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CONNECT: Networky gift ideas for the holidays

Opening a new gadget for the holidays isn't any fun if you can't connect to the InterWeb or other devices. Sometimes you need to upgrade your network, and they often make great gifts, too!

Holiday gift guide 2012

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

The following are some ideas for connection-type products, as part of our 2012 Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide.

Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Amazon.com. Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.

Netgear Wi-Fi booster for Mobile

$40

I was a bit scared about losing my Wi-Fi signal the day that I had a satellite dish installed at my house. The guys who installed it put the wireless router down on the first floor, which is two floors below my office. While the connection was adequate, there have certainly been some nerve-wracking days when it takes forever for a website to load.

But it appears my prayers have been answered with the Netgear Wi-Fi booster for Mobile. Before setting the extender up, I was only getting 62% of the signal over the 2.4GHz wireless spectrum. I've got full power now that the booster is set up. It took just a matter of minutes to plug the booster into an electrical outlet on the second floor, reset my router and voila we are in business.

The device uses Push 'N' Connect using Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which allows for a quick and secure connection. It works with all security standards including WPA-PSK, WPA2-PSK, mixed mode and WEP. Netgear says the booster will work with any 802.11b/g/n router or gateway (on the 2.4GHz frequency), so you don't have to worry if your router/gateway is from another vendor.

- Ryan Francis

Netzero 4G Hotspot

$50 (plus data charges)

The NetZero 4G Hotspot is a nifty device that uses 4G connectivity to create a traveling Wi-Fi network. You can connect up to eight Wi-Fi devices and with battery life of six-plus hours, this hotspot makes a cool gift for any mobile user who's grown weary of Wi-Fi hopping.

Before getting to the setup, it's worth discussing NetZero's data plans. I used the free plan because I was just testing. But this free plan only lasts one year and only gives you 200MB a month, which is not enough for much more than email and Web browsing. So if you are serious about this device you'll want to pay up for a better plan. It's also an option to eschew a stand-alone device and use the mobile hotspot feature on your smartphone, though that can be a real battery and data drainer, and will add an extra $15 per month to your cell phone bill in order to activate this feature.

The NetZero prices are as follows: $9.95 per month for 500MB, $19.95 for 1GB, $34.95 for 2GB, and $49.95 for 4GB. You can also control data speeds. Choosing LightSpeed caps your downloads to 1Mbps, while WarpSpeed allows you to reach 10Mbps. Free and $9.95 plans are already set to LightSpeed; plans that cost $19.95 are automatically set to WarpSpeed. You can adjust the speed at the NetZero Web site.

Out of the box the battery is near dead so you should plug it in. A micro-USB cable and wall charger are included. Turn the device on by holding down a small power button on the left side. One of the best features is a 2-inch LCD screen that lights up on the device and provides information such as signal strength, battery life, 4G connection status, amount of data transferred, number of devices attached, the name of the encrypted NetZero network, and the password.

I connected three devices: a Windows 7 laptop, a Motorola Droid Razr Maxx smartphone and an iPad. All three located the NetZero network quickly and I connected using the password from the LCD screen.

Inside my Boston apartment, 4G connectivity is spotty so the device only showed one bar out of five for signal strength. However, when I moved the device to my front window the signal strength improved to three or four bars. When I took the hotspot device and my iPad outside to a nearby park the signal was even better at four or five bars, and the Internet speed was solid (4G connectivity around Boston is considered top-notch).

A few complaints: The NetZero device is a tad big - it will fit in your pocket but not comfortably. It also took a while to fully charge an empty battery (around three hours). In addition, the Wi-Fi range it promises, 150 feet, does not hold true. Signal strength on my iPad dropped when I walked 30 feet across the room. You could probably still get a signal at 150 feet, but it will be very slow.

I haven't used similar hotspot devices so I can't speak to how the NetZero Hotspot stands up to competitors, but for the price of $49.98 (down from $99.95) this is an affordable and thoughtful gift for your favorite road warrior.

- Shane O'Neill

Targus Ultralife USB Hub with Ethernet Port

$40

If you suddenly find yourself using a new ultrabook or very thin notebook, you may be surprised to see a lack of USB ports, or the elimination of an Ethernet port altogether. In order to create a notebook that is thinner and thinner, things like these larger ports (or at least providing many of them) seem to go away.

So you may want to pick up this device from Targus, which provides you with three additional USB ports for adding things like a mouse, storage device or other USB-based peripheral. This Ultralife USB Hub also features an Ethernet jack, which can provide you with wired Internet access on the off chance you can't find a Wi-Fi connection (or in a hotel room, where wired is likely going to be better than wireless anyway).

Like other accessories in the Ultralife line, this device is very stylish, colored with a brushed bronze look, and a hole that serves no particularly useful function (other than matching the holes found on other Ultralife-branded products). I suppose you could grab a carabiner clip and connect it to your laptop bag, but in reality it's probably just easier to put this inside the bag alongside other gadgets.

