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3Com Office Connect 3CRWE754G72-A Wireless ADSL modem/router Review

This router does not have the easiest name to remember, but its name beguiles a device that offers home users a fair amount of functionality. The router has a built in ADSL modem, and will run a local network that is a mix of 802.11g, 802.11b wireless or Ethernet connected computers. The name Office Connect may put some home buyers off, but it is firmly what one would term a home router, though still will appeal to small businesses running a small network off an ADSL connection.

The unit is really marketed at people with a single dynamic or static IP address account. The NAT component can be disabled to allow use with a block of static IP addresses, but we have concentrated on its most common use, and that is of a NAT router. The router is actually the 3Com version of the Belkin F5D7630-4A and a SMC router; they all share the same innards but use slightly different copies of firmware.

A quick summary of the routers functionality is that it supports UPnP, has the requisite WPA/WEP and MAC address restrictions for wireless security, and in addition to the basic functionality of NAT in terms of firewall, you also get IP filters to try and control what access machines have to the Internet. For the home enthusiast who enjoys monitoring their connection there is SNMP.

The Basic Package

As one has come to expect you get the usual selection of kit with the router. This includes the router, an RJ11 ADSL cable, RJ45 Ethernet patch cable, the power supply and a CD-ROM holding an electronic copy of the manual.

The back of the router shows how the unit differs greatly from its Belkin produced version. The 3Com unit has wealth of ventilation slots that stop heat building up in the case, though the metal chassis does still get pretty hot. The two wireless antennae are permanently attached; so the metal chassis will need to be taken into account when positioning it for optimal coverage of your house. The router can be wall mounted via two metal lugs on its underside.

On the back is the normal range of ports. From the left is the 4 port Ethernet switch, auto-sensing for both speed and cable type. Moving along is the reset button, a short press will reboot the router, with a longer depression resetting the router to its defaults. Next is the 12V DC, 1Amp power supply socket. Finally there is the ADSL socket, which is where you plug the router into the ADSL line.

The case is fairly novel, as no screws are used to hold the plastic cover on. To get inside it is a case of carefully releasing the lugs around the edge. The PCB picture shows the two antennae are soldered via wires onto the wireless card.

In comparison to some routers the LEDs are quite low key, and while they give useful feedback, they are not so large that they provide a light show during the night. Most of the LEDs do exactly as they are labelled. Having two lights for the Internet connection is useful, since the 'Sync' LED shows you are synchronised with the exchange, and the 'Online' LED only comes on once your username and password have been authenticated by the ISP.

Configuring the ADSL router

The OfficeConnect router can be configured via the wireless connection or Ethernet, the choice is yours. People should be aware though that if using the wireless connections to configure a router, there is the risk of locking yourself out when setting up the wireless security. The router uses the default IP address of 192.168.1.1, so to access the web configuration you simply type http://192.168.1.1/ into your web browser. Of course this assumes your network card has managed to get an IP address from the router automatically using DHCP. One thing that may cause a problem when moving over from a dial-up connection is Internet Explorer (IE) trying to dial your existing dial-up service. To avoid this, in the Internet Options for IE, select the 'never dial a connection' option.

The first step of the set-up process which starts as soon as you first log onto the router, is to inform the router which country you are based in so that it can enable/disable the appropriate wireless channels. Configuration of the router is simply a case of answering the questions on the few setup wizard pages. For a UK ADSL connection you need to select PPPoA for the connection type.

The next step requires you to enter the username and password that was given to you by your ISP. The router should by default have the correct UK settings for VPI/VCI and Encapsulation as shown below, if they are not as shown obviously change them.

A useful step in the setup wizard is that it gives you the chance to change the SSID (wireless network name) from its default and also alter the channel used. If there are other wireless networks in your area then you may need to experiment with the wireless channel to avoid interference on the wireless network.

That is it, the basic configuration is completed. Pressing Next will save the settings storing them in permanent memory, so that even after a power cut the router retains the settings. The router takes a minute or so to store the settings, after which, if you have entered a valid username/password and your ADSL connection is working you should have Internet access.

Setting up a wireless network

The 3Com comes with the wireless access point enabled, which means you can configure the unit straight out of the box using the wireless link. It should simply be a case of getting your wireless network card to detect the Infrastructure network broadcast by the router, and connect to it (the default network name is 3Com). The router in its default state has no WEP or WPA encryption set-up, and should support both 802.11b and 802.11g networks. If you want to turn off the wireless side of the router, and just use the Ethernet connections, the web interface allows you to disable the wireless access point.

