The 802.11n wireless standard is supposed to save wireless networking from a flaw that has plagued so many first-generation 802.11b and 802.11g products – range and throughput can be lousy at less than optimal conditions. For those not willing to wait for 802.11n products to appear, a variety of “pre-n” routers have appeared, promising the all the plus points but without the assurance of conforming to an official standard.

Netgear’s RangeMax is one of the latter, integrating a wireless router, MIMO (Multi In, Multi Out) antenna design, 4-port 10/100 switch, ADSL2+ modem, and firewall into a single package. In the UK at least, the company appears to be bundling a RangeMax PC card with the router (a PCI card and USB adaptor are also available), which is just as well. As this is a proprietary design, you’ll need a Netgear card to get the full benefits of its design.

That said, we found that even running in humble 802.11b mode with an older card from another vendor, the RangeMax was able to make a working connection to several PCs placed around a modern, purpose-built house. This had been beyond the 802.11b test router we compared it to, so this might be a product that could be used to extend the range (if not the throughput) for purchasers not wanting to throw out all their older hardware. It would also be well suited to life in a small office.

So far so good, but what about the claim that it can improve to improve wireless coverage by 500 percent? The key to the RangeMax is its aerial design, which has seven separate antennas to allow reception and transmission on a number of constantly adjusting radio paths. Because these are internal – the unit is basically just a white plastic box with nothing externally visible to indicate its wireless status - their activity is represented on a round dome on the top of the unit which flashes wildly in garish blue, spinning round and round as the unit searches for the best connection. Colourful as it is, it can be turned off if it becomes too distracting.

We didn’t test wireless data throughput, officially 108 mbit/s, reasoning that it was more than adequate to keep up with a 2 mbits/s broadband link. Being ADSL2+, in theory this router can service an inbound ADSL connection up to 24 mbits/s, equivalent to years of useful life for most people. Range was excellent, and the RangeMax seemed to connect to the test laptop anywhere we placed in and around a house, in including the garden. It becomes apparent from this why security is so critical.

Setup was eerily rapid, and the RangeMax even managed to auto-detect the PPP-over-ATM connection to the ISP without any manual configuration being necessary. Plugging in a user name and password resulted in an immediate connection, with wireless up-and-running seconds later.

The web configuration tool is a model of clarity, with explanations given for every feature as each is tabbed. Basic wireless security can be enforced by limiting the client MAC addresses able to make a connection, but using either WEP 64-bit or 128-bit encryption, or WPA-PSK encryption is still recommended once these have been set up on the client end.

The router-firewall function has the usual default NAT (with VPN pass-through), and stateful packet inspection firewalling. It also comes with intrusion logging (with email alerts), something not all rivals have, and claimed denial-of-service protection which, however, we never quite go to the bottom of.
The pre-n spec of the RangeMax might bother some, and it might be worth waiting for newer designs to appear in the coming months. The 802.11n designs should give interoperability, and performance some way beyond this unit’s theoretical 108 mbit/s. Whether that’s important right now is debatable. For decent throughput and small-office/home wireless networking, you can’t do much better than the RangeMax.

How about largerorganisations? Being a standalone unit, it won’t scale well. But as long as a sysadmin doesn’t mind remotely managing wireless access points on an individual basis, and it is adequately secured, it would work just about anywhere for informal use.

OUR VERDICT

Buying an all-in-one router/modem/wireless access point/switch is a must for simple setups, and saves dealing with different boxes and power supplies. Buy PC cards/wireless cards from the same vendor, and preferably using the same technology, in this case MIMO. The multiple antenna design saves using repeaters, necessary with some non-MIMO hardware.