Linksys Instant Wireless: Its slow setup belies its name

Have you ever wondered how "instant" the Linksys Instant Wireless Series really is? Take a look at this review of the Linksys Access Point, PCI Adapter, and PC Card to see if this equipment will work for your enterprise.

Linksys has made a name for itself by making equipment that is easy to configure and maintain. So perhaps our expectations were too high when we began assembling a small wireless network using devices from the Linksys Instant Wireless Series. With this network, it’s wise to avoid the impulse to ignore the instructions while you figure it out as you go along. There are a few gotchas along the way that could set you back the same amount of time it takes to uninstall and reinstall some software and hardware.

We found that once it was set up and configured, however, the Linksys wireless system performed nearly as well as systems several times its cost.

In this review, we will discuss the following Instant Wireless Series equipment:

Our wireless network
We installed the Linksys equipment using Windows 2000 Professional on Dell and Hewlett-Packard computers that were connected to a test network. Our building is a particularly difficult environment for wireless technologies because its construction is such that cell phones typically lose service connections within the walls.

A major factor in wireless networking is how well the speed of throughput is maintained away from the access point. In our testing of the range of the Linksys equipment, we used Web-page load times as the measuring tool. The Linksys equipment is supposed to maintain 11 Mbps up to 100 feet away, depreciate to 5 Mbps through 165 feet, 2 Mbps to 230 feet, and then drop to 1 Mbps for up to 300 feet.

In our wireless-challenging environment, we found a major drop in signal strength occurring at about 170 feet with the signal effectively disappearing somewhere between 225 to 275 feet.

One significant problem that we had was accessing our test network through a 3Com hub. The hub is strictly 100 Mbps and the RJ-45 port on the access point is supposed to automatically negotiate that speed, but in our case, it would not pass through the hub. The access point would work fine when directly plugged into the test network where it would directly hit a 10/100 Cisco switch.

A look at the Access Point
The Linksys Wireless Network Access Point looks similar to Linksys’ other blue and black routers, hubs, or switch boxes—except for the pair of rabbit-ear antennae that stick out from the back of the box.

Those antennae are adjustable in several directions, which is a technique that should help you fine-tune the reception to your particular circumstances (see Figure A). In our tests, antennae positions didn’t seem to matter, as long as they were in an upright position. However, if the access point can’t be positioned in the center of the wireless LAN, pointing the antennae toward the center of the LAN is supposed to help.

Figure A
The distinctive rabbit-ear antennae distinguish this box from other Linksys devices.

Joining the power port and the RJ-45 network port in the back of the Wireless Network Access Point is a USB connection.

The USB connection is used to connect USB-compatible computers and operating systems directly to the access point. The software for the access point contains both a USB driver for the device and the USB Configuration Utility.

Since many of our TechRepublic members use Windows NT or even Windows 95 without the USB capability, we chose to set up our access point with the alternative method.

The alternative method uses another program called the Access Point SNMP Manager. Linksys recommends that if you use this method, you do so over your wireless connection and not your wired LAN (although it should work either way).

Using the Access Point SNMP Manager requires you to use default IP address information for the client machine on which you are running the manager. You’ll then need to direct the program to the default IP address on the access point.

Once the connection is made, setting up the access point with an appropriate IP address for your network is quick and simple.

There are a few sticking points to note in an otherwise straightforward access point configuration:
  • The network name for your access point and clients, which Linksys refers to as the ESSID (Extended Service Set ID), must be the same for both.
  • You must either use the default IP address for the access point or set one that is appropriate for the access point. There is no way to set it for DHCP.
  • The first tab, Status, displays the current status of the access point and allows you to reconnect to the access point or search for the access point.
  • The last tab on the set-up utility is called Info. It allows you to see all the wireless connections to the access point and provides various statistics.

Connecting with the client computer
In this section, we will describe the process of connecting to the access point via the PC Card and the PCI Adapter. In our case, we installed a PC Card on a laptop computer and a PCI Adapter with a PC Card in a workstation computer.

Although installing both of these devices is relatively straightforward, there are special considerations for anyone using the PCI Adapter.

Installing the PC Card in a laptop
More often than not, you will be installing the PC Card directly into the PCMCIA slot on a laptop computer.

For a smooth installation, make sure the Setup Utility CD is inserted into the CD-ROM drive before pushing the card in (see Figure B).

Figure B
This is the Linksys PC Card.

The only odd thing that happens during the card installation in Windows 2000 Professional is that you will get a Digital Signature Not Found dialog box that asks if you wish to continue. You should click Yes.

When configuring the card, you should check to make sure that you are using the same radio frequency, or channel, as the access point; that the SSID is the same as the access point; and that you’ve chosen Infrastructure Mode if you are using the Linksys access point.

Installing the PCI Adapter and PC Card
One important part of the Linksys PCI Adapter installation is that you need to install the PC Card into the PCI Adapter before plugging the adapter into your PCI slot (see Figure C).

Figure C
Plug the PC Card into this PCI Adapter before installing the adapter.

Failing to install the PCI Adapter with the PC Card already in its slot will require you to go through the Install New Hardware dialogs again when you start the machine. Then you will also have to uninstall the new hardware before proceeding with the install, using the instructions for your operating system.

While some manufacturers require you to install the PCI adapter as a new piece of hardware and then install the PC Card as another new piece of hardware, with the Linksys equipment, both the PCI adapter and the PC Card will be installed at the same time.

For the small office
The language in the documentation for the Linksys Instant Wireless Series equipment seems targeted for the home and small office user, limiting the discussion of building a wireless LAN to just one or two access points without an involved discussion of how wireless channels can be set for overlapping networks. The simplicity of its setup also seems to support the less-technical resources of the home or small office user.

Have you set up a wireless network?
If you’ve set up a wireless network, did you have trouble getting all the parts to work together? What was the problem? What did you do about it? Tell us what you think in the discussion below or send us a note.