March 6, 2002

Review: Belkin wireless NIC and WAP for Linux

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -

It was cold when I woke up Tuesday morning, but I had some work to get done. On any other Tuesday morning, I would have had to get out of bed to go to work, but that morning, I had Linux, a laptop, and a wireless LAN card.

As Robin Miller, our editor in chief, discussed last week, wireless networking provides for a whole new sort of freedom -- porch, front yard, bathroom or bedroom, you can now be online anywhere without having to rewire your house. What Robin reviewed was a very interesting all-in-one solution for routing, printer sharing, and wireless networking. Many people already have routers and printer sharing setup, so what sort of solution is right for them?

Belkin, which makes just about every peripheral under the sun, has recently been active in the area of networking. Starting with network cards and moving up to switches and routers, the company has now released a line of wireless products. Among these products are a wireless access point and a PCMCIA Wireless NIC, both of which I am covering in this review.

In the box
Opening the box, I was surprised at how small the WAP was. This was great for me, because space on my desk is prime real estate, and I could easily sit it by the window, out of my way. Inside the box were the AC adapter, the WAP, the CD with the configuration software, and the manual.

Configuration of the WAP
belkin-wap-small.jpegUnfortunately, right off the bat there is a problem for Linux users and the model F5D6130 WAP: You need a Windows machine, so those in a pure Linux environment, or even a mixed Mac/Linux environment, are going to have trouble. I hope Belkin fixes this by releasing a Linux or Mac version of this software. Fortunately (in this case, anyway) I have access to a Windows machine, and was able to run the configuration software. The configuration software was easy to use. I set up the hub to use the MAC addresses of the wireless network cards I had, and connected it to my 10/100 switch. Everything seemed properly configured, so I went on to the next step.

The wireless card
Configuring a wireless network setup under Linux is something that, in my experience, can vary greatly in its difficulty. It is a subject that could be an entire article by itself -- in fact, I plan to write one; here I will go into the specific detail of setting up a Prism2-based card like the Belkin F5D6020. I am now a Debian user, and while it is great for most things, it does not have the built-in hardware detection that Mandrake did. In order to install the network card, I had to download the linux-wlan source and compile it myself -- something I am familiar with, but I had gotten used to not having to do it anymore.

I already had a 2.4.17 kernel configured with PCMCIA-CS 3.1.31, so the only task I had to do was configure the Linux-WLAN package to use these, and compile and install the specific driver for my card, in this case a Prism2-based PCMCIA card. The setup process is very straightforward, and assuming there are no complications, any user should be able to set it up if he adheres to the documentation. You run "make config," answer a few questions, type "make all," and then, as root, run "make install." The documentation then goes into details about setting up your card, but for me, all that was necessary was to plug the card in, and DHCP did the rest.

Range, speed and interference
With only my laptop using the access point, my speeds did not decrease or increase noticeably from the 10-megabit wired network it was connected to previously. As for the range, I have not done any real measuring, but with the access point in my window I am free to move around my building, and go outside with it at least 100 feet from my window, which is as far as I need to go to sit outside on a nice day.

The only problem I have had with the signal is one that is easily solved, but was annoying at first because I did not pick up on it. I am the owner of a 2.4GHz cordless phone, and using the phone near my laptop caused the network to disconnect without me noticing. When I got off the phone it would reconnect, but I would notice errors. Once I realized what was happening, it was a simple matter of changing the channel on the phone, but interference from other devices is something you should definitely consider when setting up a wireless network.

While Belkin's wireless access point was somewhat of a disappointment for requiring the use of a proprietary operating system to configure it (isn't the whole point of wireless to gain some freedom?), once it was working it did not disappoint, nor did the Wireless NIC. I will be covering more wireless solutions in the future, and I hope they will be more Linux friendly.

For the Free Software purists, I cannot recommend the Belkin WAP because it requires the use of Windows. Otherwise, it did its job. For those people who cannot or will not use Windows, there are other solutions out there that will work better. The F5D6130 wireless access point is available for under $150 on Pricewatch, and the F5D6020 is available there for just under $90 shipped.


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