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Compex NetPassage 16 Bundle

Thursday, October 03, 2002 by TheDoc || [0 Comments]

Compex NetPassage 16 Bundle
Company: Compex
Price: List - $229 / Online - $132.86
Warranty: 3 Years
Package Contents:
  • NP16 Wireless Internet Broadband Gateway with 4-Port Switch
  • WL11A PCMCIA wireless adapter card
  • Serial to Modem adapter cable
  • AC/DC Converter and power cable
  • Driver CDs
  • Installation Manuals

Technical Specifications (NP16):
  • Industry Standards: IEEE 802.3 10Base-T, IEEE 802.3u 100Base-TX, IEEE 802.3x Flow Control CE Mark, FCC Class A, Gost, C-Tick, UL
  • WAN Interface
  • 10Mbps RJ45 Ethernet (support external Cable/ADSL modem) RS232 serial port (support external V.90 56K analog modem)
  • WAN Protocol: Static IP, Dynamic IP, PPP Over Ethernet (PPPoE), RAS
  • LAN Interface: 4-port 10/100Mbps Fast Ethernet Switch Type II PCMCIA slot for optional
  • Wireless LAN Card
  • Parallel Broadband, Load Balancing & Fail-Over Redundancy
  • Wireless LAN Modes: Access Point or Wireless Client
  • Wireless Pseudo VLAN: Per Node or Per Group
  • Built-In DHCP Server
  • DHCP Reservation by MAC addresses
  • NAT Firewall
  • Virtual Server
  • Port Forwarding and IP Forwarding
  • Access Control
  • Time-based IP Packet Filtering
  • IP Routing: Static and Dynamic
  • VPN Client Pass-Through- PPTP and IPSec
  • Management Interface: Web-based, TELNET Command Console, RS232 Serial Console
  • Remote Management via the web Configuration Backup and Restore
  • Firmware Upgradeable

Technical Specifications (WL11A):
  • Industry Standard: IEEE 802.11 DSSS, IEEE 802.11b High Rate FCC Class A, CE Mark, Gost, C-Tick
  • Host Interface: 16-bit PCMCIA Interface
  • Operating Frequency Range: 2400 ~ 2483.5MHz (US & Canada); 2400 ~ 2497MHz (Europe)
  • Radio Technology: Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS)
  • Media Access Method: Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Avoidance (CSMA/CA)
  • Data Rate: 11Mbps, 5.5Mbps, 2Mbps, 1Mbps
  • Modulation: CCK (11Mbps & 5.5Mbps); DQPSK (2Mbps); DBPSK (1Mbps)
  • Private Encryption: 128-bit or 64-bit WEP (selectable)
  • Power Consumption: 5Vdc, 350mA TX, 230mA RX, 20mA Standby

A lot of PC enthusiasts and gamers have more than one computer in their homes these days. Some people may have their own personal system as well as a work provided laptop or second computer for their wife or significant other, and some may be in a roommate situation where sharing a broadband connection is important. The fact is that a growing percentage of homes in the US and around the world today have more than one PC in their house. Having multiple PCs is great, but it's better when they are connected via some form of network. When connected via a network these computers can share files and peripherals, like printers, share a broadband connection, or be used to game against each other. More than ever home users are adding to their personal arsenal of PC power with a home network.

As a result, the market is simply inundated with a vast amount of network products, all competing for attention and your technology dollar. When this flood of products first hit, everything was separate and users had to buy multiple network devices to accomplish simple tasks: If you wanted to share a broadband connection you needed to buy a broadband gateway. If you wanted to connect a PC across the house using wireless technologies you had to buy a wireless access point of some kind. The combinations possible were literally quite dizzying to new and novice users who just wanted everything to talk to each other electronically.

Now the market has advanced with user expectations. The result is a more refined, all-in-one lineup of products that integrate multiple functions into one sleek package. The most popular networking product today is a wireless enabled broadband gateway with router functionality, and there are numerous devices from a wide range of manufacturers filling the store shelves for consumers to look at.