This section of the review is going to cover how to configure a 3Com OfficeConnect Wireless 11g PC Card, and the issue of setting up WEP or WPA encryption so that your wireless network is secure. The router does not come with this card as standard, though many retailers do special bundles including this wireless network card.

Installing 3Com Office Connect Wireless 11g PC Card

The PC Card is suitable for laptops, or PCs with a suitable PCMCIA/Cardbus adapter. The 3Com router will work with other makes of network cards, but sometimes it can be easier to stick to a single manufacturer. One advantage of this is that if using WEP encryption, generally the passphrase systems to generate a WEP key are compatible.

Installing the card, is very simple, and comprises of just a few steps as follows. Placing the CD into the CD-ROM drive, letting the software install, and once prompted inserting the PC Card. When the card has been detected you should see a screen not unlike below, which is the PC Cards configuration software. The final step is the simple one of using the connection.

The 3Com PC Card software takes over from the Windows configuration, and actually provides more information, like the Site Browse, that lets you see which other wireless networks are visible. To connect to a visible network, you select the network, and then associate to it, which creates a profile. Our review 3Com card has a long list of profiles due to using it with so many routers. The advantage of the card supporting profiles, is that you can store multiple configurations and easily swap between them, for example one for the office wireless network, and another for your home network.

Using a card with a proprietary software interface can be a bit confusing if accustomed to just using the built in Windows management, but the 3Com software seems useful, and we had no complaints about it.

Connecting to the router using Windows XP Service Pack 2

Many of our previous reviews have covered using Windows XP Service Pack 1, for this review we will feature Service Pack 2 (SP2). The underlying ideas are the same in both service packs; it is just that how things are presented to the user has changed.

The immediate difference with SP2 is that a much clearer wireless network list is displayed now, which clearly shows what kit is within range of the wireless network card you are using. The picture below shows the network from a Speed Touch 580 and the 3Com router with very strong signals.

You will note that Windows now highlights the fact that the network is unsecured, and connecting to any of them is simply a case of clicking on the one you wish to use. In our case we clicked the 3Com, which we connected to after a few seconds. For those that prefer the methods used in Service Pack 1, the old screens are still accessible via the Change advanced setting option in the left hand panel of the screen.

The next screen shows what hopefully is a more common situation, since you are using wireless security to protect your network. The network list now displays whether the link is using WPA or WEP encryption, and selecting an encrypted network results in Windows prompting you for the key.

In this example, we are prompted for our key, which was a WPA key, which are a mixture of letters and digits. WPA is simpler to remember than WEP, since you can use strings of text. Note that Windows hides the key, just like a password to avoid someone reading it by accident.

If you managed to enter the key correctly, you should see the screen below, with the gold star next to the word connected.

Configuring Wireless Security in the router

While the 3Com router can be fully configured via wireless, including its security options, we do recommend having at least one computer that will be able to access the web interface via an Ethernet connection. This is because when setting up the security it is far too easy to lock yourself out of the router.

The router supports most of the security options you would need, which are:

  1. SSID Broadcast: disabling this will hide your network name, but require you to know the name for all the computers you want to connect to the router. Security wise it provides little security and does not encrypt your data.
  2. WEP Encryption: two forms are available, 64 bit and 128 bit. They both work the same way, the difference is that the keys used are different lengths. The 128-bit key is generally considered very secure, since the key is so long to guess, and using brute force will take a long time. WEP encryption as well as controlling who can access the network, also encrypts your wireless data so no-one can see what your network traffic is.
  3. WPA Encryption: this is the newest form of encryption. Two methods are available, but home users will only need to use the WPA-PSK method. The security key is simpler than with WEP since it is a simple serious of letters and numbers, it must be between 8 and 63 characters long,
  4. MAC Address Filtering: this allows you to control what network cards can connect to the router and use your connection. In the case of the 3Com router, it works with both Ethernet and wireless connections.

The best form of security is to use WPA, and failing that 128 bit WEP encryption. If a novice to networking, it is often best to initially use very simple keys, e.g. a WPA key of 12345678 to avoid mistakes in typing, then once comfortable that you know everything works to use a much more complex key that is not guessable.

The WPA configuration screen is shown above. There is one single option, which is to either obscure the WPA key, just link Windows does, or to let you read the key in full. Displaying the key in readable text is useful if you have a very long key. Once you've decided on a key, simply press Apply and the router will store the new settings and switch the wireless network to use the new key. If using a wireless link to set-up the security, now is the time to configure the WPA key on the computer.

