AVM won a Techworld Recommended award for the Fritz! Box 7050 which artfully combined VoIP, wireless LAN and Internet router, plus more bells and whistles in one decently-priced box.
The 7140 is an excellent follow-up. For the same price as the old box, it tidies up some of the awkwardnesses of the earlier model, and adds significant improvements.
The new Fritz box looks like the old Fritz box, but the sockets at the back are a lot less complicated. AVM has done away with the specialised ISDN sockets, more relevant for the German market where ISDN was more widely used.
To save more space, the two phone and DSL inputs have been combined into one, with a special Y-shaped cable to connect to both sockets on the DSL/phone splitter that is providing service.
This gives it room to offer the four Ethernet ports more usual on an Internet router. It still has ports for two conventional phones, which can make and receive fixed-line or Internet calls.
The USB port has been upgraded from a USB slave, intended to provide Internet service to a PC, to a USB master, which allows the device to support USB-connected mass storage, USB printers, and a nifty quick set-up using AVM's own Wi-Fi adapters.
The back of the box also has a new button, to turn the WLAN off without having to fire up a PC. There is now an LED dedicated to Wi-Fi so you can easily see whether Wi-Fi is running or not.
The pre-production model I tested, didn't yet have the right adapter to make the phone part of the Y-cable fit a British phone socket. The box also displayed its German origins with one LED marked FestNet instead of Fixed Line. These are both fixed in the final version.
The CD provided has been updated, with improved set-up routines and more management software (which is impressive considering the generous provision in the 7050). Where the 7050 used WEP wireless security as default, this starts out with the more secure WPA. As before a pre-loaded unique key is printed on the bottom of the box.
Wi-Fi users get an even easier set-up option, which AVM calls "Stick & Surf", that uses a USB WLAN adapter to store and load a key, so the set-up can be virtually automatic. The stick is plugged into the router, where a light flashes on the stick and the Info light on the Fritz box flashes until the key is loaded.
Then the stick is plugged into a PC, where it automatically loads its own drivers and the WPA key, directing the user to the final stages of setting up the Fritz through the usual web interface. Internet telephony accounts can be loaded at this stage, and then used with conventional phones plugged into the two phone ports.
Updating the interface
The Fritz software has been tidied up considerably since the first version, with a very sensible organisation that lets you start at an overview and penetrate to more detailed options. There is also an optional suite of diagnostic and security software to install on the PC.
The first Overview screen tells you if all the ports are working, whether the LAN and WLAN are active, and whether any Internet phone accounts have registered correctly. Other pages below that give a phone log and details of any devices attached.
Clicking a Settings button further down folds up the Overview pages and opens up a much more detailed set of options, covering Internet, Telephony, USB Devices, WLAN and the System itself. Each of these includes the more basic Overview pages.
The PC software includes a connection monitor, which plots traffic on a graph, to give an idea of speeds. Other utilities include WebWatch, a nice detailed ping utility, giving details of hops and timings, and a diagnostics test that checks the basic functions of the Fritz box.
There is also a Fritz/DSL Protect - a connection monitor similar to the "firewall" built into Windows XP, or to third party products such as Zone Alarm. It monitors connections, and prompts to block or allow programs connecting the Internet. The manual describes this as a complement to the firewall built into the box itself.
The inbuilt firewall, by the way, is obviously there, and has been certified by security body TUV, but AVM still prefers not to allow any user tweaking with its factory settings. There is no "Firewall" page in the console.
Using the USB
Printers and storage can be attached to the Fritz box directly, or through a USB hub, if you want to use more than one device.
Printers on the Fritz aren't "networked" but shared. When a printer is plugged in, it shows up in the Fritz management console - which successfully identified our test printer. To access it from a PC, there is a bit of jiggery-pokery, of necessity, involving Windows and the printer's drivers, but the manual talks you through it.
First, a printer port for the Fritz's USB port must be added to each PC that wants to use the printer - there is a utility for this on the CD. Then the printer's software must be installed on the PC. There's potential for things to go wrong here, but plenty of help in the manual.
Storage devices show up on the management screen, and can be accessed simply by clicking them there, using FTP. Shared storage can be set up to be accessed over the Internet too: the box insists wisely on password protection before allowing this, and gives useful pointers to getting a Dynamic DNS entry, so the storage can have a permanent address - the Fritz software, of course, has a space for storing Dynamic DNS account details so it can happen automatically.
The only drawback to shared storage is that the connection uses only USB 1. We've been told that the AVM people tested the device with USB 2.0, and the speed of the storage was better, but used too much of the systems processing power so other tasks didn't work so well.
We liked the Fritz before. We like it even better now. There are still features we haven't got round to trying, particularly on the PBX side, where we haven't fully exploited the call logs, call diversion and call-through features.
The security set-up, management software and USB arrangement make this a highly desirable router, while the new PC suite and LAN ports bolster its value.
More LAN ports, better security, better software and support for shared printers make the new Fritz box a piece of kit well worth having.