Microsoft Broadband Networking Wireless-G Review

One year ago this week, Microsoft introduced its first-ever broadband networking products, a suite of hardware that includes wired and wireless networking adapters and base stations. The wireless products are based on 802.11b (Wi-Fi), still the most popular wireless technology available, with Wi-Fi access points now springing up everywhere from airports and coffee shops to shopping malls, restaurants, and even entire city blocks. 802.11b Wi-Fi has a huge weakness, however: Despite reported bandwidth of 11 Mbps, most 802.11b devices struggle along at 4-5 Mbps, fine for email, Web browsing, digital music streaming, and small amounts of file sharing, but inadequate for streaming video, fast action gaming, and heavy-duty file sharing. Since then, the IEEE standards body has ratified the standard for 802.11g Wi-Fi (sometimes called Wireless-G), a faster wireless specification that offers throughput up to 54 Mbps (though true 22-25 Mbps speeds are more typical). At this level of performance, wireless suddenly becomes viable for virtually any home networking need, including the fast-paced, low-latency gaming requirements of Xbox owners. Embracing this faster wireless networking standard, Microsoft this week released its second generation broadband networking products, which include Wireless-G products. Let's take a look.

Looking back at the first generation

Microsoft's initial line of broadband networking products is excellent, as I noted in my review last year. Indeed, I continue to use Microsoft's networking products in virtually every possible way in my own home network. My router and 802.11b-based wireless access point (AP) is Microsoft's Wireless Base Station (MN-500), which interfaces between my cable modem and the home network. Directly attached to the router are a Netgear 8-port switch, to accommodate several Ethernet-connected PCs in my home office, an Ethernet print server, my main PC, and an Apple iMac. I use Microsoft's Wireless USB Adapter (MN-510) on two PCs--an HP Media Center PC in the den and my wife's Dell system in the upstairs office, two Wireless Notebook Adapters (MN-520) on various notebooks, and even a 10/100 Ethernet PCI Adapter (MN-130) in my secondary PC (it was only $15 when I purchased it at Best Buy this summer). As the central hub of my home network, the Wireless Base Station has proven its worth over the past year, with excellent management software and compatibility with the software and services I need to access remotely. I can't recommend these products highly enough.

Three features really separate Microsoft's networking products from mainstream competition, such as Linksys, Netgear, and D-Link. First, the products are the easiest to set up that I've used. Second, Microsoft naturally supports the XP-based technology I need regularly, leading-edge technical conveniences like Universal Plug-and-Play (UPnP), and the various security features I want to enable on my home network. Third, the hardware is attractively priced. Since their release last fall, prices on Microsoft's wares have come down dramatically at the retail outlets I frequent. This aggressive pricing advantage continues with the new generation of Wireless-G products as well, and it's actually cheaper to get into 54 Mbps wireless networking now than it was to adopt 11 Mbps wireless networking at this time last year. There's never been a better time to go wireless.

What's new in the Wireless-G generation

Microsoft's new generation of Wireless-G products is structured a bit differently than its first generation. So far, I've tested the Wireless Notebook Kit, which includes the new Wireless-G Base Station and a Wireless-G notebook adapter; I hope to examine the Xbox Wireless Adapter in the near future. The entire product line, with model numbers and retail price points, breaks down like so:

Wireless Base Station (MN-700) $109
Wireless Notebook Adapter (MN-720) $84.95
Wireless PCI Adapter (MN-730) $84.95
Wireless Notebook Kit (MN-820; Base Station plus Notebook adapter) $180
Xbox Wireless Adapter (MN-740) $139

Curiously, a Wireless-G USB Adapter is notably absent from the new generation, which is a shame. I suspect it may have something to do with bandwidth limitations on USB 1.x ports, and the consumer confusion that would result if Microsoft required USB 2.0 for this adapter. On the other hand, the USB adapter in the previous generation was the easiest product to install and set up, and I wish there was a new version. Microsoft will also continue to sell its previous generation hardware, including the various Ethernet-based wired products.

