Belkin’s latest top-of-the-range wireless router, the Play N750 DB, has dropped most of the unimpressive third-party add-ons that we met in last year’s Play Max model, but introduces some clever (and rather more useful) new antenna technology to improve wireless range. The N750 DB is available for use with either cable/BT Infinity or ADSL2+ connections, the ADSL2+ version costing £30 more than the cable version reviewed here.
Inside and outside
The N750 DB is an 802.11n dual-band, dual radio model with a 2×3 MIMO configuration (300Mbps) in the 2.4GHz band, and a 3×3 MIMO (450Mbps) 5GHz configuration. To get the full benefit of the 450Mbps capability, you will also need an adapter supporting 3×3 MIMO operation at the other end (such as Intel’s Centrino Ultimate N Wi-Fi link 5100/5300 and 6300 chips, which are common in laptops). There are five internal antennas, two for 2.4GHz operation and three for 5GHz. Belkin uses a new feature it calls Multibeam, which as far as we can tell involves high-gain antennas to improve signal strength.
It also uses something called Implicit Beam Forming. In effect, this can change the shape of the Wi-Fi coverage pattern, allowing it to direct more energy towards the client device for better range. It’s an upright desktop design reminiscent of a pancake, but it manages to look reasonably elegant (if a little wobbly) on its stand. There’s a single small blue status LED at the front, with WPS LED below it. At the rear are four Gigabit Ethernet ports, a Gigabit WAN port and dual USB2 ports for sharing printers, scanners or storage, but not 3G dongles. Storage sharing has no advanced features such as user permissions or FTP access.
Easy to get started As with Belkin, installation was extremely simple, with the setup wizard guiding you through the process. A monitoring utility is installed in the Windows notification area, providing quick access to the router settings and manual. It also lets you request control of shared USB devices (all PCs need to install the tool if they want to use these), and turns Video Mover – which is the UPnP/DLNA media server – on or off. There’s also a link to the very basic Memory Safe backup utility.
The web admin interface is identical to all Belkin routers since time immemorial, and no worse for that, as it’s clear and easy to use, although it lacks the depth of settings some advanced users might crave. Port forwarding, DMZ and Dynamic DNS are all there, plus some simple Quality of Service settings for prioritising sensitive traffic like video, games and VoIP. As well as concurrent 2.4/5GHz operation, it also supports a separate and isolated guest network.
We did have problems with VoIP services (Sipgate and Freespeech), which the excellent Belkin support desk helped us to narrow down to a possible incompatibility with the built-in SIP Application Level Gateway (ALG). This resulted in one-way audio for outgoing calls, which is a common problem with ALGs – many routers allow the ALG to be disabled, and Belkin says it hopes to resolve this issue in a future firmware update (we tested with version 1.00.46). For the time being, it’s pot luck whether your VoIP system will work with the N750 – Belkin told us it had not seen similar problems in its own testing.
How fast, how far? For our performance tests we used Passmark Performance Test’s Advanced Network tests on our updated setup of an Acer Aspire One netbook with a retro-fitted Intel Ultimate Wifi Link 5300AGN 3×3 adapter, which has three antennas and supports 450Mbps connections at 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Our tests were run in a typically noisy domestic environment, with several other neighbouring 2.4GHZ SSIDS visible. At 2.4GHz and 1m range, we managed a very good throughput of 52Mbps (we had to change the default radio settings to enable 40MHz channels, however). Changing to 5GHz gave almost an identical 53Mbps. However, at 25m range the picture was mixed.
At 2.4GHz, we managed an excellent 22Mbps, but at 5GHz we struggled to connect at all. The poor 5GHz range was disappointing, so we tried a different adapter (a Fritz WLAN dual-band 2×2 USB adapter) and achieved a very respectable 15Mbps at 25m using the 5GHz band. This could indicate some kind of glitch related to the Intel chip or its driver, so it would be unfair to judge it on this result. Its consistent and reliable long-range performance is probably of more interest to frustrated home users having problems with wireless dead spots.
- Ease of setup; excellent 2.4GHz range
- Basic NAS function
Very easy to setup and use, reasonably priced, and with a sensible selection of extra features that won't deter less experienced users. The N750 DB offers excellent long-range performance, and the USB sharing feature works particularly well, although it's a shame it doesn't support 3G dongles.