Product Belkin Play Max
Specifications Concurrent 2.4GHz & 5Ghz 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, 4 switched Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports, 1 Gigabit Ethernet WAN port, 2 USB2 ports
WHEREAS YOU CAN SPOT most networking companies' products a mile off, Belkin kit changes its appearance almost as frequently as an agent in the Impossible Missions Force. Its new ‘Surf, Share, Play' range is a collection of five 802.11n wireless routers aimed at everyone from novices to enthusiasts, and the Play Max we're looking at here is the all-singing, all-dancing flagship model.
The Play Max's feature set is obviously intended to appeal to gamers and enthusiasts, yet given that these types are almost invariably suckers for flashing lights and knobs they can twiddle, we're not sure that its single Cyclopean green status light is really going to hit the spot. There's a small WPS push-button and LED below it, but otherwise the exterior is featureless. Even the antennas have been hidden away inside.
Setup is made stupidly easy - even the cables are already plugged in. The setup wizard works well, or you can bypass that and connect directly to the web admin page via WiFi, courtesy of a pre-configured SSID and password.
The grey upright box stands on a small pedestal - it's not intended to be laid on its side or wall-mounted. At the rear are the four Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports and, on our cable broadband model, a Gigabit Ethernet WAN port. None of these ports have status lights (no, we're not obsessed with lights, but they are very, very handy).
Sitting below the LAN ports are two USB2 ports, which can take either USB storage or printers - printer sharing is done via the Print Genie driver that needs to be installed on each network client. This works exceptionally well, automatically connecting and disconnecting the printer for each client as needed. USB storage is shared via Samba, and attached disks can be used as backup drives using the basic Memory Safe backup utility that's accessed - as are all the router features - via the Belkin Router Monitor applet. It's a shame there's no support for 3G USB dongles, though - it would have rounded off the router nicely.
The Play Max is one of the fairly rare consumer wireless routers offering full dual-radio, dual-band 802.11n functionality. This lets you set up concurrent 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, and in a neat move Belkin has also added a third WiFi partition for a guest network on a different sub-net, giving it just web access. Enabling Guest Access in the web admin console presents guests with a 2.4GHz-only SSID, complete with password authentication. There's supposed to be an option to enable login via a cafe-style web page, but we couldn't get this to work (we informed Belkin, who said they would investigate, but we haven't heard back from them yet).
Wireless performance turned out to be pretty good on 2.4GHz 11n connections. Using a Fritz WLAN dual-band USB dongle and Passmark Network Test, we easily achieved about 20Mbps transfers at a distance of 25m, with well over 60Mbps at 1m. Although near-field performance was identical on the 5GHz band, connecting reliably over 10m became difficult; it might be perfect for an interference-free connection dedicated to short-range video streaming, though.
A few other goodies come with the Play Max, such as the Bit Boost QoS settings. You can re-prioritise voice, gaming - there are seven supported titles - or video traffic on the fly from the tray icon. Music Mover is a UPnP server that streams media files from attached USB drives, and torrent Genie lets you continue downloading torrents to a USB drive when the PC is offline. Unfortunately this only works with the supplied Vuze (formerly Azureus) ad-supported torrent client. There's also Daily DJ for creating automatic playlists and Music Labeler for cleaning up audio track metadata.
If there was such a beast as a novice enthusiast, the Play Max would be perfect for them. As it is, it's a capable router that might be a little too dumbed-down for the cognoscenti, but still worth a look if you fancy a hassle-free dual-radio model. µ
Performs well, ridiculously easy setup, guest WiFi access, dual-radio, excellent printer sharing, configurable QoS.
Torrent offline downloads only works with bundled Vuze software, lack of port status lights.
Yes, it is.