Asanté VR2004AC Wireless Router
Company: Asanté Technologies
The popularity of wireless networking has jumped explosively over the past year. More and more computers, especially laptops, come factory-equipped with wireless networking cards. Apple Computer coined the term “AirPort” for its implementation of the 802.11 wireless networking technology. The Windows world uses the marketing term “WiFi” for 802.11. But the technology is virtually the same for both platforms.
So, you’ve got an AirPort’ed or WiFi’ed computer; you’re going to need a wireless access point. That’s the box that takes an incoming Internet signal (usually a from a cable modem or a DSL line, but sometimes from a dial-up connection) and makes it available to networked computers via a radio signal Again, marketing jargon reigns supreme: Apple calls the wireless access point a “Base Station.” The Windows world uses the more technical term “wireless access point.”
The cross-platform equivalence of the 802.11 standard has helped the consumer, especially the Macintosh user. Mac owners can buy wireless access points, and, in many cases, wireless networking cards, that are marketed to PC users. While the Apple AirPort Base Station configuration software works only with Apple AirPort base stations, most non-Apple WAPs (wireless access points) are configured via any Web browser. So, if you are willing to give up some ease of use, and have found a PC-oriented WAP that has features or price you like, you can almost certainly use it in your wireless network.
Asante Technologies is a long-time manufacturer of networking equipment. They build a full line of routers, and the VR2004AC is their top-of-the line wireless access point. Its feature set includes the usuals for any router:
DHCP server to assign IP numbers to computers joining the network.
NAT (Network Address translation) to keep the various client requests going to the right client.
Virtual Server (Asante’s term for port forwarding) to allow you to open certain ports. This lets you run server software from computers inside the wireless firewall.
WEP passwording for a modest amount of wireless security.
But Asante has included several features that move this box out of the low-end market.
VPN (Virtual Private Networking) and IPSec capability. VPN allows far greater wireless security for communication between two networks.
Backup modem capability. The VR2004AC has a COM port that allows it to talk with an external modem to provide backup Internet access if the cable modem/DSL line goes down.
A powerful transmitter with 18 dBm of radiated power.
The feature that was most intriguing to me was the fact that the VR2004AC has 18 milliwatts (dBm) of broadcast power. Every other WAP I’ve seen has 15 dBm of power. Three milliwatts of extra power may only seem like a small amount (20%) more, but radio broadcast power is measured logarithmically, not linearly. This means that the VR2004AC is almost twice as powerful as most other WAPs, including Apple’s AirPort Base Station (even the new AirPort Extreme version).
I wanted to review the VR2004AC because I have a Titanium PowerBook 800 DVI model with an internal AirPort card. Many readers are aware that the AirPort reception in the Titanium ‘Books is less than optimum. “Less than optimum” is a polite way of saying that the reception range is horrible. Using a first-generation (Graphite) AirPort Base Station, my usable reception range was limited to about 25 feet! Only 25 feet of usable reception meant that I had marginal reception in the living room, but couldn’t use the Titanium in the kitchen, bedroom, or the outside patio. This severely hobbled my ability to do much wirelessly with the laptop. I did have great reception in the hallway outside my office, but I don’t spend a lot of time standing in the hallway. With range that short, AirPort was hardly worth the bother. So, I was VERY interested in seeing how much improvement I could get from Asante’s box compared to Apple’s.
The VR2004AC showed up at my doorstep, and was no trouble to hook up. After a quick review of the docs, I started up Internet Explorer to configure the router. Here’s where the fun/frustration began. To save space, let’s just say that the router was defective. Choosing my various settings via the Web interface was easy, but getting the VR2004AC to save them was very difficult. It took over three minutes for the box to take my changes, and then trying to make further changes often wiped out my earlier ones.
Clearly, a call to Asante Tech support was in order. Given that saving configuration changes should take not much over a minute, the friendly and knowledgeable Tech Support staffers quickly determined that the router was almost certainly bad right out of the box. They shipped a new one post-haste, and it arrived in a couple of days. (Caveat: I had to identify myself as a reviewer, as I did not have a normal warranty registration.) I was very pleased with the support.
