By Mark Henricks

With the SMC EZ Connect 802.11a wireless access point, you no longer need to sacrifice financial security or networking performance when you give up wires. This device’s modest price and good performance make it suitable for network gaming and streaming video over short-range, wireless networks. However, first-time networkers may find the EZ Connect’s sometimes balky configuration and limited reach troublesome. Click here to check the latest prices on the SMC EZ Connect 802.11a wireless access point.

A good value
At around $250, the EZ Connect 802.11a (Figure A) is a good solution at a competitive price. The access point’s gently curved, plastic casing sports two omnidirectional antennas, three front-panel LED lights, and connections for Ethernet and power. A Reset button, which returns the access point to its factory settings if the Web-based configuration utility fails, nestles between the two jacks on the back. The package also contains a power adapter; a helpful, 40-page manual; a CD-ROM with the same manual in electronic form; drivers; and the EZ Connect 802.11a Configuration Utility, which you use to access the Web-based configuration page. To test the unit, we used a laptop outfitted with SMC’s $143 EZ Connect 802.11a wireless cardbus adapter.

Figure A
CNET rating: 7 out of 10
The good: Fine performance; competitive price; easy setup
The bad: Limited range; balky configuration; Ethernet cable not included

Tricky configuration
As its name implies, installing the EZ Connect 802.11a is remarkably easy; however, configuring the unit is a bit trickier. First you install the EZ Connect 802.11a Configuration Utility on the PC you plan to connect; use your own Ethernet cable to connect your PC to the access point (SMC does not include one); then run the utility. The application should find the access point automatically; unfortunately, it didn’t. It worked only after tech support recommended we set the wired PC to an IP address similar to the access point’s default address. Apparently, this is a common problem with setting up the access point. Inexplicably, SMC fails to address it in the manual. You can also get to the Web-based configuration screen manually by typing the access point’s provided IP address into your PC’s Web browser.

Once the setup wizard was up and running, it was easy to use. SMC walks you through specifying the SSID; enabling turbo mode; and implementing 64-, 128-, or 152-bit WEP security. The advanced setup screen lets you set the access point to work as a DHCP client or server. And you can modify settings for synchronizing with other access points or set data-packet sizes. If your network suffers from signal interference, shrinking the packet sizes increases network reliability—but slows its efficiency. The status screen displays more than two-dozen useful bits of information—including MAC address, WEP status, mode (turbo or regular), and signal strength—in easy-to-read tables.

Solid performance
Like other 802.11a access points, the EZ Connect 802.11a operates in the 5-GHz band, free from cordless-phone and other device interference that can plague 802.11b networks. The EZ Connect also has a top speed of 54 Mbps, or nearly five times the 802.11b benchmark. In CNET Labs’ tests, however, it produced just less than 21 Mbps of throughput—average among 802.11a access points. Proprietary turbo mode theoretically boosts speed to 72 Mbps, but in tests, it actually yielded just 25.6 Mbps, which is middle-of-the-road compared to other manufacturers’ turbo modes. Like all 802.11a turbo implementations, SMC’s turbo mode won’t work with other manufacturers’.

Range was also a challenge for the EZ Connect 802.11a. In our workout, it fell short of its stated range of 1,650 feet outdoors and 165 feet indoors. Speed dropped off rapidly once a few walls intervened. Separated by 60 feet and a floor, the EZ Connect saw its transmission rate drop to 6 Mbps, followed by a lost connection. If range is a major concern, you may want to look elsewhere.

Read the warranty
SMC’s service and support policies for the EZ Connect 802.11a are generous, provided you read the fine print. The access point comes with a standard, 90-day warranty, but you can upgrade to a limited lifetime warranty if you register your product within 30 days. Limited lifetime means SMC will support the product for up to one year past the date the company decides to discontinue it. After that, warranty repair or replacement is considered on a case-by-case basis. Other support basics are more straightforward; the company provides free, 24/7 phone support, and the Web site offers drivers, FAQs, and e-mail support.

SMC’s EZ Connect 802.11a has its shortcomings: a shaky installation and slightly tricky support policies, most notably. But if you’re willing to tolerate these rough spots, you’ll enjoy this access point’s easy-to-use, Web-based interface and solid throughput—not to mention its affordable price.

Performance chart
For practical throughput tests, CNET Labs uses NetIQ’s Chariot software as its benchmark (see Table A). For wireless testing, the clients and routers are set up to transmit at short ranges and at maximum signal strength. CNET Labs’ response-time tests (see Table B) are also run with Chariot software using TCP. Response time measures how long it takes to send a request and receive a response over a network connection. Throughput and response time are probably the two most important indicators of user experience over a network.

Throughput tests

Table A
Measured in Mbps (Longer bars indicate better performance.)

Response time

Table B
Measured in milliseconds (Shorter bars indicate better performance.)

Complete specs
Click here to check the latest prices on the SMC EZ Connect 802.11a Access Point. Table C lists the complete product specifications.
Table C

Device type Wireless access point
Compatibility PC
Form factor External
Software included Drivers & Utilities
Connectivity technology Wireless, cable
Networking compliant standards IEEE 802.3-LAN, IEEE 802.3U-LAN, IEEE 802.11a-LAN
Data link protocol Ethernet, Fast Ethernet, IEEE 802.11a
Status indicators Link activity, power, link OK
Features 128-bit WEP, 64-bit WEP, 152-bit WEP
Expansion / Connectivity
Port(s) total (free) / Connector type 1 ( 1 ) x network Ethernet 10Base-T/100Base-TX / RJ-45 female – 1
1 ( 1 ) x network Radio-Ethernet
Physical Characteristics
Width 7.4 In
Depth 1 In
Height 5.2 In
Weight 0.2 Lbs
Compliant standards UL
Power supply included Power adapter – external
Voltage required AC 100/240 V ( 47/63 Hz )
Voltage provided 3.3 V
System Requirements
Min operating system Microsoft Windows 98, Microsoft Windows 2000,
Microsoft Windows NT, Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition, Microsoft Windows XP

This review was originally published by CNET on April 29, 2002.