Despite the surface similarities between the new hardware and the old, much has changed under the hood. The new Wireless Base Station is now based on Windows CE .NET 4.2, rather than the proprietary firmware used in the previous generation. This will let Microsoft and its partners more easily create new applications and services that run on top of the Base Station in the future, I'm told, and it makes it easier for Microsoft to support an Auto Update feature, similar to that in Windows XP, that optionally keeps your Base Station up-to-date with security fixes and firmware updates. The new Base Station also includes a stateful packet inspection (SPI) hardware firewall, which provides superior protection against Internet-based attacks. The addition of Windows CE .NET also allowed Microsoft to develop to an interesting Parental Controls feature, which enables parents or small business owners to create customizable lists of permitted and blocked Web sites; these lists are configurable down to the computer level, so that each system on the network can have different access rights.

Setup and configuration

So the hardware is attractive, but the biggest benefit of Microsoft's networking hardware has always been the ease with which you could get it set up and properly configured. For this reason, the software provided with the new generation is an evolution of the excellent setup and management tools Microsoft provided in the first generation last year. As before, excellent wizards guide you through the process of setting up your hardware, step-by-step, and configuring each of your systems properly. And as before, this software works flawlessly. In my experience, Microsoft's broadband networking hardware is still the simplest and quickest way to get going with wireless networking.

Setup

With my own network, Microsoft's attention to detail paid off yet again. Since I already have a router/802.11b wireless access point (AP), I wanted to add the new Wireless-G Base Station to my network rather than replace my existing hardware with the new unit; that way, I could provide my Wireless-G-equipped PCs with a dedicated 54 Mbps wireless network that won't ratchet down to 11 Mbps if any 802.11b-based machines logged on (see below for details). Most manufacturers don't let you do this: If you purchase a base station-like device (one that includes both a router and an AP), that's what you get, and you have to use it as the sole router on your network. These other companies do sell dedicated wireless APs, of course, which you can use to add wireless functionality to an existing wired network. But Microsoft takes a slightly different approach and you can use its Base Station products as full routers and wireless APs, or just as wireless APs. That capability enabled me to simply add the Wireless-G Base Station to my existing network as a wireless AP, without disrupting a thing. Simply wonderful.

Now this type of configuration probably isn't the way most consumers will use the product, so I turned to the surprisingly thick User's Guide that Microsoft shipped with the product for instructions. Like many SuperSite readers, I'm not big on manuals, but the User's Guide surprised me in its completeness and, sure enough, it provided step-by-step instructions in the "Custom Setup" section for doing what I wanted.

Configuration

Once you install the base station and networking adapters, you should be able to connect your systems, whether wired or wireless, to the Internet immediately. At this point, it's probably a good idea to check out the bundled management tools. There are two primary management tools, the Microsoft Broadband Networking Utility, for checking the network status and troubleshooting, and the Base Station Management Tool, a Web-based tool for configuring the base station. You get both tools with the Base Station and Wireless Networking Kit; users with a different brand of router or access point will only get access to the Microsoft Broadband Networking Utility of course.

The Microsoft Broadband Networking Utility is very similar to the previous version, with a few small graphical changes. On wireless systems, the signal strength meter is now a gradiated graphic that visually represents your current throughput. As before, you can use this tool to see whether you're receiving a valid IP address from the router's DHCP server, whether the network is connected to the Internet, view other PCs and devices on the local network, and launch the Base Station Management Tool. Not much has changed here.

You use the Base Station Management Tool to manage your home network (assuming you're using the device as the hub of your network). In my case, I have two Microsoft base stations installed, so I can access each by its network name directly in a Web browser, just as I would when hitting any other local Web site. The Base Station Management Tool looks very similar to the previous version, but offers numerous new options related to Wireless-G-specific features. The most important of these is security. Microsoft's Wireless-G products now support the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) wireless security standard, which provides superior security, compared to the weak Wired Equivalency Privacy (WEP) functionality provided with 802.11b Wi-Fi networks. For backwards compatibility, Microsoft still provides 64-bit and 128-bit WEP security with its Wireless-G Base Station, but I opted for the stronger WPA on my G-only network. WPA also requires Windows XP with Service Pack 1 (SP1) installed, so it's not an option for older systems. Furthermore, some Wireless-G products from other manufacturers still don't support the Wireless-G standard for some reason, though they soon will.