Given that the VR2004AC sells for $269, you SHOULD get good support for your money; this is NOT a bargain-basement box. Now, settings changes saved with the router restarting in less than a minute.
As previously mentioned, one of the main drawbacks of not buying an Apple Airport Base Station is you can’t use the snazzy Airport Admin Utility. Like most Apple competitors, the VR2004AC uses a web-based interface. While not quite as slick as Apple’s, Asante’s user interface is easy to understand and navigate, and is more polished than some other web-based WAP/router configuration setups I have seen. While any router manufacturer cannot avoid subjecting users to the jargon and gibberish of networking terminology (subnet mask, Media Access Control, ping, virtual server, ad nauseam), Asante’s web interface provides a small but useful help file that defines some of the more commonly used networking terms. Given the limitations of any built-in help file, a better resource is The Wireless Networking Starter Kit by Adam Engst and Glenn Fleishman. This book is the best book so far on wireless networking, and it does a great job of explaining networking fundamentals to the networking ingenue. This book has its own review on MyMac.com.
Browser-based configuration of the VR2004AC starts by pointing your browser to a particular IP (Internet protocol) number that corresponds to the IP number of the box itself. You enter a default user ID and password, and the configuration page appears.
Let me take one moment to preach. Most 802.11b and router newbies do not realize the critical importance of changing the default user name and password. Upon reflection, it’s obvious that many thousands of routers, (not just Asante’s, but all manufacturer’s) are connected to full-time Internet connections, still with their default user names and passwords unchanged. Don’t think that for a minute that the default user names and passwords are hard to come by. If you know what it is, than so does anyone who reads the documentation for your router model!
Nefarious people with too much time on their hands and too few scruples, can scan the Internet, looking for equipment that responds to pings. If a box responds, the hacker can try the default user name and password. If they are unchanged, then you have just lost control of your router and your network. You could even get locked out of your own network, with the hacker denying your machine access, and changing the password so YOU cannot re-configure the WAP. The only way to get control back is to physically do a hard reset of the WAP/router, to bring it back to factory settings. To be sure, most WAP/router manufacturers ship their boxes with this “remote administration” capability off by default, but router theft can still happen from other computers within your network.
My Apple Airport card recognized the VR2004AC’s signal as soon as it was connected, but I followed the recommended setup process. To Asante’s credit, they provide a setup wizard, whereas some makers simply make the user decide what settings need to be adjusted. Following the wizard will provide the average user with a fully configured router. Note to Asante: I’d like to see the setup wizard prompt the user to change the default password for the VR2004AC. The password is located in the Advanced settings area, which many users may not explore right away.
A fundamental part of wireless security is WEP; Wireless Encryption Protocol. While many pages have been written about the various weaknesses of WEP, it remains the best way to prevent beginner to intermediate level hackers from snooping around your client’s communications with the wireless access point. While WEP is far from perfect, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, as they say in Texas.
My Apple Airport card is the original 40-bit capable card, and it had no trouble communicating with the VR2004AC after I set the WEP password in the router. However, actually setting the WEP key was not as easy as it should be. The User’s manual tells you to use (for 40 bit) five hexadecimal numbers for the password. Trying to be helpful, it tells you that “Hexadecimal numbers may be alpha-numeric numbers (numerals 0-9 or letters a-f).”
When doing reviews, I try to make the same mistakes that a naive user makes. In some cases, I make those errors without even trying! What the User’s Guide does NOT tell you is that the hexadecimal number needs to have two entries. In other words “4” is not a valid entry, nor is “e.” “44” is valid, as is “b9.” If you enter a WEP of “1 1 1 1 1” for example, the router will accept this, but you will not be able to get your client to log onto the network after entering that password, as “1” is not a valid hex number. Clearly, the documentation needs some work on this subject, as the average user needs more specific hand holding. Points off for vagueness.
