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U.S. Robotics SureConnect ADSL Wireless Gateway Model 9106 Review

This router from U.S. Robotics is another all-in-one device featuring ADSL modem, router, 802.11g wireless and a four port Ethernet switch. The router supports a NAT connection, which means it works with a single IP address from the ISP, and shares this between multiple computers connected via any combination of wireless or Ethernet. A basic firewall offering outbound filtering is also included.

What you get for your money

The unit is sold in an attractive box, with bullet points highlighting what U.S. Robotics consider to be the main selling points, such as 'Simple 1-2-3' set up and a free three month subscription to Norton Personal Firewall. The contents of the box are the usual affair, as can be seen above and listed below:

  1. Two microfilters
  2. The two screw on wireless antennas, which have full 360 degree rotation.
  3. A CD-ROM containing the free firewall and an Easy Configurator software application. It is possible to configure the router without the software.
  4. The router itself is in a black plastic case that appears to be fairly tough.
  5. A paper manual, 120 pages long, but only 16 pages in English.
  6. Ethernet RJ45 patch lead, colour coded to colour of port on router.
  7. RJ11 to RJ11 plug lead for connecting router to microfilter, again colour coded.

The front centre section of the router houses all the indicator lights for the unit. There are assigned as listed below:

  1. PWR - illuminated when the unit is switched on and has power.
  2. WAN IP - flashes to indicate traffic is happening on the Internet side of the router.
  3. WLAN - switches on once a wireless client has connected to the router, and flashes to indicate activity.
  4. Ethernet 1-4, linked to the four Ethernet ports at the rear of the router. These show that an active Ethernet connection is plugged in, and flash to show activity.
  5. ADSL - Flashes when the router is negotiating the connection, and stays on once connected. If no ADSL line is connected then it will be off.

The rear of the router is fairly standard, from left to right you have:

  1. Wireless antenna connector
  2. ADSL socket, it is actually an RJ45 socket, but an RJ11 plug fits perfectly. RJ11 and RJ45 plugs are a modular series of connectors.
  3. Four Ethernet sockets for connecting to devices with Ethernet capability.
  4. Recessed reset button
  5. 16VAC power input from the units power supply
  6. Power switch, fairly unusual on routers, but a welcome touch.
  7. Second Wireless antenna connector

The unit unfortunately does not appear to be wall mountable, but does have four large rubber non-slip feet. In use the unit runs just above room temperature, and seems to have plenty of cooling slots on the underside with vents on the top of the case. The antenna connector is the same as used on the Netgear DG834G, so it should be easy enough to obtain leads to position the antenna in suitable locations.

Basic Configuration

The manual supplied with the router walks users through what leads connect where, and has some basic troubleshooting tips. It also covers the Easy Configurator application on the CD. For the review we have opted to show how to configure the router without using any of the supplied software, which is actually not that difficult at all. The router can be set up straight out of the box via a wireless connection because the wireless signal is turned on by default and has no security enabled. Setting up kit via wireless can be very handy when you want to situate the router somewhere without leads running everywhere. We would recommend having at least one computer capable of connecting via Ethernet in an emergency though, for example, if you set the wireless security up wrong and lock yourself out of the network.

As mentioned the routers wireless network is open by default and has the SSID of USR9106, so to configure the device it is simply a case of picking up the wireless signal or connecting a computer via an Ethernet cable. Once physically attached, check that the computer has received an IP address in the range 192.168.1.2 to 192.168.1.254. When that has happened, you should be able to open the URL http://192.168.1.1/ in your web browser as shown above. The default username and password for the router are admin and admin. The first time you connect to the router it automatically starts its own Quick Set up wizard which takes you through a series of steps. In the first step you need to enter a VPI of 0 (zero) and VCI of 38, and click next to continue. Users of a service outside the UK or one provided by a wholesaler other than BT Wholesale may need different values, so check with your provider.

For UK based connections where we use PPP over ATM (PPPoA), select that mode as shown and click next to continue again.

The next step is to enter your ISP assigned username and password. The router will store these so that you only ever need to enter them once. For users of the BT Retail and BT Yahoo! services where no password is needed simply leave the password field blank. Click next to continue to the next stage. The following stage defaults to the correct settings so click next again when it appears.

This stage allows you to set up the local network that your computers connected to the router will be using. The default settings are shown above, and interestingly the router does allow you to assign it a second IP address. While during the review I was able to assign the second IP address and access the router via this, it was not really possible to run two separate sets of LAN IP addresses, e.g. 192.168.1.x and 10.0.0.x. So a useful feature but not quite fully functional it seems, perhaps newer firmware will see an improvement. So most people need change nothing on this page and simply click the next button to proceed.

Almost at the end, and the router allows you to alter the default wireless network name (SSID). Full configuration of the wireless network is possible, but is best left until you get the router running with a basic connection.

