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Price: $79 (MSRP)
Pros: extremely simple setup; improves performance of latency-susceptible applications
Cons: no configurable performance options
Hawking promises that its HBB1 Broadband Booster can optimize the use of your connection bandwidth to improve the performance of many applications. It attempts this by reorganizing your traffic and prioritizing the most time-critical packets, thereby reducing the latency that can diminish the performance of certain applications. Applications most susceptible to this type of lag include VoIP, videoconferencing and online gaming.
The characteristic these applications types have in common is that they are all highly dependent on upstream bandwidth, unlike say Web browsing, which predominantly consumes downstream bandwidth.
While the download speed of most broadband connections can range from 1 to 7 megabits per second, upload speeds are almost always significantly slower usually 128, 256, or 384 kilobits per second. These relatively slow speeds can be a bottleneck for the applications mentioned above, especially when you're running more than one at a time or when they're run concurrently with bandwidth-hogging events such as peer-to-peer file transfers or e-mailing large attachments.
Under the Hood
It's important to note that the HBB1 isn't a download accelerator. It;s designed only to enhance the performance of upstream (outbound) traffic. Therefore, the device won't let you download files or Web pages faster or watch higher-quality streaming video. The HBB1's job is to make sure that when there is heavy traffic on your broadband connection, time-critical traffic from your Internet phone call, videoconference or online gaming session doesn't take a back seat to more mundane applications.
At the heart of the HBB1 is a chip that use various quality of service (or QoS) techniques to classify the traffic it encounters, prioritize it and then reorder the outbound packets before passing them to the cable or DSL modem. The chip's manufacturer, Ubicom, calls this StreamEngine Technology, and it's also used in D-Link's DGL series of gaming routers (albeit under the different moniker of GameFuel).
The HBB1 is an extremely small device measuring a mere 1 x 3 7/8 x 2 1/4 inches giving it roughly the same footprint (though twice the thickness) as a 3G or 4G iPod. The gun-metal grey device is also weighted and has rubber feet to keep it firmly planted. The package comes with a short power extension cable designed to reduce the space the AC adapter brick takes on a power strip, though the adapter with my unit was small enough to not block any other outlets.
You add the HBB1 to your network by plugging one end into your router's WAN port, and the other into the Internet port of your cable modem or DSL gaeway. (Hawking says the HBB1 isn't compatible with routers that include built-in cable modem or DSL hardware.)
You access the HBB1's administration console via a browser pointed to the unit's default IP address of 192.168.229.61 without having to change the unit's address to match your LAN subnet. The device may physically be a grey box, but from a configuration point of view it's more like a black box. In contrast to D-Link's DGL routers, which offer the capability to give priority to certain types of traffic or even specific IP addresses, the HBB1 offers few customizable options, and none that pertain to performance.
The HBB1 is configured by default to detect your broadband connection type (i.e. , cable modem or DSL) and your upstream data rate, but you can manually specify your connection type and speed if you want. (If you have a static IP address from your ISP, you need to check a box on the HBB1 to allow the device to discern your upstream data rate.) You can also set an access username and password, upgrade the firmware or restore the factory configuration via the administration console.
To gage the HBB1's effectiveness I conducted some tests with a VoIP phone under three different scenarios. The first one served as a baseline, so I placed several calls using the VoIP phone under ordinary network circumstances that is to say, with no applications competing for bandwidth.
I then repeated the test while simultaneously uploading a large file via FTP to stress the upstream bandwidth. Finally, I repeated the test a third time after adding the HBB1 into the network and repeating the FTP transfer. To supplement my subjective impressions of the call quality I used a VoIP test from Brix Networks that can be found at www.testyourvoip.com. The online test uses a Java applet to simulate a VoIP call and displays the results as a MOS (Mean Opinion Score) value, a common measurement of voice quality. The MOS scale ranges from 0 to 5, but the best possible score you can achieve with the G.711 VoIP codec is a 4.4.
In the first testing scenario, I was able to place several calls with excellent voice quality. The MOS score of this scenario was 4.3 or 4.4, and the test reported a latency of 146ms. Next, I began the FTP upload and placed more calls. This time the calls took noticeably longer to connect, and there were some garbled and dropped packets (though the overall call quality was still acceptable) The MOS score in this test dropped to between 3.8 and 4.1 and the reported latency more than tripled, to 489ms. Repeating the test with the HBB1 installed and active did, in fact eliminate the subjective call quality problems. It also yielded an increased MOS score of 4.4 and reduced the latency to 166ms.
It seems clear that if you use upstream bandwidth-dependent programs such as Internet telephony, the Hawking HBB1 Broadband Booster can improve the performance of those applications. The HBB1's effect, while discernable wasn't huge, probably owing to my relatively generous 384 kbps upstream link. The device's effect will be likely most noticeable with slower upstream links or for those the greatest demands on their upstream bandwidth, such as households with multiple systems on the network and heavy use of bandwidth-sapping applications like peer file sharing.
It would be nice if the HBB1 gave you some capability to customize its performance parameters, and with a street price of about $70 the HBB1 isn't exactly cheap. Then again, it's simple to integrate with your network and doesn't require you to scrap any of your existing equipment.
Joe Moran is regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.