A variety of networking products aimed at small offices/home offices (SOHOs) have flooded the markets, with huge leaps having been made in wireless networking. The intent is to make it easier for SOHO users to set up networks and share data, and, for the most part, the vendors have achieved that goal.

Among these offerings is SMC’s 7004WFW Barricade Plus wireless broadband router. Aimed primarily at SOHO users, this 10/100 Mbps three-port router also acts as an 11-Mbps wireless access point, allowing clients with wireless adapters to share a broadband Internet connection. The 7004WFW is easy to set up and performs well, but some caveats make it a less-than-perfect product. On the whole, the 7004WFW is a good option, but you can find comparable products—even similar SMC offerings—that cost less.

Product details
Barricade Plus (Figure A) is packaged with the router unit, two antennae, power adapter, and setup CD. You must attach the antennae to the router by screwing them in place on the portside of the box. The manual included with the device is merely a quick start guide, but you can download a more detailed document in PDF format from the SMC Web site. You really won’t need either at first, however, because the setup CD entirely automates the initial setup process. It’s only when you get into advanced settings—filtering and security measures—that you might need to consult the manual.

Figure A
SMC Barricade Plus wireless broadband router

SMC lists the following specifications and features for Barricade Plus:

  • IEEE 802.11b compliant
  • Wireless operation at 11, 5.5, 2, or 1 Mbps
  • Range of up to 304.8m (1,000 ft.)
  • Frequency: (US/Canada/Europe) 2.400-2.4835 GHz; Japan: 2.471-2.497 GHz
  • Internet access: 10/100 Mbps WAN port connection to xDSL/cable modem
  • Home networking: Three 10/100 Mbps Ethernet switch ports with MDI/MDI-X autonegotiation
  • Configurable parental control by limiting access to Web sites with URL and keyword blocking
  • Stateful packet inspection (SPI) advanced firewall protection
  • Client privileges, intrusion detection, and NAT
  • Built-in VPN tunneling

Installation and performance
SOHO users will appreciate Barricade Plus’s simple install process, which is accomplished via SMC’s EZ 3-Click Installation Wizard (Figure B). True to its name, it takes but three clicks to complete the process. The program automatically detects the settings required for the broadband connection and assigns IP addresses to the internal network.

Figure B
EZ 3-Click Installation Wizard

You can have your wireless network up and running in a matter of minutes. SMC claims a range of 1,000 feet for the wireless signal, but you’ll find that walls greatly diminish this. Small offices will still have the freedom of networking from just about anywhere in the building, and home users will find they can obtain and maintain a connection without a problem—as long as they don’t live in a mansion. Our review of the SMC2664W wireless adapter offers information on range tests with the device. Results with different adapters will likely vary, but this should give you a good idea what you’ll be able to do with Barricade Plus and whatever wireless adapters you’re using. This article also includes details on wireless data transfer tests. As you’ll find from other tests of the device, the SMC7004WFW performs well, holding its own in comparisons with similar devices.

One benefit of using Barricade Plus is that you don’t have to pull any network cable to allow users to be able to communicate, share files, and access the Internet. It breaks down barriers that might otherwise prevent some users from being able to freely access network resources; you can take your laptops to the conference room for meetings without having to deal with an octopus of cables. The range of Barricade Plus is good enough to make it an effective tool for such purposes. Obstacles tend to degrade the signal, but you’ll still find that within the effective range you can maintain a reliable connection.

The feature that small businesses may appreciate most is that Barricade Plus can also serve as a VPN router. It represents a relatively inexpensive VPN solution, though many comparable products offer the same feature at a lower cost. The manual for setting up the VPN is not included with the package but is available for download at SMC’s Web site.

Setting up the VPN is fairly straightforward. Figure C shows the options for configuring the PPTP settings. You can create up to 20 PPTP VPN user accounts to manage remote access to the network.

Figure C
PPTP account details

You can also configure up to three IPSec tunnels. Figure D shows the interface for setting up an IPSec tunnel. Note the available encryption options for securing access.

Figure D
IPSec tunnel setup

After the user accounts are set up and the IPs configured, all users can set up the VPN connections on their remote systems and log in with their usernames and passwords.

Via the browser interface, you can quickly and easily give telecommuters remote access to your network. Given what typical VPN routers cost, this makes Barricade Plus an attractive option. But unfortunately, it might not make for the most reliable choice.

One annoyance I encountered with Barricade Plus is that it would frequently lose the connection to the Internet. It operated flawlessly for about a month, and then I suddenly began to experience a rash of frequent disconnections. It was easy enough to restore the connection by accessing the router settings via the browser interface and releasing and renewing the configuration. Over time, though, I found myself having to do this more and more often. On one occasion, even after renewing the settings, the router was unable to reconnect. I had to completely disconnect it and turn it off to clear out the settings and then start over with the installation wizard.

Judging from other reports I’ve read scattered about the Internet, this is not an isolated experience. When I contacted SMC tech support about the issue, they sent me a beta firmware upgrade. But the upgrade failed to install correctly. The update utility could not detect the new file and, thus, could not install it.

When the SMC7004WFW works, it works well and offers many features useful to small businesses, including VPN support. It’s those times when it doesn’t work that make me reluctant to recommend it wholeheartedly. The frequent downtime would certainly blunt its usefulness as a VPN solution, especially if the disconnects occurred during nonworking hours when no one could troubleshoot the problem. In small businesses without dedicated IT staffs, this could be a real hassle.

The price tag and availability of the device are also factors that may give you pause. I couldn’t find many online vendors that currently offer the product, and the ones that do are selling it for over $200. That’s nearly double what many comparable products are currently going for. Even SMC’s own product line includes similar products that cost less. If you can find the SMC7004WFW for around $100, it would be a decent bargain, but there’s no sense paying over $100 for it when you can get better products for less.

The wireless broadband router market is getting pretty crowded these days, so the SMC7004WFW will have a tough time competing at its current price tag. And given the Internet connection issues, it may not be the best option for small businesses that need a reliable VPN.