Asante recoups some points as they do mention the fact that Apple Airport cards need to have a WEP password prefixed with “$”. Other manufacturers often neglect this, and Apple users can’t log on even if they have set the WEP password correctly. Clear and effective documentation is very important, as more and more networking newbies are buying WAP’s. Well-written documentation will save hours of frustration, and needless calls to Tech Support. Asante’s manual is good, but could be better.
I liked the VR2004AC’s ability to easily control who has access to the network. Given that anyone within range of the VR2004AC with an 802.11b equipped computer can detect the signal, even if the wireless network is closed (set to not broadcast its name), I liked the ability of the VR2004AC to restrict network access to specific computers (the MAC address of an individual 802.11b card). On top of this, I used the ability of the VR2004AC’s DHCP server to limit how many computers could be assigned network addresses to two; my desktop G4, and one other machine. So, assuming both my desktop and laptop were logged on, if someone with an AirPort/WiFi-equipped laptop parked in the driveway, the Asante would not let this third machine on the network, since only two simultaneous network clients are allowed. Even if my laptop were not logged on, the Asante would not recognize that the MAC address of the intruder’s laptop, and so not assign it an IP number. While it is true that a smart attacker with lots of time can “spoof” the MAC address of your computer, these two methods add a significant level of security to your 802.11b network.
Power! The VR2004AC has plenty of it, and the hardware design takes good advantage of the extra milliwatts. In the relentless pursuit of elegant styling, Apple chose to bury the AirPort Base Station antenna in the “flying saucer” itself. Unfortunately, this hurts the range. While the VR2204AC is fashion-deprived, it has two separate and moveable antennae to help best radiate the RF energy. I found I could get small improvements in signal strength by fiddling (that’s the technical term) with the antenna positions. While the Airport software on the client Macintosh shows a crude measurement of signal strength, the freeware applications MacStumbler and iStumbler have far more accurate signal strength measurements. Either one of these apps is highly recommended.
So, what reception range increase will the better antennae and higher power get you? According to the inverse square law, to double the reception range, you need four times the transmitter power. (Stay with me here!) So, since the Asante has twice the transmitter power of the AirPort Base Station (18 milliwatts vs. 15 measured logarithmically), you should get roughly 40% more range (the range goes up by the square root of 2).
I found that, in my house, with my Powerbook G4 with an older AirPort card, I got at least 25-30% better range with the Asante than with the AirPort Base Station. This improved the dreadful range up to acceptable. I could now use the ‘Book in the kitchen (30+ feet), the bedroom (5-25 feet) and the patio (35-45 feet but with an unrestricted line of sight). The network throughput suffered when at the extreme range limits, but this did not seriously affect surfing. File sharing was noticeably slower at the edge of the reception area. This is typical of the 802.11 standard, which allows for slower throughput as the signal strength drops. The extra power of the VR2004AC made wireless networking with my Titanium usable. With the stock Apple base station, I had so little range that AirPort was more of a novelty. iBook users have better range than Titanium users, but they will also see a range increase over the Apple unit.
I also tested both units with a PCI card 802.11b receiver with an external antenna; the Sony Vaio Wireless LAN card. This card, coupled with a driver from IOXperts gave astoundingly better reception than the stock AirPort card. The extra power of the VR2004AC transmitting to the external antenna on the Sony card almost doubled my effective reception range. But that’s a review for another day.
The VR2004AC is capable of establishing VPN (Virtual Private Network) connections. VPN allows a secure “tunnel” to allow more secure communication between two networks. I did not test the VPN functionality, nor did I test the ability to use an external modem. Most home users would not buy the VR2004AC for the VPN feature; they will buy it for the improved range compared to 15 dBm units.
The Asante VR2004AC is a well-built, powerful, premium-priced wireless router, with many features not found in cheaper units. If you have a need for more range (G4 Powerbook users take note), this is the box for you. While the configuration is not as easy as the Apple unit, it is fairly easy, and the box has many more capabilities. This unit is very suitable for either a home or small business environment. You can get a cheaper wireless access point, but you won’t have the extra power; the VR2004AC is highly recommended if you need more range.
MacMice Rating: 4 out of 5