Review: X-Router MIH-120
What Is It?
Technically speaking, the X-Router isn’t really a router. It’s an “Internet Sharing Hub.” Essentially, it performs as a bridge, hub, firewall, and DHCP server all in one. It provides a wealth of functionality in a small, affordable package. While it’s a good value, it does have some shortcomings, namely its performance, its limited number of NAT port mappings, and its lack of AppleTalk support. Overall, however, the X-Router is the perfect solution for a DSL or cable modem user who needs to connect multiple computers to the Internet and faces the limitations of using only one IP address as assigned by an ISP.
Why You Need One
These days it’s becoming easier and more affordable to connect to the Internet via a cable modem or DSL (Digital Subscriber Line). Yet many ISPs limit their customers to one IP address, or charge extra for additional addresses. Several solutions present themselves to remedy this situation.
One option is to use gateway software such as Vicom Software’s Internet Gateway which is priced per user starting at $215 for a five-user pack. Another software product is Sustainable Softworks’ IPNetRouter which is $89 for a single license and will serve an unlimited number of users. Both of these products are versatile and flexible, although many network administrators feel that Internet Gateway is the more powerful and configurable of the two. These solutions do have their disadvantages, however. Most obvious among them is that many people may not have the luxury of owning an extra computer which they can dedicate solely to the task of hosting the gateway software. This translates to less than optimal performance since the computer will not be able to dedicate all of its processing power to the gateway software. For users transferring small amounts of information, this may not be a large concern, but for users who perform processor-intensive tasks on the machine running the gateway (such as working in Photoshop or editing large sound files in SoundEdit 16), Internet access will slow down to a snail’s pace for all computers connected. Additionally, if the computer running the gateway crashes, all Internet access will be cut off. Setting up these applications can be a daunting task for net newbies as well.
Enter the hardware solution. It eliminates the need for a dedicated computer and all the problems entailed with that dependency, and it may be easier to configure and setup. Many network hardware manufacturers sell DSL routers or cable modem routers which connect directly to the DSL or cable jack. One example would be the Netopia R7100/7200 series of SDSL routers. Similar devices exist which connect to the DSL modem, cable modem, or any other Ethernet device (i.e. an Ethernet to Ethernet router). Again, Netopia provides a solution which serves as an example: the R9100.
The X-Router is essentially a watered down version of this type of device. Until recently, products such as the X-Router cost more than $299. Now, however, one can find cheaper versions of such routers, such as the NetGear R311 router, which sells for $50 less than the X-Router. It doesn’t have the four-port hub that the X-Router does, so it is less of a plug and play solution, requiring a hub to be connected (which also entails a modest additional expense, though hubs are practically free these days!).
What it Does
The X-Router is intended to be used as an “Internet Sharing Hub.” This functionality is achieved by plugging the cable or DSL modem into the WAN (Wide Area Network) port on the X-Router via a Category 3 or Category 5 patch cable, and plugging up to four computers into the X-Router’s built in 10Base-T hub using the same type of cable. Should more computers need to be connected to the net, the fourth port on the X-Router’s hub may be toggled between straight through and crossover mode. Hence, another hub may be plugged into the fourth port, and additional computers may be plugged into that hub.
The X-Router can act as a straight through Ethernet to Ethernet bridge. In such a scenario, each computer connected to the X-Router’s hub (or any additional hubs connected to the X-Router) would need to have its own IP address provided by an ISP. Should the ISP not be willing to provide multiple IP addresses, or should they charge for them, the X-Router will enable all of the computers connected to it to access the net using only one IP address. This is achieved by assigning the X-Router that one IP address (alternatively the X-Router can obtain its IP address dynamically from an ISP) and configuring each computer connected to it to obtain an IP address via DHCP. The X-Router will then automatically assign each computer an IP address within the “private” subnet of 192.168.1.xxx. Alternatively, each computer may be manually assigned an IP address in this block. These IP addresses are not accessible from the Internet. Only computers connected to the X-Router’s hub may access one another. Hence setting up a Web server (or any other kind of server) could be problematic. To facilitate servers and computers with similar needs, the X-Router utilizes a protocol known as NAT (Network Address Translation). NAT enables the network administrator to define a port mapping table.
For example, Web servers typically use port 80. If a user wanted to set up a web server and connect it to the X-Router, he would assign it an IP address such as 192.168.1.100. Then the X-Router would be configured to route all requests which are received on port 80 to the IP address 192.168.1.100. Then users could access the Web server by typing in the IP address of the X-Router itself. This setup would require the ISP to provide one static IP address such that the domain name for the server (such as www.myserver.com) could be assigned to an IP address.
So What’s the Bad News?
One limitation of the X-Router is that it only allows for ten port mappings. While ten mappings may seem like a lot, it is limiting for more advanced setups. The initial release of the X-Router only provided for five port mappings which was far too restrictive. A recent firmware update increased the mapping limit to ten. Additionally, the firmware update added the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) Host feature which allows one computer connected to the X-Router to have full in/out access. This is a welcome feature and aids in setting up a server, or hosting network games. It also relieves the ten-port mapping limit somewhat, although more mappings would provide for greater flexibility.
Another problem with the X-Router is that it seems to be sluggish in terms of network bandwidth. I found that when I connected through the X-Router to my local file server, download speeds were decreased by as much as 25-30%, which is quite substantial! For Internet access this will have minimal impact since download speeds over the net are relatively slow (whereas generally, download speeds from a local server are an order of magnitude greater), but for internal file transfers between machines or for servers connected to the X-Router, this is a major concern.
Worse yet, the X-Router does not appear to support the AppleTalk protocol. When I connected the X-Router to my network, none of the X-Router’s clients could access my AppleTalk network. When I checked in the manual and on the Web site, there was no mention of AppleTalk as a supported protocol. Unfortunately this is an increasingly popular trend in network hardware. Even Apple is moving away from AppleTalk as a protocol. Even so, many people will find the lack of AppleTalk support problematic. The Netopia R7100 and R9100 don’t support AppleTalk out of the box, but for $149, they can upgraded to support it.
The X-Router is configurable via a Web browser from any machine connected to it. This is slick, although it has become a de facto standard in all such devices. The configuration engine is straightforward and well implemented. Should any user not find the configuration options self explanatory, the manual included with the X-Router is concise, thorough, and well-written. There does appear to be a bug in the Status Monitor display, however. I never managed to get the DHCP Client display to show any clients connected, even when there were definitely clients connected via DHCP.
All in all, the X-Router is a good little box. For most home users, it is a great way to go. It provides an inexpensive way to connect multiple computers to the Internet via a cable modem or DSL using one IP address. It is as close to plug and play as such as device can get, and the documentation is good. The quick development of a firmware update, which provided changes for which users had been asking indicates that MacSense is dedicated to supporting the device.
However, the lack of AppleTalk support and sub-par performance are bothersome. The cheaper Netgear doesn’t provide AppleTalk routing either, nor does it provide a hub. I have no idea how its performance compares, but at $50 less it may be a smarter move, especially if you already have a hub. For more advanced users, a device such as Netopia’s R9100 is probably a better way to go for it will offer greater flexibility and the option of AppleTalk routing, albeit for an added expense of $150.