Can setting up a Wi-Fi network ever be drop-dead easy for non-technical folks? Maybe not, but Cisco gives the problem its best shot with a new brand, Valet, that will co-exist with Cisco’s well known Linksys line, now being positioned as “enthusiast” products. Setting setup aside, Cisco has definitely come up with some nice Wi-Fi management software—but I wish there were a way to sell people Wi-Fi gear without removing the technical information that explains how one product differs from another.
At launch, the Valet line consists of three items: the $100 Valet and $150 Valet Plus Wi-Fi routers, and a $100 USB adapter. The somewhat Apple-esque packaging for the Valet router I tried out was covered with aspirational taglines such as “Home wireless made easy” and “Welcome to the new home wireless experience.”
The box was also free of most pesky specs, apart from the Wi-Fi Alliance logo showing certification for 802.11b/g/n. That at least told me that while the Valet does support the fastest Wi-Fi standard, it only supports it on the 2.4ghz band, which in many places is woefully overcrowded by signals from neighboring networks, Bluetooth devices, microwave ovens and some cordless phones.
The package also doesn’t say anything about the number of transmitting and receiving antennas, which also impacts performance. Cisco’s data sheets say the Valet has two of each, the minimum required for 802.11n certification, while the Valet Plus has a 2×3 transmitting/receiving antenna array; the Valet Plus also supports gigabit Ethernet, compared to the Valet’s 10/100 ethernet. Cisco says a lot of novice users are puzzled and put off by this sort of information – they’re satisfied just being told that, for example, the Valet Plus is faster than the Valet.
But inside the box, the Valet really does distinguish itself from other routers promising easy setup. Instead of a quick setup guide or CD, you get a USB flash drive and just three printed instructions telling you to insert the drive into a USB port on your computer (both Windows PCs and Macs are supported), run the Cisco Connect software on it, and follow the instructions. Now, that’s about as easy as it gets, if it works.
And I have no doubt it can work just like that on a new PC, or one that’s never been connected via Wi-Fi before. But I tried it out on a four-month-old Lenovo notebook that had been connected to another network, and the first thing I got after running the software was a window asking whether I was sure the Wi-Fi on my notebook had been turned on.
Clicking around, I realized that Lenovo’s Wi-Fi utility was waiting to be reconnected to the previous network (even though that network had been disconnected). I had to clear out my old network profile from the Lenovo utility and then start all over again with the Cisco software before things could progress. The setup wizard said it might take five minutes, but it took more like 10 until I finally got a message saying I was connected to the Valet, but might not be connected to the Internet. If I wasn’t, the instructions said, I should disconnect and then reconnect my broadband modem and try again. In fact, that’s what I wound up doing, and after that I immediately hopped online to a secured network.
So much for no-hassle setup. I don’t think my experience will be unique since there are probably a lot of people out there who might consider a Valet to replace an aging 802.11b or g router and might run into similar issues. The problem is, just about every notebook vendor has their own Wi-Fi utility, and Cisco can’t possibly write software to deal with all of them.
That said, Cisco Connect’s usefulness isn’t just about setup—in fact, the best part of the whole experience was how easy it was to add other computers to the network (in my tests, an iMac and another Windows 7 notebook). That’s because the software not only creates settings such as network ID (mine was DizzyDove) and a strong encryption key to secure the network, but it saves them to the USB drive, so when you want to add a new computer, you simply plug the drive in to a free USB port and run the connection utility again. No worries about creating passwords that you then lose, coming up with a network name (or leaving a brand-name default that you might confuse with a neighbor’s Linksys). Adding another computer took only seconds, since no router setup was involved.
But wait, there’s more. Cisco Connect has a feature that lets you give guests Internet access without allowing them access to your computers (a feature more commonly associated with business routers that seems like a good idea for home users, too). There’s also a highly configurable parental controls feature (lots of routers have them, but this makes getting to them exceptionally easy). Finally, you can change the default network name and password directly from Cisco Connect—and, for more hands-on types, there’s a link to the browser-based interface that will be familiar to longtime Linksys customers who like to tinker with advanced settings.
Cisco Connect seems so useful I found myself wishing I had it to use with my more powerful, dual-band 802.11n Linksys router—but the software wouldn’t run without connecting to the Valet it accompanied. However, Linksys says it will put the same software (but for installation from a CD, without the USB key) in the newly reconfigured Linksys line that’s also launching. There’s the $80 E1000, which is essentially the same hardware-wise as the Valet; the $120 E2000, which has either-or dual band support (you get to pick between 2.4ghz and 5ghz 802.11n), a 2×3 antenna array, and gigabit Ethernet; and the $180 E3000, with support for simultaneous 2.4ghz and 5ghz 802.11n networks, two 2×3 antenna arrays, and gigabit Ethernet. (For Linux users, the E2100 offers the same hardware as the E2000.)