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 SOHOware NetBlaster II Wireless Hub

 Author: Tim Higgins
 Review Date: 3/22/2001


Model: NCP600

Pros:

- Amazingly easy setup!

 
Cons:

- Have to buy a client card to set up "hub".
- 50% throughput decrease with WEP enabled

 


 

The Basics

 
Indicators
  • Power

  • Wireless Link

  • Wireless Activity

  • Ethernet Link

  • Ethernet Activity

Connectors
  • One RJ45 10BaseT Ethernet

  • Power

Comes with
  • printed Quick Installation guide

  • printed User's Guide

  • 25 foot UTP Normal cable

  • 100-240V Power supply

Other
  • Two external dipole antennas

  • Hardware reset button

   

Introduction


The NetBlasterII 802.11b wireless products are probably the closest thing to wireless plug and play that I've run into yet!  But there is a catch...

 

Setting up


The BlasterII had the fastest and easiest wireless setup that I've experienced with any 802.11b product, but I was a little confused at first.  Since I've installed many an Access Point, I opened the box and read the printed manual, looking to see if the BlasterII "hub" (it's really an Access Point or 802.11b to Ethernet bridge) was administered via a Windows application, or a web interface.  I found that there was nothing I could do to set up the "hub", except plug in power and connect it to my Ethernet LAN.  The configuration of the "hub" would be done when I installed a LAN client.  Yup, that's right, you must have a SOHOware BlasterII client card (either PC card or PCI card) if you use the BlasterII "hub".

This took me aback at first, since I tend not to like restrictions on what I can and can't do, but I said, "What the heck, let's try it their way.." and pressed on with the install.  I installed a PC card client on my Compaq 1650/ Win98SE laptop, and ran the BlasterII Utility setup program, and after answering one question about the BlasterII "hub" ID, I sat amazed as I typed a URL into my browser and it came up!  I was wirelessly connected through the BlasterII "hub" to the Internet via my Ethernet LAN!  No trying to guess the IP address of the AP, no wrestling with ESSIDs, just fast and simple connection!  I even moved the "hub" from one router to another in my test network and all I needed to do was do a DHCP Release/Renew on my wireless laptop and I was connected again to the new subnet!

NOTE: You can use NetBlasterII client cards with other manufacturers' 802.11b products, and you can use other manufacturer's 802.11b clients with the NetBlasterII "hub".

Tip: The default ESSID of the NetBlasterII is its MAC address, which is printed on a label on the bottom of it.  But I just entered "ANY" as the ESSID when the Utility asked me and I connected just fine.

 

The BlasterII Utility sits in the System Tray. Right clicking on it lets you jump directly to the different parts of the utility or a regular click will bring up the Toolbar shown below.  Holding the mouse pointer over the Tray icon gives you the link Quality and the icon turns from green to red when you lose network connection.

The four icons stand for the Adapter Properties, Connection Quality and Traffic Monitor apps, and Wireless Hub Properties.

SOHOware NetBlasterII- Utility Toolbar

 

SOHOware NetBlasterII- Connection Quality

I didn't find the Connection Quality (shown above) or Traffic Monitor very useful (the Monitor vertical scale was too large and not adjustable), but the Properties windows were very nice.  You could access everything you needed to from them, with no rebooting needed for changes. (Click on the shots below for a full-sized view.)

SOHOware NetBlasterII Hub Properties- Configuration Tab

SOHOware NetBlasterII Hub Properties- Advanced Configuration Tab

 

 

Encryption


The BlasterII supports 40 bit WEP encryption, and you can set four keys, either directly as 10 Hexadecimal characters each, or automatically generate the keys using a "passphrase".  There's also a "Quick" Encryption method, which the manual says "utilizes a simpler encryption method to offer security without sacrificing data throughput speed". I saw throughput differences among the three modes, which I detail below in the Performance section.

SOHOware NetBlasterII Adapter Properties- Encryption Tab

Since you can only administer the "hub" via a wireless client, I approached testing the different WEP modes with caution.  I expected to get disconnected from the "hub" as soon as I changed the client Encryption mode.  Not to worry!  Changing the client's Encryption mode disconnected me from the network as expected.  But changing the mode in the "hub" properties window (with matching keys), automatically rebooted the "hub" and changed the Encryption mode on the client!  All I had to do was wait until the "hub" came back on-line and I was connected with the desired Encryption!  Wow!

 

What's not to like?


Sadly, with all the great ease of use that it has, the NetBlasterII isn't perfect!  As is all-too-common among inexpensive Access Points, the BlasterII comes up short on network monitoring capabilities.  You have no way of knowing:

  • How many clients are using the network

  • the MAC or IP address of clients

  • the state (active, roaming, etc.) of clients

The Traffic Monitor provides some info about network performance, but doesn't provide any statistics on dropped packets, etc.

You also can't control access to the wireless network by blocking/allowing MAC addresses, and can't do any packet filtering to control the services that users can access.

 

Performance


I used netIQ's free QCheck utility to check the NetblasterII's wireless performance.  Tests were done using an NetBlasterII PC card as the wireless client, and a Windows PC connected to the "hub" as the other LAN client.  Here are the results:

Test Conditions:

- WEP encryption:
DISABLED
- Tx Rate:
Automatic
- Power Save:
disabled

Firmware/Driver Versions:

AP f/w:
V.0.10-1008-0.3.0-0.7.6-0.3.7
PC Card driver:
2.00-04
PC Card f/w:
0.3.0/0.7.6

Test Description

Qcheck Transfer Rate (Mbps)

[1Mbyte data size]

Qcheck Response Time (msec)

[10 iterations 100byte data size]

Qcheck UDP stream 
[10S@500Kbps]

(Actual throughput- kbps)

(Lost data- %)

AP to Client - Condition 1

4.5

[No WEP]

4 (avg)
9 (max)

499

0%

3.8

[Quick]

2.2

[w/WEP]

AP to Client - Condition 2

4.1

5 (avg)
7 (max)

499

0%

AP to Client - Condition 3

2.6

5 (avg)
9 (max)

369

10%

AP to Client - Condition 4

3.0

5 (avg)
9 (max)

499

0%

 

(Details of how we tested can be found here.) 

Comment: Although the Condition 3 & 4 Transfer Rate numbers look good, the connections were marginal (signal quality of around 13%) and sustained transfers would probably feel slow.

Enabling 40 bit Encryption caused about a 50% throughput hit, but the Quick Encryption method really seemed to live up to its description of causing little speed degradation.

 

Summary


SOHOware could have a real winner on its hands with the NetBlasterII.  They really have made installing a wireless network almost as easy as just plugging in the pieces!  If the Win2000 and Me installs go just as smoothly as my Win98SE install, and they keep their pricing competitive, the other guys better watch out!


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