Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router N900 Media Stream (EA4500)

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Linksys-EA4500

A while back I purchased an Apple Airport Extreme Base Station to serve as our primary router and wireless access point. Though initially impressed, I learned that this expensive device wasn’t capable of fully permitting incoming PPTP VPN connections. In addition, it didn’t provide many configuration options. To work around this problem I purchased an ASUS wireless router and instead used the Airport as a wireless access point.

The final work-around resulted in two network devices where one could have worked just fine (I continued to use the Apple Extreme instead of only the ASUS wireless router because the Apple device offered better wireless range). I wasn’t thrilled with this setup and wireless covered was still lacking so I added a new device to my wishlist for Christmas, which I received.

We’re now using a Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router N900 Media Stream (EA4500). I was impressed with this model beforehand when my in-laws changed their router to one of these and I had a chance to work with it a bit. Since setting up our router I’ve removed the ASUS wireless router and the Apple Airport Extreme Base Station.

There are several features I haven’t used yet such as the ability to connect an external hard drive. The following are a few things I’ve learned about this router since installing it.

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An Inexpensive Airport Replacement for a 2006 iMac

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The Short Version: The Airlink Wireless N Mini USB Adapter (AWLL6075) works well for an iMac with a broken Airport adapter. The software could be less obtrusive but for the cost (and size of the adapter) it’s a good buy. It doesn’t load until the user is logged in so it can’t be used to connect to network services such as Screen Sharing or File Sharing without first logging in and running the software.

After I upgraded the processor in my iMac from a Core Duo to a Core 2 Duo I discovered that the Airport in the iMac wouldn’t work. The system didn’t show any errors and the card appeared to work, but it couldn’t detect any networks (neither mine nor my neighbors). I opened the system up a few times to see if I could spot the problem and even tried re-seating the card but nothing helped. My best guess is that I may have damaged the antenna.

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My Airport Extreme Base Station Cost Me Another $45 (Because It Couldn’t Do One Thing)

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<rant>

Before I go into the rant I need to state that overall, the Apple Airport Extreme Base Station is a very good residential router, in most cases. In my experience, it’s very stable and most of the features work very well.

But not all of the features… and this one’s a real pain to work with and could be a deal-breaker for many considering purchasing this device. If you plan to use Microsoft VPN PPTP to connect to a system within your network then I suggest that you do not purchase an AEBS.

The description states that it supports VPN PPTP pass-through. Well, I guess that’s only guaranteed for outgoing connections (not specified) or it’s an incompatibility with Microsoft PPTP connections. It would take too long to describe the various forum posts, support documents, and other resources I’ve combed through trying to figure out how to make this work. I’ve spent countless hours trying to find a work-around but I just can’t make it work.

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ASUS EeeBox PC as a Home Automation/Media Server

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I recently acquired an ASUS EeeBox PC (EB1006). My goal is to set it up to serve media, manage our home automation systems, and some additional security roles. I’m hoping this will be the last major change to the home automation setup for a few years.

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Slow iTunes Rental Downloads on an Apple TV (2nd Generation)

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The Short Version: My Apple TV (2nd gen) downloads were requiring far more time than necessary. I narrowed down much of the problem to a setting on my Apple Airport Extreme Base Station. By switching it over to “802.11a/n – 802.11g/b” from “802.11a – 802.11g/b” I noticed an immediate and significant improvement. 

A little while ago we tried to rent a movie from iTunes to watch on our 2nd generation Apple TV. The download was agonizingly slow. On average the load time showed it would be one and a half hours before the movie would be ready to watch. Obviously, this was an issue and made even more annoying considering it was already past 9 PM on a weeknight.

To make a long story short, I made three changes and though I’m not absolutely positive which one actually made the difference I think I know which change worked.

I came across several posts where users had improved their download speed by changing their custom DNS settings to instead use their ISP provided DNS servers. That did match my situation so I went ahead and set the Apple TV to use my ISP’s DNS. However, that didn’t seem to make a difference.

I also changed the iTunes rental preferences to only download SD (instead of renting HD when available). Considering I had already started the download of whatever format was available for the movie I don’t think this change made a difference and I may go ahead and set it back.

The one change that seemed to make an instant difference was to change my Apple Airport Extreme Base Station to use “802.11a/n – 802.11g/b”, instead of the “802.11a – 802.11g/b” configuration that it was apparently set to. This probably was the problem considering that the Apple TV does support 802.11n. Perhaps it just wouldn’t work properly on the wireless without 802.11n support enabled.

Updated 06/27/2011: Ever since I made these changes the rentals have started immediately. We’ve rented two TV episodes and three movies and all have worked great. I didn’t set the quality back to HD. Everything I’ve viewed has looked great at the SD setting and usually saves about a dollar per rental so I haven’t bothered to change it back.

