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REVIEW: AximCom MR-108N Router tested on Mac, Linux ... oh yeah Windows too!

Richard Chirgwin

Review product: AximCom MR-108N Router with 3G Support

Supplied by: PCRange

RRP: $259

The reason the AximCom MR-108N router caught my eye is that it offers a solution to an occasional, but when it happens, disastrous event: the loss of broadband.

For some reason, where I live is subject to long-lived outages, from cut cables to contractors setting fire to a cable pit. Losing broadband for hours is inconvenient, whereas losing it for weeks can be catastrophic.

The obvious solution is to buy a 3G broadband service as backup, which I have done, but this can also have problems. The 3G dialler application is poorly-written, and from time to time it behaves as if it is my default connection, and gets in the way of the ADSL connection.

Moreover, the mobile carrier didn't offer a Mac client, and I am a frequent Mac user; more often, I am a Linux user (my personal laptop has no Windows installation at all), and getting Linux working reliably with a 3G modem is an odyssey that few are willing to undertake.

Finally, there's the matter of sharing the connection. My wife and my sons run two Windows computers, and getting the 3G modem to reliably share a connection over a LAN was also painful.

So when the AximCom MR-108N was offered for review, my hand went up immediately.

The first thing to note about the device is that it is only a LAN switch and router: it's bring-your-own-modem.

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The upside to this is that it won't get in the way of anything you've already installed; but there is also a downside, since if you don't already have a 3G modem (or for that matter a DSL modem), you'll be buying these devices separately.

There are three models in the AximCom MR range: the MR-105N, at $229; the PGP-108N, at $239; and the version I tested, the MR-108N, at $259. Each has four LAN ports, one Ethernet WAN port and one USB 2.0 port, and can therefore connect either to a 3G device (via USB) or a DSL or cable modem (via Ethernet). They also support 802.11n, the latest in the world of WiFi networking, with dual antennas to optimise multipath signal propagation (and therefore device throughput).

A test of 802.11n speeds is beyond the scope of this road test. My interest here is to look at the AximCom kit as a way to simplify the use of 3G as a backup to standard DSL or cable broadband.

The AximCom packaging is prosaic rather than sexy (which also means there's lots more recyclable cardboard than plastic), and the unit itself is neat and unambiguous. The unit comes with antennas, power pack, and one short Ethernet cable. I would probably have suggested a 2m cable. Even though most users will be connecting over WiFi at home, if you're using the 3G device, you'll want flexibility about where you put the router. In my house, near the window is the best place for the 3G modem, but the DSL modem lives under the desk. Since most networked homes probably have Ethernet cables lying around, this isn't an important issue.

The "quick start" guide in the package was in Chinese, but I presume that a translation will be ready when the MR series is on shop shelves. Not that I particularly needed the guide (note: afterwards, and without needing the quick-start guide, it was pointed out that the English version is on the back of the Chinese version!).

With that much, you can get yourself connected to the MR-108N and start using the Internet. The interface  is pretty straightforward - not much different than any home / SMB networking device.

The other thing you'll need, if you're going to use the MR-108N for DSL access, is to know what type of connection your DSL modem uses - but you can get this information from the modem itself.

My only criticism in the setup is in the default WiFi settings. Different countries have slightly different spectrum rules with regard to WiFi channel allocation, so the MR-108N offers the choice between two channel plans. One, using channels 1-11, is for the US, Canada and Taiwan (according to the interface), while the other, using channels 1-13, is for Europe, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong.

In practical terms, end-users probably won't even notice the localisation setting, but since the device supports this localisation, I wouldn't hide it away on the "advanced wireless" settings page. The ordinary customer probably avoids advanced settings wherever possible.

Users also have the option to create two wireless networks with different SSIDs, applying different security policies.

I had one surprise that I still haven't either repeated or debugged. The first time I accessed the UI was via the Ethernet cable, so I could set up and activate the wireless access. Once that was done, I disconnected the cable - and found myself able to surf the Internet, but unable to access the management interface.

I can't blame the MR-108N for this, since I have no firm diagnosis of the problem. Once I restarted the wireless on my machine, everything worked. It did, however, catch me by surprise for a few minutes.

With local access set up, getting it to recognise and connect using my USB 3G modem was a cinch. All I had to do was open the WAN admin page and make two selections: my modem brand (Huawei), my country (Australia), and my carrier (3). No other item needed setting.

Moreover, and unlike using the 3G modem directly connected to any computer, re-connection is automatic. As soon as the router is powered up and the 3G modem is plugged in, it connects and works.

This is only a small advantage under Windows, but on Mac and Linux it's a huge plus. I haven't managed to get the modem to work properly on a Mac, and there are only a few flavours of Linux that it seems to like (and, I must mention, none of the Linux 3G modem diallers I've encountered so far count as 'easy to use'). The automatic connection combined with a Web setup interface get rid of a lot of frustration and irritation for the non-Windows 3G user.

Another nice touch is the speedometer on the user interface, which lets you see the data rate you're currently getting over the 3G connection.

It's possible, however, that carriers might find themselves feeling less benevolent towards the app, since it gives you a live, on-screen, and immediate snapshot of just how bad things can get in congested areas. I was a little disappointed when the connection from home dropped down to 820 Kbps (I have seen it operating at close to 7 Mbps on a good day). But in the Sydney CBD, performance never broke into a brisk walk, let alone a run - the best I was seeing was 100 Kbps.

It would be hard to live with a shared connection anywhere less than a couple of megabits per second, which is a pity, because a box like this is the easiest way to share a 3G data connection.

As should be the case, the MR-108N shared the connection with no setup at all, which makes it vastly easier to share a 3G data connection in any environment. The Windows user doesn't have to try and work out how to share a USB network connection with other users on the network, because that task is taken out of the hands of the operating system.

There are a couple of criticisms I have, two of them concerned with default settings and security. The first is that the device ships with uPNP switched on. For the unschooled user, it's probably better to leave it switched off unless it's needed.

The other relates to the DHCP default. This is a vexed question, and shouldn't really count as a criticism, but one of the basic assumptions of the device is that the customer already has a network of some kind, since the MR series don't have their own DSL, cable or 3G modems.

Anyone with an existing network already has addressing allocated somewhere, probably from their DSL or cable modem. Probably the most common reason I see for "can't connect" problems is when users run into problems with their IP addressing, because most users aren't equipped to diagnose address conflicts.

So there's a good argument to have DHCP switched off, except that this would probably cause users some confusion when they tried to configure the unit out-of-the-box. It's a fifty-fifty call, but at the very least, the quick start guide should tell users how to configure their system if they have an existing addressing scheme.

My final criticism is that the system only supports one WAN at a time in its configuration. A future release (the upcoming MR-216N) will have load balancing, allowing users to set up both WAN interfaces and spread their traffic across each them, but I don't need anything that sophisticated.

Since I use the 3G as a backup to the wired broadband service, it would be nice to be able to set up two WANs in advance, and tell the box which one should be active - so I don't have to go back to the administrative interface to switch on the 3G interface when the DSL's down. It won't be too hard to do if and when I need it, however.

There are a host of features I haven't touched on here. The MR-108N supports VPN pass-through, which is handy for those who need remote access to their home networks; and the system also has bandwidth-management features that power users and gamers will love, but which I don't really need.

What I want is a simple and reliable way to connect and share 3G across the home LAN when the DSL dies - and the MR-108N offers just that.