The WEP configuration screen is pretty simple; it displays the correct number of hexadecimal pairs that you need to enter, and gives you the option of generating the key from a memorable text phrase. If the wireless security proves too confusing, the Help button provides notes, and includes a link to where you can download the WPA update for Windows XP.

Configuring the router for use with games and other services

The vast majority of games and Internet applications work behind a NAT router with no configuration. Occassionally though you will find software that will complain of being behind a NAT/firewall when you try to use it online. In these cases you need first to consult the software's FAQ in its manual or website, to see what ports it requires open in the inbound direction. The process of directing inbound ports to a particular computer is called port forwarding, or setting up a virtual server.

The screenshot above shows the main page for configuring virtual servers on the 3Com. You are allowed up to 20 rules, which does not sound like many, but you can configure multiple ports to use for the Public port. The LAN port is normally identical to the Public port, but sometimes you may want to carry out port redirection, for example exposing a web server externally on port 8080, but actually running the server on the local LAN on port 80.

To configure a Virtual server rule, you need to enter the last octet for the computer on your local network that is running the game/service. It is best to have manually assigned the IP address for this computer, to avoid it changing if the computer reboots. The field protocol type, should match whatever protocol the softwares FAQ told you to try, if it is not specified then try TCP followed by UDP. The LAN and Public ports will normally be identical. The final part is to tick the Enabled checkbox to enable the rule. Do not forget to scroll the web page down, to actually click the Apply button that is hidden off the bottom of the screenshot. The Clear button simply resets that specific rule back to its blank values.

We mentioned being able to specify multiple ports, an example would be 6667,2300-2400,47624,28800-29000. This sequence would forward port 6667 & 47624, all the ports between and including 2300 to 2400 and the ports between 28800-2900 also. With many routers this would have actually occupied four rules in the table.

In common with the Belkin F5D7630-4A router, the 3Com also has a special applications set of options. This amounts to port triggering, which is very like virtual server rules, except the incoming ports are only enabled once outgoing traffic on a trigger port has been seen. This also works for any computer on the local network, so there is no need to specify the local LAN IP address. Again 20 rules are supported, and a number of popular applications are pre-programmed and selectable via the popular applications drop down. These include Battle.net, Dialpad, ICU II, MSN Gaming Zone, PC-to-Phone and QuickTime 4.

Advanced Firewall Features

The 3Com router shares the same firewall functionality as the Belkin F5D7630-4A, which means you can lock down which applications can access the Internet from a range of computers. The controls provided are ideally suited to controlling things like access to streaming video or peer to peer apps in a shared house, thus reducing the load on the ADSL connection, so that for example gamers do not get latency spikes when playing. The method used is called IP Filtering, and an example is shown below:

The rule shown will block any computer in the IP range shown from accessing the applications listed. There is a list of seventeen popular applications pre-defined in the router, but if you wish to block something that is not listed, you simply need to determine what ports are used, and define these.

The example above shows, adding the port ranges used by Bit Torrent so that you can block it. The Schedule Rule tab will allow you to define sets of rules, which define periods during a week which can then be used to switch on or off the IP Filters. This allows you to block access to the Internet for pre-defined periods, so could be used to ensure the children are not playing games online when they should be doing homework.

There is URL and Keyword blocking, but unfortunately for it to be much use in terms of parental controls you would need to add far too many sites to the list. People are likely to find software controls like NetNanny are better for keeping inappropriate content away from their children.

There is an advanced page of settings, but the word advanced is a bit of a misnomer, as it seems to be settings that had no other home. There is the option to disable NAT, but this is only of any use if you have a block of static IP addresses from your service provider. UPnP can be disabled, which many prefer to do, to avoid UPnP software opening and closing ports without human intervention. The remote administration option is perhaps the most useful thing on the page; this allows you to give access to the routers web configuration to someone on the Internet. The main uses of this would be remotely configuring your router from work, or getting someone to help you configure the firewall settings for things like games.

There is some logging for the firewall part of the router; it is not very comprehensive, but better than nothing. Under the Status and logs section you can view a security log, which will warn you of various potential attacks, such as SYN floods and Smurf attacks. The log also provides a history for when people have logged into the router, and restarts of the connection.