Today we investigate one of these new types of wireless enabled broadband gateways from Compex. This is actually a bundle package, combining the NP16 Wireless Internet Broadband Gateway and the WL11A PCMCIA wireless adapter card. Together they make up the NP16 Bundle which is 'a one device does it all' approach to SOHO networking.

Out of the Box

The bundle comes in two boxes. The first contains the NP16 Wireless Internet Broadband Gateway with 4-Port Switch, while the second contains the WL11A PCMCIA wireless adapter card. Both come well packaged with documentation, driver CDs, and associated cabling or power adapters.

The NP16 router is very similar in overall design to the older NP15B. It is constructed of grey and silver plastic with an LED array across the top front of the device, and has clip on feet for standing upright on your desk. On the back you will find power, serial, WAN and four Ethernet ports for connecting your network together.

The top of the NP16 router has a PCMCIA slot for plugging in the WL11A wireless adapter card. This is the first integrated wireless broadband gateway and router I have seen that utilizes this approach, and it begs the question of transmission quality and range. One minor problem, noticed when actually inserting the WL11A included in the bundle, is the lack of orientation marks on the slot indicating which way the card is inserted. The WL11A will seemingly insert facing in either direction, but only with a right handed install will it seat and become activated.

Having previously reviewed the WL11A PCMCIA wireless adapter card, there is not much more to say. It is your standard PCMCIA affair, lacking external antennae. It plugs directly into the port of the NP16 router, enabling the device as a wireless node as well as a broadband gateway.

Documentation

The documentation contained in both packages was quite a shock to me given my previous experience with other Compex products and their extensive manuals. The included installation and setup documentation in both boxes is extremely limited, lacking key information that novices might require to configure their new NP16 Gateway. Some features are so poorly described that unless you have prior experience with a Compex product with a similar feature, you simply will not understand what it does or how to configure it except through trial and error.

Setup

With the thin installation documentation in hand, I went to work setting up the NP16 bundle as the core of my home network. Since I live in an apartment and don't like unsightly wires, a wireless network just makes sense, especially since the second computer I keep is not used for gaming. For the installation I decided to utilize another Compex product to complete my home network, the iWavePort WLU11A Wireless LAN Adapter.

The physical installation of the NP16 is essentially the same as the previously reviewed NP15B. Since I would not be utilizing an external serial based modem for fail-over redundancy, I had all the cables plugged in and connected in a matter of minutes. In order to use the wireless component of the bundle, I also installed the WL11A PCMCIA wireless adapter which took a bit of fussing with until I figured out the right way to insert it. Again, the manual was not clear and I ended up referring to the box cover artwork, since the difference in the two possible orientations when inserted is only an eighth of an inch. Once powered up, a series of internal tests was done by the NP16 Gateway, indicated by test LED lights, and I was eventually greeted with green lights indicating connectivity with my cable modem and an active WLAN (wireless LAN).

Note: When not enabled with the wireless card, the NP16 router runs perfectly cool. However, once the wireless card is installed the NP16 router gets very warm. A warning by Compex says that the NP16 should be stood up on the provided feet for the best cooling.

Web-Based Management

The next step in the installation involves configuring the NP16 Gateway Router. This is done via a web-based management utility that runs through a common web browser. Hardcore users can also accomplish this via a serial connection - utilizing the provided cable - using a command line interface.

The NP16 includes a built-in web-based management interface for owners to administer and configure their gateway, routing, and wireless options. This interface is essentially the same as the NP15B I reviewed recently, so I won't go into too many details about the general setup and informational screens available. Instead I will concentrate on what is different with the NP16.

The interface is essentially the same as seen before with the NP15B. You are asked to log in for security reasons and then gain access to the full interface. The interface is frames based and easy to understand. It's not as 'friendly' as others I have seen, but it is rather intuitive. Unfortunately the manual doesn't explain all of the available features very well.

