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Would a router by any other name be as easy to set up?
Geeks like us invariably get sucked into providing tech support for less tech-savvy friends and family. You know the drill: “Hey, Mike. I just bought this new [insert tech product], but [insert problem]. Can you help me?” Fortunately, there’s a burgeoning class of tech products designed not for us geeks, but for geeks like us to recommend to friends and family. Linksys’ new line of Valet Wireless Hotspot lines fits neatly in that category.
Shhh. You don’t need to tell your friends and relatives that the Valet Plus Wireless Hotspot is actually a 2.4GHz IEEE 802.11n Wi-Fi router with an integrated four-port Gigabit Ethernet switch. Cisco certainly won’t; in fact, they don’t use the words “router,” “switch,” or even “network” anywhere on the box or on their website. Now you could inform your nominal client that he or she can buy a concurrent dual-band (2.4GHz/5.0GHz) router for about the same price as this single-band router, but then you might find yourself setting it up for them; besides, they probably wouldn’t benefit from a dual-band product anyway.
The secret sauce that makes the Valet Plus so easy to set up is actually very simple: Linksys puts a USB key in the box that is pre-paired to that specific router (based on the router’s SSID, password and serial number). All the end user needs to do is plug the USB key into a client machine. The USB key’s default action is labeled “Connect to Your Cisco Valet.” Click OK and if the client machine is new enough to be outfitted with a Wi-Fi adapter (most mainstream consumer rigs are), the user will follow the simple illustrated steps to hard-wire the Valet to their DSL or cable modem and then plug the Valet into a power outlet. If the client doesn’t have a built-in Wi-Fi adapter, they’ll be asked to hard-wire the router to the computer. If the user has more than one computer to connect to the Valet or wants to add one later, they’ll simply plug the USB key into the next machine (skipping the initial router setup steps this time). They can also use the included software to make additional USB setup keys.
Although the Valet Plus is a single-band router, it does offer a virtual guest network that delivers Internet access while isolating its clients from the primary network. Both the guest and primary networks are pre-assigned unique but easy-to-remember SSIDs (for example, our router’s SSID was SilverEagle, and the guest network’s SSID was SilverEagle-guest). And while the primary network is protected by a strong password (you don’t need to memorize it because you add clients by plugging in the USB key), the guest network features something that’s easier to recall (ours was “cherry93”). If users still find any of this too complicated, or if they encounter, an unforeseen problem, free Valet-specific telephone tech support is available 24/7 for one full year following purchase.
Surprisingly enough, we actually did run into an unforeseen problem during our review: The installation software on the USB key failed to connect our wireless client to the router and suggested we call tech support. So we took its advice, without revealing that we were journalists conducting a product evaluation. After about 20 minutes of troubleshooting, the person on the line consulted with her supervisor and then advised us to return the Valet Plus to whichever retailer we’d purchased it from. Based on the fact that she had asked us to read the Valet’s serial number to her during this process, however, we decided to follow a hunch and were able to fix the problem ourselves.
Here’s how: We browsed the contents of the USB key and found an XML file labeled “._settings.” We opened the file in a text editor and discovered that it contained a serial number that didn’t match the one printed on the bottom of the router. We edited the XML file so that this serial number matched the router’s, removed and replaced the USB key, ran the autorun file again, and voila! The client automagically connected to the Valet Plus. Since the Valet we received was a very early unit and wasn’t shrink-wrapped, we suspect we were simply given the wrong USB key.
The Cisco Connect software on the USB key is pretty much identical to the CD software that comes with Cisco’s Linksys E-series routers. On the one hand, this utility is the most foolproof tool we’ve ever used to set up a router; on the other hand, a power user can easily break the utility by using the router’s web browser utility instead of Cisco Connect. This wouldn’t be such a problem if you could control all the router’s settings using either or, but you can tweak some parameters (e.g., the guest network and parental controls), using Cisco Connect only, and others (e.g., port forwarding) using the web browser only.
In terms of range and TCP throughput, the Valet Plus is a very mixed bag. When we tested it at close range with a Linksys AE1000 USB Wi-Fi adapter, it was about 20 percent slower than our current best-of-the-best router, Netgear’s WNDR3700 paired with a Netgear WMDA3100 USB Wi-Fi adapter. But it was more than 12 percent faster when the client was in our bedroom. And while it was negligibly faster (by about one percent) when the client was in our enclosed outdoor patio, it was nearly 50 percent slower when the client was in our difficult-to-penetrate media room. It also exhibited much less range, being just barely capable of maintaining a connection when the client was outdoors, 85 feet from the router.
The Valet Plus (and its cheaper cousin, the $100 Valet, which has a 10/100 Mb/s Ethernet switch and fewer antennas) are not the right routers for those of us in the propeller-beanie-wearing crowd, but we’d have no problem recommending the Valet Plus to our friends and family who want to set up a wireless network on their own (note: (we didn't test the Valet). The Cisco Connect utility is leagues better than Cisco’s old LELA (Linksys EasyLink Advisor) solution, and while we don’t think the router itself beats Netgear’s best offering, it’s more than adequate for streaming HD video wirelessly. The Valet Plus's $150 MSRP makes it a little expensive, but that price is justified by the full year of dedicated tech support that doesn’t begin with “Hey Mike.”
Nearly idiot-proof setup; guest network; Gigabit Ethernet switch; one year of free 24/7 tech support.
Expensive for a single-band router; poor range.
|Cisco Valet Plus ||Netgear WNDR3700 |
|Kitchen, 20 feet (Mb/s) ||66.5||83.0 |
|Enclosed Patio, 38 feet (Mb/s) ||47.4||46.9 |
|Media Room, 35 feet (Mb/s)||24.4||45.7 |
|Bedroom, 60 feet (Mb/s)||34.8||30.9|
|Outdoors, 85 feet (Mb/s) ||0.1||2.7 |
Best scores are bolded. TCP throughput measured using IPerf. N/C indicates no connection at that location. Read more about our testing methodology at http://bit.ly/16w27O.