- Keith Shaw

Netgear R6300 Wi-Fi Router

$200

Netgear's R6300 was the first 802.11ac (I hesitate to say that here, as the standard isn't finished yet, but you know what I mean) router to ship, and initial testing in our labs showed barn-burning throughput - roughly double the speeds of three-stream 802.11n. This isn't that surprising considering that we're using 80-MHz channels here instead of the 40-MHz channels of 802.11n, but, still, higher performance is always a good thing.

True, nobody really needs 400+ (Layer 7) performance in the home, but it's pretty clear that we're all going to be moving to 802.11ac over the next few years, so why not make sure that everyone on your gift list is ready for what might be the last big Wi-Fi upgrade for many years?

Netgear's contemporary routers are always very easy to use, and the R6300 is no exception. A full array of features, including push-button security (Wi-Fi Alliance WPS), parental filtering, guest access and QoS are all standard, and if you want to dig into low-level configuration options they're all there. It's dual-radio and dual-band, but remember that 802.11ac operates only in the 5-GHz spectrum, so at 2.4 you'll be able to use up to three-stream (450 Mbps) 802.11n.

It's DLNA-compliant for video streaming, and USB sharing of printers and storage is also included. I've been using my two R6300s as a wireless bridge, as there are a very limited number of 802.11ac clients on the market today. But, again, we're really talking about the future here, and I've been very pleased so far.

The industrial design is reminiscent of the monolith in the classic film "2001: A Space Odyssey", and it is a little bit big. But there's a very complete features set and excellent peak performance. And what says the holidays more than high throughput?

- Craig Mathias

Western Digital My Net N900 HD dual-band router

$150

There's a soft spot in my heart for Western Digital, which goes back to 1976 and an LSI-11 I used in an industrial automation project. But, of course, while WDC today best known for their extensive line of hard drives, the company also builds a number of home-entertainment and networking products, one of which is the My Net N900.

This residential wireless router features three-stream (450Mbps) 802.11n on both the 2.4- and 5-GHz bands, seven (woo!) Gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB ports, QoS, UPnP, DLNA, IPv6, guest access and network diagnostics. This is a more-than-serviceable router for the connected home. Another version of this product, the N900 Central, includes internal storage - something we'd expect from Western Digital, and thus akin to Apple's Time Capsule.

The design of this product is distinctly horizontal, a good idea considering the load seven Ethernet cables could otherwise place on the slender packaging. The browser-based management console is more graphical than most we've seen, but still easy to use. There are lots of low-level options if you really want to spend your time tweaking or experimenting.

The only real downside is that this is an 802.11n router (albeit three-stream) in an era of emerging 802.11ac. If you want to future-proof your network, this option probably isn't the best choice. It's undeniable, though, that the 200 +/- of three-stream 802.11n is more than sufficient for essentially every residential application - the My Net 900, is, given all of the above, a real contender here.

- Craig Mathias

Buffalo Technology AirStation WLI-H4-D1300 AC1300/N450 Gigabit Dual Band Media Bridge and WZR-D1800H AC1300/N900 Gigabit Dual Band Router

Router: $138

Bridge: $137

Does anyone really need 1.3Gbps over the air? Maybe not in terms of throughput, but 802.11ac is also about increasing overall capacity and improving reliability. With these pair of products, Buffalo is putting a stake in the ground for what is likely to be one of the largest applications for 802.11ac in the home - wireless media sharing and distribution. There are many ways to do this, but you can argue that more bandwidth and higher throughput will always have a positive impact on a user's quality of experience.

The WZR-1800H router features three streams, reaching that 1.3Gbps - the highest available in any product today. There's a second three-stream (450Mbps) 802.11n radio covering the 2.4-GHz band. All of the usual features are included here - security, sharing, four Gigabit Ethernet ports, and more.

What makes this router interesting, though, is the associated WLI-H4-D1300 Wireless Ethernet Bridge. Because 802.11ac clients and end-user devices with 802.11ac built-in are still hard to find today, some router products can be configured to function as a client-side bridge. Buffalo offers this dedicated product (the D1300) for this purpose. It's essentially identical to the router, and also includes four Gigabit Ethernet ports. Networking all your wired devices, including home entertainment products like TVs, game consoles and streaming boxes, is made easy. This should appeal to those looking for a no-compromise media experience.

Overall this is a solid product offering, and perhaps a great gift as well.

- Craig Mathias

Lantronix xPrintServer Home Edition

$95

The Lantronix xPrintServer Home Edition is an iOS print server that lets you use AirPrint technology with older non-AirPrint compatible printers. This is a great gift for friends and family members who have iOS devices, and are always saying that they will get you a print of something once they back up the pictures to their computers. Which they never do.