Xbox 360 and Mac (OS X) Internet Sharing

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Last weekend I was visiting family out-of-town. I brought the Xbox 360 just in case some of us wanted to play. However, I wanted to show some of the arcade games and Netflix, which require live Internet connections. The television was in their living room, a long way from the router in a bedroom. Since I don’t have the wireless adapter for the 360 my only option was to share the wireless via a Mac.

My experience was specific to using an Xbox 360 but these settings will probably work with other devices.

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AirPort Extreme Base Station and VPN over PPTP

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Updated 06/17/2011: Before you get too far into this post I wanted to point out that I didn’t find a solution to getting a PPTP VPN connection to work with my AirPort Extreme Base Station. I switched over to using L2TP instead.

Updated: 08/03/2011: I’m moving to a different solution to bring PPTP back to my network setup, but you won’t like it. The step I’ve taken illustrates how inconvenient this problem can be.

Overall, I really like the new Airport Extreme Base Station that I purchased recently. The only problem I’ve had, and unfortunately it’s a major problem, is a loss of the ability to connect back into my network remotely over PPTP  via Windows 7 (I prefer to connect to my VPN when staying in a hotel).  I forwarded the appropriate ports but I was only able to use my network for about 20 seconds at a time. After that time was up I could no longer do anything on the network and the connection would usually close within a minute or two.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a true solution to this problem but I did find an acceptable work-around. I suspect this is a problem with the Extreme not properly passing the PPTP connection, though I don’t know for certain.

I started looking at using other VPN servers. Previously, I just had Windows 7 configured to accept VPN connections. I tried OpenVPN via a VMWare appliance in Fusion, but aside from configuration issues the larger problem was that I could not connect to the VPN using my iPhone or iPad.

My solution, which seems to have worked, was to purchase a copy of MacServe’s iVPN and move the VPN handling directly into OS X. Cost in USD was around $25. It hooks into existing OS X software but provides a simple GUI for management. This option turned out to be very easy to manage and works with all of my devices. Rather than using PPTP I moved over to L2TP.

On the Airport Extreme I setup three UDP ports to forward to a specific system within my network: 500, 1701, 4500

Currently, it sounds like OS X Lion may include similar capabilities, but I simply could not wait until the release of Lion.

Airport Extreme Base Station Initial Impression: Home Run!

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Updated 08/03/2011: The Airport Extreme Base Station has a major flaw for anyone planning to use a PPTP VPN connection to access a computer behind the router. I’ve added a new post that details my current view of the AEBS.

I finally had enough of dealing with my router problems and it was time to upgrade to 802.11n, so I purchased the AirPort Extreme this week. It came today and I just hooked it up. So far, I’m very impressed.

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Up Next: Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station

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I’m considering purchasing an Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station… My Linksys router has served me well over the years but I’m ready to upgrade to 802.11n support and gain additional features that are more relevant (and reliable) these days.

The thought of replacing my router has occurred several times, especially since, on a few occasions, I’ve come home to discover the firmware settings had reset and my wireless network was wide open. It’s only fair to point out that this probably isn’t a problem with the router itself. I’ve been running DD-WRT on it instead of the factory Linksys firmware.

Lately, I’ve also been thinking about adding network-enabled storage to my setup. The Extreme Base Station has a built-in USB port for that I could attach a USB hard drive to, which would allow me to connect shared storage without having to buy a stand-alone device or leave another computer on. In addition, I’m also attracted to the ability of creating a “guest” wireless network on-the-fly, which would be good for visitors so they don’t have to type in my very long and cryptic wireless key.

Having built-in gigabit ports is also a plus (though it’s also a slight negative that it only has three). Obviously that won’t make a difference when accessing the Web any time soon but it will help with local, high-bandwidth file transfers.

Overall, Amazon customer reviews are very positive and several have also stated that the signal strength is excellent. It just might be good enough to properly cover our home, which means I could remove an AP that is located on the opposite end of the house and thus reduce some unsightly tech clutter.

This is probably a purchase I’ll make very soon, but I need to give it some more thought. At $170 I’m hesitant to drop the cash right now but I think the feature set will win in the long run.

Update 03/17/2011: Due to another failure of the Linksys/DD-WRT setup I went ahead and purchased the AirPort Extreme.

Shut Off Wi-Fi when Ethernet is Active (OS X)

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Over at Mac OS X Hints a contributor has posted a hint with a script that will turn off Airport whenever the LAN port is used. For most folks this isn’t a concern but sometimes, in corporate environments, there are several reasons one may not want to be connected to ethernet and wi-fi at the same time.

The instructions are well explained though I had to reboot my system to get it working. In addition, you’ll also need to install growlnotify with Growl if you want to receive the pop-up notifications.

Auto-disable AirPort when ethernet is active Network (Mac OS X Hints)

Updated 08/18/2011: I’ve been using this for about ten months and it’s really not an essential function. Sometimes it’s convenient and other times it can get in the way. In some situations when I wake my laptop up, after it was previously connected to the WiFi, it doesn’t automatically start Airport. All-in-all, it’s no better or worse than not having it installed. Your mileage may vary depending on your needs and network environments.