With the WL11A card installed in the top of the router, you will be able to enable and configure the wireless features of the NP16 router. This screen asks you to choose the mode the network will operate in; most users will use it in AP mode at home. The manual actually does a pretty good job of describing the two modes and helping you select the appropriate one. Once AP mode is chosen, you can then modify it to taste. You can identify your network, name your wireless segment (called ANY by default), and set the transmission and security features available. Again, the manual mentions them all but lacks enough detail to walk a novice user through setting them. A little reading online and on the Compex site helps.

The V.90/ISDN Modem Backup screen is easy to use too. Once enabled and with a modem plugged into the RS232 serial port on the back of the NP16 router, you can configure the settings to automatically dial up a backup ISP connection and share it with your networked PCs.

While not many home users will have need for this, I find it an interesting feature. Some people who work from home and need to stay connected will greatly benefit from this.

One feature that I discovered in the web-based management screens that was not documented in the installation guides was a firewall menu choice. I am not sure if this is on purpose, as I could not seem to access or configure this option, and therefore it may not be complete, waiting instead on a revision to the internal hardware code that Compex may provide in the future. Thankfully the ports are stealthed and everything is relatively secure out of the box as you will see.

In general the web-based management utility for the NP16 is once again solid, if not inspired. It lacks the polish and ease of use seen in other products from companies like Linksys, but it is powerful and generally straightforward. The inclusion of an incomplete or disabled feature, namely the firewall, in the management utility is confusing given the lack of documentation, but I suspect this is a feature that may be turned on later with a firmware revision from Compex which will further add value to the package. As it stands, there already is a basic NAT firewall function fully available to the end user of the NP16, so I am just confused as to what the firewall is doing listed in the web-management interface.

Going Wireless

The last step to setting up my home network was to install and configure a wireless NIC on the remote PC in my apartment. Discarding the Compex WP11 wireless base station I had been using, I set up the WLU11A wireless LAN adapter, also from Compex, to complete the network.

The first thing I immediately noticed was how weak the transmission signal was! No matter how I oriented the WLU11A adapter on the remote PC all I got was a weak signal. When the WP11 was in play and acting as the base station for the WLU11A I never had this issue. This was not too surprising once I considered that the wireless component of the NP16 router is only a PCMCIA card with an equally weak signal to the WLU11A adapter, although the PC in question is only about 40 to 50 feet from the NP16 router.

On the one hand I know the NP16 is intended to be the central networking hub of a component style system, having the ability to plug in modems and wireless devices as needed to support its wide feature set. This is a neat way to 'modularize' a network and keep costs down, but the flip side is that the network component used may not have as powerful of a wireless transmitter as a dedicated wireless base station does. Thankfully I remained connected with little or no signal loss issues, although during the early evening hours I certainly noticed a few occasions where the signal metering indicated a lost connection for a moment or two: I chalk that up to ambient RF interference increases due to residents returning to their apartments in my building and using 2.4 GHz devices.

Security

Out of curiosity, given the listed but seemingly disabled firewall feature in the web-management utility for the NP16, I did some cursory security tests to make sure the NAT component was protecting my PCs and their data. The first test performed was done using Shields Up by Gibson Research. Shields Up remains one of the few free security testing sites on the net for home users. I also used Nanoprobe, from Gibson Research, to test port security, as well as Leakage Tester v1.1.

My test results were identical to that of the NP15B tested earlier this summer. Although by default the NP16 Router / Gateway is vulnerable to outgoing traffic that is generated by a Trojan virus on your computer, all other common ports are stealthed and the device ensures your connected computers are protected from common hacks and attacks.

Testing Testing of the NP16 bundle was carried out using a reference 100 MB file on the internal network and a known download (the Unreal Tournament 2003 demo) from several popular file servers on the Internet. LAN file transfers were gauged by single and bi-directional transfer of the data between wired and wireless PCs, as well as between wired PCs only. Downloads from the Internet were done in off peak hours and performed across a wired and wireless connection as well.

