You do not need to spend $169 on a home router. There are plenty of great Wi-Fi routers out there that can handle the basic job of connecting your home to the internet and giving all of your wired and wireless devices the access they need. Find a refurbished model on sale and you might be able to spend as little as $20.
But, if you want to supercharge your home networking experience with a previously unavailable number of features, Cisco’s Linksys EA4500 is about as good as it gets.
The slender, black and silver device has all of the usual features you’d expect in a high-end home router: Dual-band Wi-Fi N (with backwards compatibility for b/g flavours), guest access, printer sharing and even gigabit LAN networking via the router’s 4 built-in ports.
Where the EA4500 really stands apart however, are the extras.
The EA4500 is one of the first Cisco routers to support the company’s Connect Cloud interface. Connect Cloud does several things to make managing a home router easier and more powerful.
- Streamlined interface: Out of the box, a Cisco Linksys router already has one of the easiest control interfaces on the market. Using the included Cisco Connect software, you get a straightforward, panel-based view of your router’s basic functions. Once you complete the free, firmware-based upgrade to the Connect Cloud control panel, this view becomes even more informative, showing you at-a-glance info like network health, how many devices are connected to your router, whether guest access is turned on or off, plus several other handy data points.
- The ease-of-use continues on the left side of the Connect Cloud interface with icons that give you one-click access to security settings, parental controls and every major area of router configuration.
Shared storage via the USB port. Plenty of routers will let you share a printer via the on-board USB port, but the EA4500 goes one better by letting you connect any kind of USB 2.0 storage device which becomes accessible over your network to all of your other devices. Given that you can pay hundreds for a NAS (network attached storage) drive, this one feature alone might be worth the price of admission. Once attached, you can set folder permissions (open to everyone, or go user by user for each folder on the drive), turn on FTP (File Transfer Protocol) which lets you access the drive from the internet, and turn on the Media Server which configures the drive as a DLNA/UPnP accessible volume – translation: you can access the contents of the drive from any tablet, smartphone, game console or media extender that supports either the DLNA or UPnP protocols.
- Online access to your router. Unlike non-Connect Cloud routers, the EA4500 can be accessed anytime from any internet-connected computer. This might seem like overkill, but if you’ve ever been away from home only to have your kids call to complain that Netflix keeps stalling, you’ll appreciate the ability to log in to your router from the office, hotel etc., perform a re-boot of the device and never once needing to tell someone at home to go and power-cycle the router physically (something that scares me when I have to send an 8 year-old to do the job!)
- Support for 3rd party apps. Yes, I know, apps are everywhere these days and now home routers are no exception. While the usefulness of Connect Cloud apps is limited at the moment (Cisco’s own Connect Cloud app for iOS and Android merely reproduces the features discussed in points 1 & 2 above, on your smartphone, there is a lot of potential in opening up the Connect Cloud environment to developers.
Lest we forget, in addition to these handy new features, the EA4500 also sports some of the longest-ranges in terms of indoor and outdoor connectivity you’ll find on a home router, thanks to its 6 internal antennas.
So if all of this sounds pretty good, but still not quite enough to justify the price, hopefully the best is yet to come. If developers jump on the Connect Cloud bandwagon, we could start seeing some seriously cool apps that would extend the EA4500’s capabilities even further.
Devs, if you’re out there, here’s my wishlist:
- Real-time device monitoring. Sometimes, when I walk by my home office and glance at the DSL modem, I see the activity lights flickering away like crazy. Something is consuming a lot of bandwidth, but I can’t figure out what it is. In our house, with as many as 10-15 Wi-Fi devices on the go at any time, it would be super helpful to be able to pull up that list of device and see in real-time which ones are consuming data and how much. This would not only help assuage my paranoia when I think someone has managed to crack my Wi-Fi security, but could be handy in figuring out of the kids are secretly watching YouTube when they’re supposed to be reading or sleeping!
- Remote media playback console. If you’ve ever used Plex or XBMC, you know just how much fun it is to be able to access all of your media through a thoughtful and intuitive user interface. But both of these tools require that your run server software on your Mac or PC. I’d like to see a Connect Cloud app that provides this same functionality for accessing all of the media attached to the EA4500’s USB storage port. FTP is nice, but it ain’t pretty.
