By Joseph Moran
January 25, 2006
Price: $130 (ERP)
Pros: Includes Windows Connect Now for easy setup; StreamEngine provides QoS for sensitive applications like VoIP; setup wizard supports WPA and WPA2 encryption.
Cons: Does not include print server; limited Web filtering options; most configuration changes require device reboot.
When you hear the name X-550, it sounds like it might refer to a new supersonic spy plane or a spacecraft prototype. It turns out that the ZyXEL X-550 XtremeMIMO is just a router, but it is a technologically advanced one, and it has a twist in that it’s easy — real easy— to set up.
The 802.11g X-550, which is built around an Atheros chipset, supports 108Mbps SuperG, and is a MIMO device supporting multiple data streams. It has four antennas — two conventional-looking external dipoles, and two more internal antennas in an opposing orientation (horizontal). On the rear of the unit, you’ll find a toggle switch that will disable the X-550’s WLAN. This type of switch is gaining in popularity with router manufacturers, but it’s worth mentioning that the switch is the only way to turn the radio off; there’s no option to do it from the admin console software.
Not far from that switch, you’ll also find a USB port, but alas, its presence doesn’t signify an internal print server, or support for storage devices. Rather, it’s there as a network configuration aid in the form of Windows Connect Now (see below).
Most routers make do with a single bare-bones wizard that lets you get the device functional but, in the interest of simplicity, limits your initial setup choices (usually with regard to encryption method). The X-550 provides two browser-based setup wizards — one for connecting to the Internet, and the other for configuring wireless security. The latter lets you configure WEP, WPA or WPA2 encryption (or none at all, if that’s your thing), which saves you from having to delve back into the router’s admin console later to change settings (or avoid the wizard in the first place).
There are two accounts you can use to log into the X-550’s admin console — administrator and user. Choosing the latter lets you see all the device settings, but not change any of them. It’s not very useful. This type of account would probably be worthwhile if it had the ability to modify certain non-critical settings, which would save you from giving away the keys to the store by letting someone else into the device.
Access control is another strong suit of the X-550. You enable filters on a per-system basis by specifying a client’s IP or MAC address, and if a particular system is currently connected to the router, you can pick it off a provided list instead of looking up the address to enter manually. (A useful feature is the option to revoke the DHCP IP address of individual clients with one click.)
You also have the option to log the activity of a specific IP address and apply individual port and Web filters to it. The Web filtering falls short of being a practical parental control feature, though, since it doesn’t use any external source for site ratings. As a result, any sites not specifically allowed are blocked by default.
The X-550 has good logging capabilities, and you can filter logs based on the type or severity of network events. You can also save or e-mail logs, or route them to a syslog server.
A noticeable idiosyncrasy of the X-550 is that many, if not most, settings changes require you to reboot the router before they’ll take effect. It’s a hassle, especially when you’re creating all the router rules for the first time.
Also inconvenient is the fact that updating the firmware wipes away most user-configured settings, though you are given fair warning of this and have the option to save your configuration to a file.
Built into the X-550 is Ubicom’s StreamEngine, a quality of service (QoS) technology that’s found in other products like the D-Link DI-634M MIMO Router and the Hawking Broadband Booster HBB1. The StreamEngine is particularly useful in situations where there are multiple users sharing an Internet connection and using applications that are sensitive to latency and require significant upstream bandwidth, such as VoIP, videoconferencing and many types of online gaming.
By default, the StreamEngine is turned off. When activated, it will automatically manage the upstream bandwidth and prioritize traffic based on the kind of packets it sees, so that, for example, VoIP packets go out ahead of things like long e-mail attachments. If desired, you can create custom StreamEngine rules to manually prioritize certain types of traffic, or even all the traffic from specific PCs. However, the feature stops short of letting you allocate a fixed amount of bandwidth per user or system.
Windows Connect Now
One of the unique features of the X-550 is its support for Windows Connect Now (WCN), a technology designed to make it easy and automatic to set up a wireless network and add devices. WCN was introduced with XP Service Pack 2 (which is required) and the X-550 is one of only a handful of routers (or devices of any kind, really) that support it.
You start by running XP’s Wireless Network Setup Wizard, which prompts you to set up a new WLAN by specifying an SSID and the encryption method (you can choose WEP or WPA). By default, the wizard will automatically assign an appropriate encryption key, but you can override that if desired. After the SSID and encryption information have been entered or created, the WLAN parameters can then be copied to any USB Flash drive.
Next, plug the Flash drive into the USB port on the back of the X-550 (having the port on the front would have been more convenient, if not as aesthetically pleasing). After several seconds, a status light blinks three times to indicate that the router has successfully configured itself using the information on the Flash drive. You can then take the drive around to the other systems on your network. The Wireless Network Setup Wizard will recognize the device and configure the client’s WLAN settings accordingly. Last, reconnect the drive to the system you originally ran the wizard on to complete the process. When you’re done, the network configuration data is automatically deleted from the Flash drive for security reasons, but you can always add new clients to an existing network by running the wizard again.
I was initially skeptical about WCN, but the feature worked flawlessly on the X-550, equally well with out-of-the-box settings and again after it had been previously configured manually—the existing settings were wiped away as expected.
In a world where there are seemingly scores of broadband WLAN routers to choose from, the X-550 is appealing on many fronts — the speed, ease of setup, and StreamEngine performance. If you use upstream bandwidth-dependent applications, don’t need real parental controls and can live without an integrated print server, the ZyXEL X-550 XtremeMIMO should serve you quite well.