At Gizmag we get to see a LOT of gadgets, so it would stand to reason that after years of writing about these devices it would be hard to surprise us. But, every once in a while it happens, we find a technology that really floors us, or a device that's so well implemented that we have to say, "WOW!" ZyXEL's AG-225H is one of these. We covered the release of the device a while back (you can check out our previous article here), but when we heard about what ZyXEL said the device could do, we needed to give it a try ourselves. Dave Weinstein reports:
The AG-225H is a multi-purpose device, it's about the size a USB flash drive, but includes all the functionality of a WiFi finder and a USB wireless adapter. And it does this for both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands, so it supports 802.11a, b, and g. Additionally, ZyXEL went to the trouble of including Soft AP drivers, so when you use the device with your PC you have the option of being a node on the net, or acting as an access point for others (more on this later). With all these bells and whistles, it's not only a wonder that they were able to squeeze everything into the package, but that all the features work. And after a bit of testing, we have to say, it works flawlessly.
Why we like the device
WiFi finders are a dime a dozen these days, so it stands to reason that any manufacturer contemplating the creation of one of these things better be thinking of what features that they can add to stand above the crowd. A basic WiFi location device can be purchased for under US$10, so why would anyone even consider this ZyXEL device with a MSRP of US$99?
It's really an issue of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. The AG-225H is basically made up of 3 parts: (1) a stand alone dual band WiFi Finder, (2) a dual band USB WiFi adapter, and (3) ZyXEL's Soft AP software. In an era where most new notebook PCs have WiFi built in, this may seem a bit redundant, and it would be if the Soft AP software that lets you configure the AG-225H's WiFi as a WiFi access point and share whatever Internet connection your PC has with other devices.
The Hotel Room Problem
So, if your notebook PC already had built in WiFi, and you were already connected to a WiFi network, why would you want to bother making a personal WiFi network on top of that? It comes down to security, access and cost. Anyone that's ever used the Internet service at a hotel knows that you have to log onto their service, and pay for each device you want to connect. The same holds true for WiFi hotspots, you have to be a member, or you have to pay for an alloted amount of time on their network.
But what if you have 2 devices? or 5? Why pay for 5 connections when you can share a single one? What if the device you want to use is a VoIP handset, and doesn't have a built in browser you could use to get it authorized? Thats were this device shines. When you plug it into the USB port on you PC, it allows you to configure a 2nd WiFi network that you control. All the Internet traffic on this secondary network gets funneled through your PC, and goes out to the net through whatever connection you're paying for. You're free to use your WiFi PDA, VoIP handset, Skype phone, Sony PSP, or let your friends and collegues piggyback on your connection. That is as long as they're within WiFi range of your PC. While this is just beginning to be important today, it's going to be critical in the near future.
There are other ways to do this. You could carry around your own wireless router, but it's unlikely that you'll be able to fit a router and it's power supply into the pen holder in your briefcase. There are several companies that offer "travel" routers, but every one of them is well over 10 times the size of this solution.
It's not all roses with the AG-225H, the one area where the device failed is in it's documentation. To be fair while the manual for the device was very clear on how to set it up, and explained the device's functions well, it left out any explaination of how to configure your PC to actually be able to use the included access point software. In fact had some fairly network savvy folks (us!) spend a full day trying to locate and configure additional software to act as a PC based NAT router. A half page description on how their Soft AP software interacts with Microsoft's built in connection sharing would have saved us a lot of grief. This isn't entirely ZyXEL's fault, Microsoft's Internet Connection Sharing isn't a well documented feature, so we feel they should share the blame too.
So if you want to set up this device as I've described above, here's the secret, at least for a Window's XP PC. First, you'll need to install ZyXEL's Soft AP drivers. Then run Microsoft's "Network Setup Wizard" (which you can find by selecting the "Network and Internet Connections" category for the Control Panel and then choosing the Network Setup Wizard on that page), when it asks you what type of connection you have, tell it that you're connected direcly to the Internet (even if you aren't), select your other (not the ZyXEL) network connection as your Internet connection, then select your ZyXEL AG-225H as your "private" connection. You should configure the rest of your connections to suit your needs, how ever you choose to do it won't effect your personal WiFi network.
We're completely enamored with the device, and think that every road warrior should have one in their gadget bag. You never know when you'll need to share your Internet connection due to circumstances or some intentional roadblock put up in the name of commerce or security. Having a handy little device like this that helps you get around these problems and lets you get one with your work.
There are similar devices available on the market, in fact Linksys just released the WUSB54G product with looks eerily similar to the AG-225H, and although we haven't tested the Linksys version, a quick perusal of the online manual told us that i has neither the dual band capabilities, or the Soft AP software that make the AG-225H so great. In this case even though the WUSB54G has an MSRP that's US$20 lower than the AG-225H, it's not much more useful than the US$10 WiFi finder anyway.
In the end it's the right mix of hardware and software that makes the AG-225H a great product, if we had a thumbs up or a gold star system, we'd give it our highest rating. Great work ZyXEL, we can't wait to see what you come up with next.