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Wireless Routers Made Easy

You don't need a computer science degree to set up and use these devices.

OK, so a wireless router might not be as "sexy" as a sleek smartphone, desirable camera or slim television — but it's one of the most important tech purchases for your home.

This small box connects to your high-speed Internet connection and allows multiple devices to get online without having to be plugged into the modem. These include computers, printers, smartphones, tablets, e-book readers, video game consoles, Internet-ready televisions and more.

wireless router

— Corbis

While liberating — as you're no longer tethered to the wall — wireless (Wi-Fi) routers can be tricky to setup and use. This is why we were looking forward to testing two new products that claim to be easy to install and operate — even for those more tech shy than tech savvy. Both operate on the latest 802.11 "n" standard, which is faster than older 802.11 "g," "a" and "b" — and they work over greater distances, too.

Specifically, we tested Cisco's Valet ($99.99; Cisco.com) and D-Link's DIR-825 Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit Router ($119.99; dlink.com). Here's what to expect from them.

Cisco Valet

The goal of Cisco's Valet line of wireless routers is to "make home wireless simple and accessible for everyone." After playing around with one for a few weeks, we can confirm the company has achieved this lofty goal.

Along with the small white router and power cable, the only thing you'll find in the box is an "Easy Setup Key," a USB drive you snap into your computer (PC or Mac) to initiate the setup process. There's no manual or CD, as you won't need one. On the USB key is Cisco Connect software, which launches an onscreen "wizard" that helps you step-by-step. A few mouse clicks later, you've set up your wireless network name (such as MARYHOME) and a password. In less than three minutes, you'll be up and running.

The process is even easier when you want other computers in the home to join the network as you simply insert the same Easy Setup Key; because the USB drive retains all setup information, it quickly joins other computers to the existing wireless network. If it's another device, such as a wireless printer or iPod touch, simply have the device look for wireless networks in the area, select the name you gave your home network and punch in the password (only required once).

If you don't give your wireless network a password, your neighbors can steal your high-speed Internet connection, cause a slowdown on your performance and possibly use up your monthly broadband data allowance

On a related note, a neat feature with the Cisco Valet is the ability to set up a separate guest network for visiting friends or family. Rather than giving out your password (not recommended), you can set up a secondary password just for guests.

Another option is setting up time limits on devices; if you believe your kids or grandkids are on the computer or gaming system too long, you can set up specific times of the day for Internet access.

The Valet is perfect for users who live in small- to medium-sized homes and primarily use wireless devices. For users who live in larger homes and need multiple, faster wired ports, they might opt for the more expensive Cisco Valet Plus ($119). Wireless performance of the Valet Plus was quite good, including the ability to stream media from a PC to Apple TV in another room.

D-Link DIR-825 Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit Router

The product's name might be a mouthful, but this powerful wireless router is ideal for those who rely heavily on wireless performance in the home.

Called "a bargain," by Laptop magazine, this wireless router is a "dual band" router that's like having two Wi-Fi networks in one router. Operating on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies for optimal performance (the Valet Plus is 2.4GHz only), this router is ideal for those who like to stream high-definition video throughout the home or play high-speed multiplayer games online. It's also ideal for regular computer usage, such as surfing the Web or reading e-mail.

Setup was quite easy, but there were a few more steps involved than the Cisco Valet Plus, not to mention one minor issue (that seemed to resolve itself) while clicking through the installation process on the CD-ROM. The software works on both Windows and Macs.

As with the Cisco product, this router is backward-compatible; therefore, it will work with devices, such as a netbook, limited to 802.11g, a or b wireless connectivity — but to get the most out of it, you'll want "n"-compatible products. On that note, D-Link also sells a dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) USB adapter for $70 that can snap into a laptop, game system, television and so forth.

But unlike the Valet or Valet Plus, this D-Link router also has a USB port that lets you attach, say, a printer or external hard drive, allowing it to join your wireless network. Therefore, anyone on the network can access these devices. D-Link calls this a SharePort, and it worked with a nonwireless Kodak printer and Seagate external hard drive.

D-Link says this product is also eco-friendly as it automatically shuts down any of the four wired ports (on the back of the router) that have no connection. Plus, the included computer software offers "wireless scheduling," which can power down your wireless network when not in use. The router also ships with an Energy Star-certified power adapter.

Along with a fast wireless performance — well over 110Mbps (for 5GHz) in our testing — the range was also excellent, with no "dead zones" in a fairly large home.

Both the D-Link and Cisco routers offer free, 24/7 technical support.

Overall, this D-Link router is a great pick for "power users" who demand serious performance over those who might prefer the easy-as-pie but not as robust Valet Plus.

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