when plugged into a device, connects it to the router.
Some people wave the key off as a fancy USB that simply saves your router’s SSID and password. However, as I mentioned above, it also configures your router for you–the security type, SSID name (which by default will contain the noun ‘cat’ with a prefix attached to it like ‘cute’; even small details like this screams that this is a user-friendly product)… everything.
The Key also contains the actual user guides and other reference documents. Unlike other routers though, you probably won’t need it. The Valet is that simple.
I followed the 3-step instructions for using the router with my desktop PC which would run a wired connection to one of the router’s four gigabit ports. The Key was plugged in, the setup screen popped up and then indicated that my PC didn’t have a wireless adapter with some simple, illustrated instructions: plug in the router and connect it to the PC and cable modem. Then, for several minutes, it started configuring the router before it instructed me to power-cycle my cable modem. Basically, this means to unplug the modem from it’s power source for a minute or 2 and reconnect it again, which helps to clear old network settings from the router.
I really wished the Key would at least allow for some manual configuration of the network such as the security type (it’s WPA2/WPA mixed by default). I shall elaborate on the reasoning in a bit.
After this was done, my desktop was connected to the internet with absolutely no problems. The Key also installed some software on the computer called Cisco Connect. It’s basically a dumb-downed version of the settings you typically see when viewing 192.168.1.1 from your browser, but it also has useful features like quick access to enable/disable the Guest network (which is a second network created in addition to your main network and allows guests to connect to your router with a simple password requested in the browser) or seeing how many devices are connected to the Valet (I would have liked it to be able to display the details of the devices but all it does is give you the count.)
Next, was the Playstation 3. This time, I manually connected it to the router so I can’t say if the Key could be used for gaming consoles. Manual setup worked flawlessly and the PS3 was on the grid.
There are no perfect routers pt. 2
Last man standing was my laptop. I used the Key this time because I wanted the Cisco Connect software on my laptop. And that’s where the problems began.
After trying the Key twice, I gave up when I saw the recurring notification of unsuccessful setup and the advice to contact Linksys support. I thought, oh well, I can just do this manually. The Cisco Connect software wasn’t a necessity for me, and the full-fledged settings could always be accessed at 192.168.1.1 anyways. Apart from automatically configuring the router and saving you the hassle of remembering your passphrase, that’s really the only benefit of the Key.
Manual setup proved no better. The network would show up perfectly fine and my laptop would connect to it. But a connection to the internet was futile. I decided to take the advice of the Key and try out support. It was rather late at this time, about 2 AM, so I decided to use their live chat, something I haven’t tried with any company.
The technician was extremely helpful and we tried everything to isolate the problem: disabling Internet Protocol Version 6, changing the router’s IP, double checking the IP addresses and DNS servers, manually setting up a wireless network, trying out different channels, etc. But one hour later, nearly two, and no solution.
A solution (not really) and the big bad Atheros AR5007
There was one thing we did not try: changing the security type. The old Linksys router I used was set on WEP. So I decided to try that. Lo and behold, instant internet access!
Remember I mentioned earlier how the Key automatically configures the router? It seems that it automatically sets the the security type to WPA2/WPA personal which, for some odd reason, does not bode well with my laptop. If only it had allowed some moderate level of configuration via a manual setup link. Or better yet, the Key would have tried different configurations and security types before giving up pitifully. Perhaps that alone would have delayed the birth of several 1-star reviews.
In Device Manager, my network connects via the Atheros AR5007 802.11b/g WiFi Adapter. I looked it up on my laptop’s manufacturer website and in the driver’s section, I confirmed that my version was the latest: 220.127.116.11. According to the site, it apparently resolves some 802.11n issues, amongst other things, but I guess not. What we can conclude here is that the Atheros AR5007 802.11b/g WiFi Adapter (using the latest driver version 18.104.22.168) conflicts with the WPA2/WPA security type.
It seems like the only way I can connect to the network now is via the Valet’s extremely useful and innovative Guest network, or with the security type set to WEP or entirely off.
I read somewhere that WEP can be hacked into rather easily, about 10 minutes on average whereas WPA would require much longer–with WPA2, potentially years. So, until I can find a real solution, I am setting my network to WPA2/WPA, with Guest network enabled for a maximum of 1 user only when my laptop is in use.
I rate the Cisco Valet Plus…
I would give the router 4 stars, perhaps 4.5. Yes, that is out of 5. Why the high rating despite my problem of not being able to use the Valet’s WPA2/WPA security type with my laptop? Because unlike most people, I’m mainly rating the router and not the router’s compatibility with my devices.
Out of thousands and thousands of computers out there, my laptop (and it’s specific network adapter) just so happened to conflict with the Valet, perhaps because Atheros hadn’t yet released the proper driver. In fact, I probably would have faced this same problem with any other router on the WPA2/WPA security type! So, the compatibility issue I faced was the result of my laptop and not the Valet.
Apart from that, the Valet did work perfectly well with my desktop and Playstation 3, and WEP security mode and Guest network boasted great speed and range on my problematic laptop. I also love the router’s slim, lightweight design and features; innovation blended with the K.I.S.S. rule is my favorite recipe. Live chat support was also a pleasant surprise.