The above shows the end of the basic set up phase for this router. The software on the CD-ROM is perhaps quicker and with less stages, but the web based set up is not difficult at all. For people who have not been able to even see the router at all, the manual does cover the basic checks you can carry out.

The final goal, you pressed Finish in the previous window, and now you can see that the router is connected. It has been assigned DNS service IP addresses, and the IP address of the gateway at the ISP end of the connection. If you want to double check your WAN IP address click the link. At this point most applications should just work, e.g. web browsing, email, text chat in messenger applications, most online games, audio/video streaming and much more.

Virtual Servers, Port Triggering and DMZ

The USR 9106 is a fairly simple beast to drive, and does not have too many complex options to break. The area that will probably raise the most questions is configuring virtual servers, and what are port triggers.

A virtual server is another way of saying port forwarding. You need this when you are running some software on a computer that you want someone on the Internet to see, for example a web server, or a games server. Software like Yahoo Messenger is clever enough to allow people to contact you without the need for port forwarding, but for some applications this is not possible. Configuring a virtual server simply tells the router what to do with unexpected packets it receives. If you do not configure any virtual servers the router simply throws the unsolicited packets away, this is why some companies refer to NAT as a firewall.

The virtual server set up is hidden in the Security menu, and the default screen is shown above, i.e. no rules at all. When you click Add you are presented with another screen that will ask for the details of the rule you want to create.

In the case above we have selected WEB from the pre-defined list of services; you can create your own easily enough. The pre-defined services simply fill in the protocol, external port and internal port boxes, leaving you to simply supply the IP address of the computer running the service, a web server in this case. You would normally assign the IP address manually for a computer running a service that you set up a virtual server rule for. This ensures the computer retains the IP address at all times. The list of services the router has pre-defined is fairly short and is shown below:

Once you click Apply you can add more services until you are done. The list of services will look something like the screenshot below, which shows that the computer at 192.168.0.200 is running a web and mail server. To test whether port forwarding is working, you need to get someone outside of your network to test if they can connect to the service- http://www.netmonitor.org/ is a handy site for testing mail and web servers. For other services, the various security scanners can tell you what ports are visible to the outside world.

Port triggering is a slightly more advanced type of virtual server. With port triggering the port is not open to the outside world until you run an application. Take a look at the example below:

In this example, when you run any application that connects from your local network to a computer on the Internet using a UDP port in the range 27000 to 28000, the router will also open the ports 18000 to 18010 and point them at the computer that sent the original packet out. This can be useful when you have games that require large ranges of ports open, but you only want to open them after the game has started to run, for example you would trigger the ports based on the game refreshing its server list. Unfortunately the 9106 falls down in not giving any pre-defined port triggers either in the web configuration or in the rather sparse manual on the CD-ROM.

One final option exists in the port forwarding area of this router - the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This allows you to define one computers IP address that will receive all the unsolicited incoming packets. This of course exposes that computer totally to the Internet and the assorted worms that exist. Therefore only use DMZ if you fail to get an application running using the former methods, and even then you would be advised to use a software firewall to keep the machine secure.

The Firewall - Controlling Outbound Connections

The USR 9106 provides two mechanisms for controlling outbound connections, port filters and address filters. Port filters are port based; this allows you to block outgoing UDP or TCP ports, either single ports or a whole range. The range of options and level of control is fairly crude. In the example below we have created a rule that blocks TCP port 443, which will block all HTTPS traffic. Unfortunately this rule now applies to all computers on the local network, rather than selected IP addresses which is the more common option.

The other outbound control, address filtering, is the ability to deny a computer any outbound Internet access at all. This is simple to set up, just tell the router what IP addresses you do not want to be able to access the Internet. In the example below we are blocking the computer at the IP address 192.168.0.201 from seeing the Internet at all, local file sharing and other network resources will be available but no Internet access is possible.

Wireless Configuration

The wireless configuration options on the 9106 are spread across four screens:

  1. Wireless setup, basic SSID, enable/disable wireless options
  2. Security, to allow you use WPA or WEP encyrption to secure the wireless network from intruders
  3. MAC Filter, to restrict what wireless network cards can actually use the service
  4. Advanced settings, control various parameters, though most people will just leave these settings alone

The option to disable the wireless network is useful, as it allows you to totally secure it when you have no need for the wireless connection. Of course if your disable the wireless network to turn it back on you would have to use an Ethernet connected computer to enable it again. Disable SSID Broadcast offers a small amount of security, since it stops people from seeing what you have called your wireless network, though people with advanced kit will still be able to sniff the traffic.

The real security for your wireless network is handled in the security screen. We have shown the WPA-PSK option, which is the best option to use if your wireless network card supports it. You can also choose the data encryption method. You should match the settings on this screen with those of your wireless network card for it to work. The WPA Pre-Shared Key is entered in simple text format and needs to be eight characters or more in length. Do not use keys like the address of your house, since that would be too easy to guess.