Performance

With the vast number of routers on the market these days one would think the basic level of reliability and performance would be pretty much guaranteed. It seems somewhat odd then that when we reviewed the Belkin F5D7630-4A we had very few problems; this 3Com appears to have a more chequered history. In general day to day use, the 3Com is generally OK, but perhaps twice a week we would end up with no HTTP web access, requiring us to restart the router. Strangely, other applications continued to run fine. Additionally we have found one site that will only partially work with the 3Com router, http:/www.streetmap.co.uk/ displays, but it will not display any maps. Interestingly others have not reported this problem, so we while no other hardware we have has this problem, we cannot be certain it is the router. We have swapped the router for a different make and the site works with no changes at all on the PC. We did look into it being an MTU problem, but it would appear to be a problem specific to the 3Com.

Latency wise, for games the unit works smoothly, and should be fine for online gamers. Under heavier loads, the router does perform a lot slower with web pages opening much slower than we have seen under similar loads on other routers.

We have looked at how we have measured the wireless performance, and are now going to use a method that is hopefully more reproducible and representative of the real world. Previously we would measure the percentage of detectable signal at a set of points; we have now switched to actually using the wireless connection at these three points. By transferring a 229 MB (Mega Byte) file, over the link we should get a much better idea of how the various units perform.
Transfer rate with router and wireless network card within 1 metre and clear line of sight
(throughput in Mbps)

Thomson 580 Router

3Com 3CRWE754G72-A

BT 2100 Router

USR 9106 Router

100Mbps LAN 61.1 61.0 61.1 60.9
Netgear WAG511 PC Card 13.4 18.8 15 16.2
BT 1060 802.11g PC Card 13.6 17.7 15 15.4
3Com 802.11g PC Card 13 18.3 13.8 15.7
Thomson 110g PC Card 12.6 20.3 15.3 15.8
Thomson 120g USB2.0 adapter 13.4 16.6 15.1 15.3
Transfer rate with router and wireless network card through 2 double brick walls
(throughput in Mbps)

Thomson 580 Router

3Com 3CRWE754G72-A

BT 2100 Router

USR 9106 Router

Netgear WAG511 PC Card 13.3 17.7 14.4 13.4
BT 1060 802.11g PC Card 13.6 16.8 15.5 15.4
3Com 802.11g PC Card 12.6 16.2 13.9 15.1
Thomson 110g PC Card 12.9 18.5 15.2 15.2
Thomson 120g USB2.0 adapter 12.9 12.5 14.4 14.4
Transfer rate with router and wireless network card through 4 double brick walls
(throughput in Mbps)

Thomson 580 Router

3Com 3CRWE754G72-A

BT 2100 Router

USR 9106 Router

Thomson 120g USB2.0 adapter 5.4 2.6 1.8 3.4
It is interesting to see that the performance only starts to tail off once through more than two walls. The differences in the routers' performance is most evident in the testing through four walls. The slow speeds achieved through four walls, are why we have only tested with a single wireless network card at that distance. The speed was actually quite variable, with the wireless card switching between 1Mbps, 2Mbps and 6Mbps a lot of the time. The biggest problem with wireless routers is locating them, ideally they need to be above head height. This is because the human body acts as a good signal blocker, due to its high level of water content.
Many people think wireless connections are unsuitable for gaming, and generally that is a myth. The 3Com router along with the other units, only adds around 1-2ms to the ping, and so long as you have a good wireless signal there should be no packet loss.

Conclusions

This 3Com router, while reasonably dependable, is not a unit I would like to leave running unattended for long periods of time. The various problems, which although it is entirely possible they will be solved by future firmware upgrades, may prove very annoying to people who leave the router on 24/7 and are using the connection heavily. For the average Internet user looking for a router to share a connection wirelessly, and provide a straightforward set-up, the 3Com is a reasonable choice.

With the settling of the dust around the 802.11g standard now, hopefully as 2004 comes to a close, router manufacturers will now concentrate on stability of their products, rather than cramming units full of more and more features. All that said, units like the 3Com offer excellent value for money, and regularly appears bundled with wireless network cards.

It would appear for all of its problems, the 3Com is a fast 802.11g device, beating several of its current competitors. This extra speed is wasted for Internet access as very few people have ADSL in the UK that is faster than 2Mbps, let alone 10Mbps. The people who would benefit are those streaming locally produced video, or sharing large files over the wireless network.


Prices: £77.05 - 3Com Office Connect 3CRWE754G72-A (£90.53 including VAT)
£30.85 - 3Com Office Connect 802.11g Wireless Laptop Adapter (£36.25 including VAT)
Links: http://www.3com.co.uk
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.