Best of all, it's easy to set up and use the device. Take it out of the box, plug in the power, plug in Ethernet and a USB printer, and you're all set. The xPrintServer goes out and grabs drivers for the USB printer and up to two networked printers on your home network. Next, the xPrintServer makes those printers available to iOS devices via AirPrint. As an added benefit, those USB printers are now networked printers, available to all the computers on your home network.

After you've set up the device, you can just go to the item that you want to print from your iOS device (photo, email, etc.) Press print, click "select printer" and choose which of the available printers you want. The process is simple and quick. Once it's set up, you don't have to do anything else.

There is a web interface for the xPrintServer, which lets you change the server's name and how printers are displayed. You can also change the default password for the device, but I didn't think that was necessary, since the only way to reach the xPrintServer is to be on the network, which should already have a password on it.

- Tom Lupien

Securifi Almond Wireless Touchscreen Router

$80 (Amazon)

Over the years, I've installed a bunch of home wireless routers, and the biggest frustration for me has been connecting the computer to the router and/or modem in order to configure the setup. Router companies have tried, with some success, to make the install process easier, with things like Easy CD setup and the like, but most of the time these complicate the issues - these install programs assume that a user is setting a network up for the first time as opposed to an existing network with other clients attached.

I kept wondering why a router couldn't automatically install itself right from the beginning without needing to have a computer attached to it. Like, maybe have a touch-screen display on the router itself that helps configure itself, then provide the user with the SSID and password right from the get-go? That's the idea behind the Securifi Almond, a small two-port wireless touchscreen router.

Without needing a PC connection or an "Easy CD", you plug the router in to power, then follow the instructions on the touch screen. The first thing it tells you - grab the included plastic stylus underneath the router in order to better touch the screen. Fantastic! With my worries about hitting the wrong button with a finger out of the way, I could move on to the configuration.

The router then asks a few questions about your setup (static IP vs. DHCP; are you using this as a router or range extender [more on that later]), before having you plug the Ethernet cable from your modem into the router. Once that's done, the system comes up with its own SSID and gives you a password.

Once configured, the UI on the touch-screen (as well as the UI through the browser-based admin access) is stupendous. Within both UIs, I could easily configure the router with my PC (via attached Ethernet cable - more on that in a bit as well) to change the SSID and password settings. While you could still change these settings directly on the touchscreen with the stylus, I didn't want to spend a lot of time typing in letters individually - typing the new SSID and password via a PC was just faster.

While the setup is basic, the router still has enough features to allow for customization. It's an 802.11b/g/n router, offering 300Mbps and up bandwidth (newer routers, even the non-802.11ac routers, offer 450Mbps), security options beyond WPA2 (although why anyone would want WEP or WPA boggles me) and adjustable settings for client DHCP addresses (among other settings). If you prefer to use this as a range extender, it's pretty easy to configure as well - just choose the network you want to extend, and the system configures itself to add a different SSID (usually it adds a "_almond" suffix to your existing SSID, but you can change that if you need to).

Now for some downsides. The SSID and password I got from the Almond didn't work when trying to connect via a number of clients (Windows PC and two iPhones trying to connect); it wasn't until after I used the Ethernet cable and changed the SSID and password that I could connect wirelessly. It's possible that my test setup (I'm connecting this router to an existing router at work, and not directly to a home cable/DSL modem) confused the router, but that's still an issue - if you're promising to make configuration without a PC a possibility, the first SSID and password has to work, regardless of a customer's setup.

Additionally, the company's web site is very, very basic. There's no support area set up - inquiries for support are done via phone number and/or email. There's no forum yet and the company hasn't offered any firmware updates yet. If you find that you have a more complicated setup than a normal home user, you might find yourself involved in a tricky support setting.

In the end, it's a great router in terms of offering setup features that surpass any other wireless router. If you can't stand configuring a router, the touchscreen functions are much appreciated. I would love to see these features and UI integrated into a more feature-packed router from a more-established vendor.

- Keith Shaw

Targus 7-port USB 3.0/2.0 Combo Hub

$80

If you have a notebook with only one USB 3.0 port but want to take advantage of newer devices with the faster speeds, check out this USB hub from Targus. The unit gives you three USB 3.0 ports and four USB 2.0 ports to help expand your peripheral options.

The USB 3.0 ports can be used for devices that take advantage of USB 3.0's faster data transfer speeds - portable external hard drives and printer, for example. The other ports can be used to connect things like a USB mouse, keyboard or as a charging port for smartphones or digital cameras.

The unit needs to be near a power outlet - I don't see a user traveling with this (see another review for a travel hub) as much as keeping it on their desk. Also, if you have seven devices plugged into the unit, be willing to accept the cable clutter that it will bring.