Wireless networking is the best thing to happen to computing since the invention of the laptop. Cut the cord and roam around your house, office, cottage, or your local coffee shop all the while still connected to the Internet. No wonder so many people have jumped on the Wi-Fi bandwagon and set up home wireless networks.
But not everyone has taken the leap. According to research by IDC, a whopping 61% of Canadian households still don’t have a wireless set up at home. One reason for this might be that these consumers have no need of a wireless environment. Perhaps their one computer is a desktop and it sits right next to the DSL or Cable modem and never moves. Or perhaps it’s that setting up a wireless network can be a bit daunting. Add to that all of the concerns around wireless security and it’s easy to see why there might be a certain reluctance among some folks to get their hands dirty.
It’s this group of people that Cisco is targeting with a new line of wireless routers, known as Cisco Valet. If you’re familiar with Cisco’s line of Linksys routers, the Valet devices will look very familiar. They share the same thin, rounded-wedge profile as their Linksys brethren but sport a friendly silver and white paint job which gives them a more approachable look when compared to the shiny-black Linksys units.
The key difference between the two product lines is simplicity. While the Valet routers pack much of the same leading-edge wireless software and chipsets as the Linksys boxes, they come ready out-of-the box requiring almost no set-up or customization.
The Valet is aptly named. The whole experience is just like dropping off your car with a (good) valet: you hand them the keys and your parking troubles are instantly dealt with. In the case of the Cisco Valet however, it’s you who gets the key – a USB key in fact – that comes with the router. It’s this key that is, er, key, to the easy set-up.
1. Grab the USB key and plug it into any wired or wireless computer in the house.
2. Grab the Cisco Valet and connect it to your DSL/Cable modem and a power outlet.
3. Follow the step-by-step on-screen wizard on your computer.
A few screens and easy to understand choice later, and you’ve set up a fully secured Wi-Fi network that lets you surf the Internet (and do tons of other things) from anywhere in your home.
If you need to get other computers connected, just remove the key and repeat steps 1 and 3.
A few weeks ago I wrote about one of my favourite new products – the Kodak Pulse digital frame. It’s a photo-frame that lets you update the images via email, without needing a PC. But as someone rightly pointed out in the comments, the frame is useless if the person who buys it (or gets it as a gift) doesn’t have a Wi-Fi network. The Cisco Valet is the perfect answer to this problem, since even though it *does* require a PC for the initial set-up, the process is so painless, it makes an ideal companion to the Kodak frame.
In case you’re worried that the Valet is so dumbed-down that it lacks the advanced settings needed to do more sophisticated things like port forwarding, don’t be: Behind the elegant Valet user interface is a full web-based set of menus which give you the same access to the router’s inner-workings as you would find on any of the Linksys products. But I have a feeling very few people will ever want to peek behind the curtain.
My favourite feature of the Valet – beyond the incredibly easy set up – is the “guest” function. When you set up the router, it automatically creates a secondary network, one that is completely separate from the network that now connects all of your home equipment.
This second network is effectively a tunnel directly onto the Internet, to which you can grant access at any time, and to any person. Say your friend comes over with their iPod Touch and wants to download a new app. No problem. You simply give them the name of the secondary network and an easy-to-remember password and they’re online in seconds. But at no time can they access any of your computers, networked storage devices or any other piece of equipment in your house. Best of all, if your guest happens to be one of your children’s friends, you can impose the same rules around which websites are off-limits. That way no one ends up seeing something they shouldn’t.
The Cisco Valet is a Wi-Fi N product which means that if you have a Wi-Fi N equipped PC or other device, you will experience greater speeds and much greater wireless range than the previous “G” generation of wireless products. In fact, even if your devices are still the older “g” standard, you will likely get better range and performance, if not faster speeds, than your older “g” router.
You can pick up the Valet in one of two flavours: the regular Valet which at $99 is the best value for small homes and businesses, and the Valet Plus at $129 which is a better device for larger homes or businesses that need additional wireless range.
If you’ve ever considered creating a wireless network for your home or office, but have feared the complexity of such a set up, Cisco’s Valet family of products is easily the best solution.