Belkin has never been shy of trying out wacky industrial designs for its consumer networking products, but after the delightful eccentricities of models like the N1, N1+ and N1 Vision, the Play Max looks positively dull. It’s the top-end offering in Belkin’s latest five-model ‘Surf, Share, Play’ range, and is a 5-port (1 WAN, 4 LAN) Gigabit Ethernet router featuring dual-band/dual-radio 802.11n Wi-Fi. Although we looked at the modem-less version suitable for cable broadband, it’s also available with an integrated DSL modem.
It has a minimalist design, with internal antennas and a single baleful status LED staring from the top, just above a WPS button. It stands on a small base housing a card with the Wi-Fi SSID and password details: as these are pre-configured, initial setup can be done over Wi-Fi, which is very handy.
Belkin puts a lot of effort into making the out-of-the-box experience idiot-proof, even to the extent of shipping it with the Ethernet and power cables plugged in. A setup wizard on the CD can be used to get up and running, or more experienced users can dive right into the familiar Belkin admin web page, which has not changed for many years. It’s fairly configurable, with simple port forwarding and client access control (scheduled service, URL and keyword blocking plus MAC filtering), although if you use dynamic DNS be warned that only DynDNS is supported.
The lack of status lights, even on the rear LAN ports, will frustrate advanced users, as it’s harder to troubleshoot attached devices. The status LED changes to orange if the WAN connection fails, but that’s about it. Status monitoring is all done via a Router Monitor applet in the Windows notification area, although even this only tells you whether the WAN connection is working. It also gives access to most of the router’s other features. Some of these are shortcuts to router settings; Bit Boost is a QoS priority setting for voice, video or a small selection of online games, and Music Mover controls the built-in UPnP media server that streams files from connected USB drives.
Torrent Genie is a BitTorrent service in the router itself that works with the supplied freebie Vuze (formerly Azureus) software. It allows torrent downloads to continue when the PC is off, storing them on any USB drive connected to one of the two USB ports. USB printer sharing works supremely well, better than we’ve seen on any router, in fact. However, the Belkin control software has to be installed on each PC.
The bundled third-party apps are a little puzzling, though. The enthusiast target audience for this router is likely to have their own favourite P2P and media player software, but Torrent Genie only works with the ad-supported Vuze. (We’re not sure about the wisdom of plonking the entire world of torrents in front of less-savvy users, despite the numerous ‘it’s up to you to check copyright’ disclaimers). Daily DJ is an iTunes Genius-like automatic playlist generator, and the Music Labeler metadata utility is hardly earth-shattering.
What is very good about the Play Max is the Wi-Fi. Not only can you run simultaneous 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, the 2.4GHz network can be partitioned into two, one for guest access. This neat feature puts guests on a separate sub-net, keeping them off your home network while giving them web access. There’s even an option for guests to login via a café-style web page, although for some reason this wouldn’t work on our sample. Range and performance for the 2.4GHz radio was excellent, easily averaging over 60Mbps near-field and over 20Mbps at 25m in our domestic setting. 5Ghz 11n operation (it also supports 11a) was just as fast, but with a much less predictable range: it struggled to reach 10m on occasions.
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