This hub will become more useful as the years go on - more notebooks will include USB 3.0 ports (and fewer of them as they reduce their size), thus giving you a reason to add ports for extra devices, while also providing the extra speed boost from USB 3.0.

Is this the greatest gift in the world? Probably not - I'm not seeing a lot of people jumping up and down at the prospect of opening a USB hub. But if you happen to see someone who is constantly plugging in and unplugging devices from their computers because they need extra space, a USB hub fits the bill just nicely.

- Keith Shaw

Wilson Electronics Sleek 4GV Cellular Signal Booster

$130

While Verizon Wireless markets its 4G wireless services in more areas around the country than other carriers, it's still early in the life of the technology - an area may be covered with 4G service, but that doesn't mean that you'll get 5 bars of service within those areas. If you find yourself with a weak 4G signal, a cellular signal booster like the ones offered by Wilson Electronics might be worth a look.

The unit is a small bracket/cradle that you place your cell phone in. When the phone (or a Wi-Fi data device) is sitting inside the cradle, the signal is boosted - in my tests I went from about two bars of coverage to about 4 bars. This can help boost your data rates as well, and a stronger signal will help with voice calls.

The unit is designed to be installed in a car - you can attach the signal booster to your car's dashboard via a 3M sticky adhesive, and then an antenna cable connects to the booster. The cable is long enough to thread through your car onto the roof of your car - the antenna has a magnet that attaches to the top of the car. The booster itself is powered via your car's cigarette adapter/charger. You can also use the signal booster inside your house by purchasing an optional suction-cup mount for the antenna.

The only downside to this is that the signal is only boosted when the phone is sitting inside the cradle - while you could use the data functionality of the phone without moving around, holding the phone and talking on it would be very difficult. Wilson recommends that users talk with a hands-free headset or speakerphone when using the phone.

If you find yourself with consistently weak 4G wireless signal (for example, if you drive a lot and need dependable signals in the car), the booster would definitely be worth a look. Is it the sexiest holiday gift idea? Probably not, but if your house or car has been suffering from weak signals, it might make some people happy.

- Keith Shaw

Cisco Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router (EA6500) and Wireless-AC Universal Media Connector (WUMC710)

$220 (router); $160 (bridge/connector); or $350 for bundle

Even though the 802.11ac standard has yet to be ratified, several vendors have come out with 802.11ac routers, aiming to get into customers' hands during the holidays. That's not a big worry - it's happened before, and once the standard is ratified, you can just do a firmware upgrade and be all set.

In terms of what Cisco is offering via its Linksys brand, we have the AC 1750 router (model EA6500) and a Universal Media Connector (WUMC710), a wireless bridge that can connect up to four Ethernet-enabled devices (the bridge then connects to the router via AC wireless). Because the 802.11ac technology is new, we haven't yet seen client adapters like USB dongles or built-in radios with notebooks, just wireless bridges.

The goal from the vendors is to provide faster wireless for entertainment-related devices than what's currently offered by 802.11n - things like TVs, streaming media boxes, game consoles. In fact, Cisco calls the router "HD Video Pro" to let customers know that this is for video streaming improvements.

Like Cisco's earlier Smart Wi-Fi routers, setup is relatively easy - just insert the included configuration CD into a notebook or PC and the smart wizard can do the rest (interestingly, it was the first time I could configure one of their routers wirelessly rather than a direct connection). Once setup is complete, you can access the router via web browser and make any configuration changes you desire (we always like changing the SSID and password, among other things).

Setting up the Media Controller was even easier - you can use the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button to send the configuration details from the router to the UMC in a matter of seconds.

The UI on the router configuration area is very nice - it gives you a quick view of the router's details, types of devices connected to it and lets you troubleshoot if anything isn't working correctly. You can set up a guest network very easily, as well as set up parental controls if you don't want kids (or employees) to access specific websites. There's a nice "Speed Test" tool that checks your ISP's bandwidth, in case you suspect a slowdown.

The router also comes with a SimpleTap card - a near-field communication (NFC) card that lets you put wireless configuration data on the card. With the card activated, you can then send that information to any NFC-enabled device (such as the Samsung Galaxy S III) without needing to configure it manually.

The router itself includes four Gigabit Ethernet ports and two USB ports, which let you attach printers or additional storage drives for shared access among the clients.

My only issue with the router and UMC was trying to achieve better speeds via AC than with wireless-N. I only saw a slight improvement in wireless speeds (38Mbps vs. 36Mbps) using the AC media controller vs. my notebook's internal Wi-Fi radio.

At this point, 802.11ac is such an early technology that I'd only recommend getting this unit if you're having a real issue with older wireless routers (such as 802.11g or earlier). If you already have an 802.11n router, I'm not sure the extra price is worth it at the moment. But if you want to future-proof your home network by jumping up to 802.11ac, feel free to grab one of these routers and bridges.

- Keith Shaw

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