Performance

To provide some idea of how fast the various 802.11g and 802.11b based routers are we have done comparisons of the maximum wireless speed by copying a 229 Megabyte file across the wireless network from a PC connected via Ethernet. For the sake of simplicity, we have listed the fastest speed recorded for the various routers. Discussion of each routers modes and their relative speeds will be in their individual review. In all the tests the wireless network card was a Netgear WAG511 Wireless PC card used in a 1GHz Sony Vaio laptop.

Wireless Performance Measurements

Wireless device

Time for 229MB file copy (seconds)

Average transfer rate (Mega bits per second)

U.S. Robotics 9106 - original firmware

128

14.31Mbps

U.S. Robotics 9106 - latest firmware

113

16.2Mbps

Linksys WAG-54G

100

18.32Mbps

Buffalo WLI-CD-G54

98

18.63Mbps

BT Voyager 2000

387

4.73Mbps

Linksys WRT54G

107

17.1Mbps

Belkin F5D7630UK4A

134

13.67Mbps

Netgear DG834G

194

9.44Mbps

BT Voyager 2100

126

14.5Mbps

The US Robotics 9106 seems to sit right in the middle of the bunch. The chart does show that the 802.11g standard is still quite a long way away from its theoretical speed of 27Mbps in any one direction (the 54Mbps is both directions added together).

Wireless router percentage of detectable signal

Router

1st Wall

2nd Wall

4th Wall

Belkin F5D7630UK4A

80%

13%

0%

BT 1250 (2Wire)

100%

54%

26%

Linksys WAG-54G

93%

53%

6%

Linksys WRT54G

93%

26%

0%

Netgear DG834G

100%

60%

26%

U.S Robotics 9106 (July 2004)

75%

20%

0%

U.S Robotics 9106 * (October 2004)

86%

80%

60%

3Com 3CRWE754G72-A *

80%

66%

53%

Speed Touch 580 *

80%

80%

53%

BT Voyager 2100 *

90%

80%

53%

Zyxel 653HWI *

80%

73%

46%

Wall 1 comprises double brick construction with bathroom tiles

Wall 2 comprises of double brick construction with kitchen tiles

Wall 4 is the next measurable point, due to an old coal bunker between walls 3 and 4.

It is interesting that the routers marked (*) have recently had their range checked on the same day, and would appear to have much better range than the kit tested earlier in the year. Obviously something has changed in the RF environment, since the 9106 is showing a marked change. What has happened is that the room the routers are situated in has been redecorated, and furniture re-arranged, with the router moving more into the centre of the room than against the far wall. We have also started to carry out the speed test using the 229MB file at the other locations. The USR 9106 managed 13.3Mbps at the 2nd wall, and using a Speed Touch 120g USB wireless card the file transferred at 3.4Mbps.

In terms of latency, we have found that pretty much all the wireless routers have little effect, giving pings of 1ms on average to the routers themselves. This low ping is really no different to using an Ethernet connection. Of course if you are on the edge of reception then you may experience some packet loss due to intermittent reception.

Conclusions

Compared to what on the shelf looks a similarly featured router, i.e. the Belkin F5D7630uk4A, the USR 9106 feels slightly less polished. The problem is that ADSL hardware prices are tumbling all the time and the number of features is increasing, this U.S. Robotics device is perhaps £20 overpriced.

In day to day use it worked well, but push it too hard and it seemed to slow down, which for a modern unit is not good. So it is not recommended if you know you are going to be a heavy peer to peer user, or drag large amounts of data over its wireless network. Of course it is possible that future firmware upgrades will solve these issues, but we would suggest never buy hardware based on promises that the next software release will fix it, invariably it ends up being several releases later that things settle down. In the course of this review a newer version of firmware was released.

The firmware upgrade (version 1408_051904-2.14L.01A.a2a013b ) actually made the router worse in some respects, since it can now takes several minutes for it to start-up and connect to the ADSL service, but otherwise once running it does appear to be stable maintaining a connection for at least several days.

So who should look at this router? If you can find it cheaper than say the equivalent Belkin or Linksys units, then people who want something that is straightforward to set up, should perhaps consider it. It appears in its latest guise to be stable once connected, but the time taken to start up and connect is not encouraging.


Prices:

£64.87 - U.S. Robotics 9106 (£76.22 including VAT)


Prices listed above are excluding postage and VAT.

Links: http://www.usr-emea.com/

Where to Buy: See our DSL Hardware FAQ

Andrew Ferguson


andrew@thinkbroadband.com

The contents of this review should not be relied upon in making a purchasing decision - You should always discuss your requirements with your service provider and hardware supplier.