Note: Testing download speeds from the Internet is subjective and dependent on the time of day, quality of connection to the ISP, and Internet and network load. Internet transfer tests were performed after peak usage hours to ensure maximum performance.

Internet Download

The NP16 bundle is a solid performer when it comes to downloading files across a CAT5 connection using your broadband Internet service. In all respects the transfer rate was comparable and equal to the performance seen with the NP15B router. In downloading the test file from several popular servers, such as 3D Gamers and FilePlanet, I got bursts of speed out to 694.2 kB/sec and an average of 381.6 kB/sec.

Wireless transfers, on the other hand, were very slow with the data transmission loss that seemed to occasionally haunt my connection. The best speeds I was able to achieve during testing while downloading the demo file averaged a paltry 89.6 kB/sec and never burst out beyond 128.4 kB/sec. This kind of performance at a range of less than 50 feet seems inadequate.

LAN Transfer

Performance across a CAT5 connection between the two test PCs, utilizing two 3Com 3c905c-TX NICs, was more than acceptable in general. Transfers of files one way averaged a respectable 7.89 mB/sec using a 50' CAT5 cable. Bi-directional transfers were not as fast as expected however, averaging only about 2.8 mB/sec.

Again the wireless segment tests proved to be a minor disappointment, one that seemingly rests on the decision to use a PCMCIA card as the core AP element of the router. Transfer of the test file one way averaged a lowly 3.1 mB/sec, while bi-directional transfers never exceeded 2.2 mB/sec. With LAN and Internet games sending and receiving more and more data, this is not the best possible network solution for gamers, especially if they run background applications that utilize network traffic as well.

Game Performance

Gaming online or across the LAN when cabled up via CAT5 wiring was smooth and fast, with no noticeable lag or loss of packets. Even when one or more of the PCs was performing a download from the Internet in the background, gaming connectivity did not degrade.

The wireless connected PC performed adequately as well, although any additional background network activity tended to slow the connection down and induce an occasional amount of lag. When gaming purely on the Internet with the wireless connected PC, connection performance was average to poor, depending on the time of day. During early evening when RF interference from other 2.4 GHz devices in the same local area is high, there is a lot of lag and lost packets or spikes during network play, but at night or during other non-peak usage times gaming performance is acceptable.

Conclusion

Overall: Broadband users with a single IP number and two or more computers are the perfect candidates for the NP16 bundle: The Gateway is well designed, easy to setup, and is very feature rich. One of the coolest additions, at least for home users who must stay connected to the Internet at all times, is the ability of the NP16 to connect a serial based 56K external modem in case their normal broadband connection goes down.

Unfortunately, there are some significant short comings that cannot be ignored with the wireless component and documentation. Unlike previous Compex products I have reviewed, the manual for the NP16 is oversimplified and does a poor job covering various features of the control and setup interface. The firewall features found in the gateway's controller screens are barely mentioned in the manual, and the remainder of the features are only touched on at best - definitely not a good situation for novice users.

The wireless component of the NP16 Bundle is also a potential problem, depending on how you setup your home network. As a pure hub and gateway using CAT5 Ethernet cabling, the transfer speeds are more than adequate to support any form of network activity, including multiplayer gaming. The wireless segment lacks the transmission power and transfer speed of more purpose built systems thanks to the use of a short ranged PCMCIA card, making it less than ideal for bandwidth hungry games and applications in a network environment, especially at marginally extended ranges.

In the end, the NP16 Bundle is a very interesting package that offers up a host of neat, if poorly documented features to the end user. If you are looking for a complete solution with more features than you can shake a stick at, the NP16 bundle is not a bad choice. Gamers hoping to use their PCs on a wireless connection provided by the NP16 should look for a different solution, however.

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