On a related note, the Base Station Management tool allows you to set up the wireless network in different modes. In "g performance (fastest)" mode, the wireless network will only work with Wireless-G cards and supply the highest level of bandwidth; in this mode, 802.11b won't even know the Wireless-G network exists. In "mixed b compatible (fast)" mode, the wireless network supports both 802.11b and Wireless-G cards. The problem here is bandwidth: If even a single 802.11b device connects to the network, the bandwidth drops to 11 Mbps for all connections, including those based on Wireless-G. However, this is probably a good setting for many users, especially those with mixed networks. The third mode, "disabled," turns off the wireless access point.

As with the previous version, the Wireless-G Base Station supports a number of other configuration possibilities. You can manage the way the device interacts with the outside world and with your internal network, set up or disable Network Address Translation (NAT, used for Internet connection sharing), configure security features like the firewall, wireless security protocols, and MAC filtering (for manually specifying which devices can connect to the network), manage the new Parental Controls, limit Internet access or particular applications, configure the DMZ, and configure port forwarding. It's a full-featured set of functionality, wrapped by a simple, easy-to-navigate interface. Microsoft's management tools remain my favorite among the home networking hardware I've evaluated.

Performance

Naturally, the big question is whether Microsoft's Wireless-G products provide enough performance to replace wires where possible. In my own home network, I generally use wireless networking with notebook computers, which enables them to be used anywhere in the house (only my downstairs office is wired for 100 Mbps Ethernet). My wife and I typically have a couple of notebooks going wirelessly while the TV is on, and I often browse the Web or read email wireless from bed before going to sleep. For most uses, 802.11b works well. But there are two circumstances where I need to pull a wire to better connect a wireless device, and they both involve large file transfers. The first is when I need to prepare for my increasingly frequent business trips. Because I generally work on a desktop PC when home, my documents, music files, pictures, videos, and other data files are stored on that PC or on our home media server, both of which are wired via Ethernet to the home network. Before trips, I'll wipe out the My Documents folder on the notebook I'm taking (which is generally a different notebook each month because I review these machines for the Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE newsletter) and copy over a subset of my full data set. On my most recent trip, I copied about 13 GB of data, but the total can often top 30 GB, depending on the capacity of the notebook and what I decide to bring with me. The second instance involves our Media Center PC. When I want to permanently archive a recorded TV show or movie, I need to use Ethernet, because Microsoft's Recorded TV format (based on MPEG-2) creates enormous files. A two hour movie, for example, weighs in around 6 GB, while the typical half-hour TV show comes in around 1.48 GB. With these file sizes, 802.11b is almost completely useless.

To test the performance of Microsoft's Wireless-G, I transferred a 6 GB Microsoft Recorded TV Show from my home media server to a notebook computer using three different methods: 802.11b (11 Mbps), Wireless-G (54 MBps), and Ethernet (100 Mbps). Though the results are unscientific (consider that distance and obstructions would further hamper wireless performance), they are still somewhat telling. Using the 802.11b NIC, the transfer took over 220 minutes, or almost 4 hours. On Wireless-G, the same file transfered in 55 minutes. On Ethernet, it was just 20 minutes.

Predictably, Wireless-G blew away 802.11b but lagged behind Ethernet. However, the question remains: Is Wireless-G fast enough to forego Ethernet? For most people, the answer is clearly yes. I have dramatically more complicated needs than most home users, and Wireless-G is definitely fast enough for video streaming, gaming, and even heavy file transfers. Unless you absolutely need Ethernet for some reason, and don't mind the expense and disruption of wiring your home, Wireless-G is an excellent choice.

Conclusions

Microsoft's Wireless-G broadband networking products will be widely available later this month at all the normal retail stores and online shopping sites. With their superior performance, low prices, unsurpassed ease-of-use, feature-set, and security, I strongly recommend the Microsoft Broadband Networking Wireless-G hardware, especially to users with one or more XP-based systems. It just doesn't get any better than this.

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