My first wireless gateway was a graphite AirPort Base Station that served us admirably when we lived in Seattle, but when we moved to Ithaca, its coverage area couldn’t quite reach Tonya’s office, and because my cable modem had to plug into its single Ethernet port, it could provide only wireless coverage. So, I cannibalized the Lucent WaveLAN card from it to turn my PowerBook G3 into the gateway for my long-range wireless Internet connection. I then replaced it with a Linksys Wireless Access Point Router with 4-Port Switch (model BEFW11S4), which has a pair of small antennas that provided better wireless coverage, and its built-in 10/100 Mbps 4-port switch helped connect the wired and wireless parts of my network. Despite annoyances like a lack of AppleTalk support and having to apply firmware updates from my little-used PC, the Linksys BEFW11S4 has worked well.
Not long ago, however, Asante sent me their 802.11b-based FriendlyNET FR1004AL wireless gateway, which provides basically the same feature set as the Linksys BEFW11S4 (wireless access point, Internet sharing, DHCP service, 4-port 10/100 Mbps switch, etc.). But the Asante FR1004AL also supports AppleTalk, can have its firmware updated from a Macintosh, and has a parallel port for sharing a printer. Might this be a better choice for a Mac user who doesn’t want an AirPort or AirPort Extreme Base Station?
AppleTalk Support — Although I would have appreciated AppleTalk support when we first moved, since I had a LaserWriter Select 360 laser printer along with a number of Mac OS 9 machines still using AppleTalk for file sharing, it doesn’t particularly matter to me any more. All the Macs on our network now run Mac OS X, so all file sharing is done via TCP/IP and discovered via Rendezvous. The LaserWriter isn’t an issue either, since I simply set our Mac OS X-based internal file server, which is always on, to share the printer for the rest of the Macs, as I discussed in "Printer Sharing and Print Spooling in Mac OS X" in TidBITS-673.
So the Asante FR1004AL’s support for AppleTalk, though admirable, isn’t actually useful for me any more. Those with older machines or printers around would likely appreciate it.
Mac-based Firmware Updates — Having to fuss with a PC or Virtual PC to update the firmware on the Linksys BEFW11S4 has been annoying. But even more annoying was the fact that the Asante FR1004AL basically didn’t work at all for me until I updated its firmware. It had trouble picking up a DHCP-assigned IP address from my cable modem provider, and I spent hours troubleshooting it. I might have wasted less time, but the Asante Web site’s interface for listing downloads was sufficiently poorly done that my searches came up empty, and I assumed I had the current firmware. That assumption proved wrong, once I talked with a tech support engineer, and he told me how to make the site reveal the firmware update download. It turned out to be a good thing I spoke with him, also, since I would have used Safari to download the firmware update, and he said that likely would have failed, and instead recommended I use Internet Explorer.
In the end, I’m glad I was able to use the Mac to download the firmware update, but thanks to Asante’s badly designed site and insufficient information about current Macintosh browsers, I spent way more time updating the firmware than I ever did with the Linksys BEFW11S4, even with having to use a PC.
Printer Sharing — The Asante FR1004AL includes a port not found on the Linksys BEFW11S4 – a DB-25 parallel port. Macintosh users generally aren’t familiar with such ports, but they have long been a mainstay in the PC world, with USB replacing them in some cases recently. Many printers have parallel ports, and you can connect them to the Asante FR1004AL and share them with other computers on your network. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. For such a shared printer to be accessible to Macs, the printer must be a PostScript printer – inexpensive inkjets need not apply. (It’s possible that using Thursby Software’s Dave would enable a Mac to print to such a shared printer, but I haven’t tested that.)
Theoretically, I could connect my LaserWriter Select 360 to the Asante FR1004AL, but since I already have a workable solution with Asante’s FriendlyNET Ethernet to LocalTalk Bridge, and since I’d rather not position the LaserWriter within close proximity of the Asante FR1004AL (which must live in our bedroom closet), there’s not much point. As with the AppleTalk support, this printer sharing feature could be quite useful for those who haven’t already worked around similar problems.
Other Factors — So if I was buying a new wireless gateway today, would I buy the Asante FR1004AL over the Linksys BEFW11S4? Even if the Asante FR1004AL’s main features proved relatively moot for me, there are a few other minor points to consider.
Signal strength. Using MacStumbler, I compared the strength of the signal received by my iBook at a number of different locations throughout the house. The Asante FR1004AL provided slightly better signal strength at all locations, which was quite welcome.
Roaming. One capability that I had thought was standardized – creating a roaming network – doesn’t seem to be supported by the Asante FR1004AL. In theory, you can attach two wireless access points to the same Ethernet network, give them the same name, assign them different channels, and roam between them without having to change any settings on a laptop. This didn’t work for me when I tried it with the Asante FR1004AL and the Linksys BEFW11S4, and I was told by Asante that roaming wasn’t supported. Bummer, since creating roaming networks is the best way to extend the range of a wireless network if you have Ethernet in the appropriate locations.
Uplink port. The Linksys BEFW11S4 has an uplink port for connecting to other hubs or switches, although you can’t use it and the normal Ethernet port next to it at the same time. More conveniently, the Asante FR1004AL can use any of its ports as an uplink port, and it senses the need to switch to an uplink port automatically.
Interface. Both gateways use a Web-based interface, and I found both a little flaky to reload pages on occasion. The Asante FR004AL’s interface is easier to use, but almost any change requires that you restart the gateway. Even though that’s easily done from the Web interface, it’s an annoying extra step that’s not necessary for most changes on the Linksys BEFW11S4.
Network services. For the most part, they’re the same, but the Asante FR1004AL has a built-in dynamic DNS client, which could be a welcome aid in running a Web server on an account with a dynamic IP address. On the other side of the fence, the Linksys BEFW11S4 offers an option to allow VPN software to work through it; I can’t find anything similar in the Asante FR1004AL’s interface, though perhaps it’s just the default setting.
Cost. Neither gateway is expensive, though the Linksys BEFW11S4 costs about $70 on the street, whereas the Asante FR1004AL is a bit more at $90.
Go with Mac Support — As you can probably tell, testing the Asante FR1004AL in place of the Linksys BEFW11S4 hasn’t exactly rocked my world. Everything works more or less the way it used to, and I’ve already found solutions to the problems the Asante FR1004AL addresses with special features. But despite the more expensive price, I’m still going to recommend that you consider the Asante FR1004AL if you’re looking for an 802.11b-based access point, for one simple reason: Asante knows about the Mac. Linksys is at best ignorant about Macs, and even when their equipment works well with Macs (as it usually does), you’ll have a harder time talking with a support person who will have a clue about any Mac-related issues.
Of course, at this point in time, the question is whether you should buy an 802.11b-based wireless gateway over one that supports 802.11g, since the newer 802.11g-based gateways offer faster speeds for Macs with AirPort Extreme cards, full backwards compatibility with older 802.11b gear, and only slightly higher prices. On the other hand, you would also need to buy new wireless network cards (where possible; see "AirPort 3.1 Supports Third Party 802.11g PC Cards" in TidBITS-687) to take advantage of 802.11g’s speed, and it may not help if you’re just using your wireless network to share an Internet connection, since even 802.11b’s 11 Mbps is faster than most Internet connections. I’m also not sure if any non-Apple 802.11g wireless gateways currently support AppleTalk (though I’m sure Asante is working on an 802.11g update to the FR1044AL).
In end, I hope this article gave you some insight into how you might compare wireless gateways in the future, even after these particular models are no longer available. There are often multiple ways to skin the proverbial cat, and depending on your situation, a particular wireless gateway may be just what you need.
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