Before Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Edge, there were Mosaic, Cello, and Viola.
Caption by: Kelvyn Taylor
The usability of routers has always left plenty to be desired. With interfaces seemingly designed by engineers on a tight deadline, they frequently assume a high level of technical expertise. There have been a few attempts to introduce more user-friendly graphical interfaces, but none have gone quite as far as Cisco's latest offering.
Cisco Connect Cloud makes its debut in the new EA4500 dual-band 802.11n router, and comprises a graphical user interface with a cloud-based component to give remote access features. The novelty is that Cisco has made an SDK available to third-party app developers via the Linksys Developer Community, allowing the creation of apps that integrate with what Cisco is calling its 'Smart Wi-Fi App Enabled Routers'. Apps to control devices like NAS appliances are nothing new, but these are usually in-house products.
At launch, six commercial apps were announced for iOS and/or Android devices — a full list is available on Cisco's website. These include the web filtering and blocking tools Netproofer and Block the Bad Stuff, streaming media players Hipplay and Twonky Video, Device Monitoring and the Gemini IP camera monitoring utility. Not all of these apps were available at the time of writing, but there is a free Cisco Connect Cloud app for iOS and Android that allows access to a few router settings such as guest access and parental controls.
The router itself is nothing out of the ordinary, sharing an identical chassis and very similar innards to the existing E4200 v2 model. It has three-stream MIMO (450Mbps) capability on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios, courtesy of twin Marvell 88W8366/88W8063 transceivers. The six internal antennas are a folded metal design arranged around three sides, and the sleek grey and silver case dispenses with any status lights apart from those on the four Gigabit Ethernet LAN and single WAN ports (there is no ADSL version). There's also a white-illuminated Cisco logo showing power status.
A USB 2.0 port completes the I/O features; this can be used for sharing either storage or printers, but 3G dongles are not supported. For printer and multifunction device sharing, a simple USB-over-IP utility is provided for client PCs.
Setup is via a CD-based wizard, and is a simple process apart from the fact that it's intended to be used over a wireless connection. We tried it over wired Ethernet and (after upgrading the firmware to the latest version) it worked, although the instructions in the wizard make no reference to wired connections. The wizard optionally allows the SSID and encryption keys to be changed, along with the router admin password and network name.
The admin interface is accessed by logging in at www.ciscoconnectcloud.com and creating a free account. The full service requires a web connection — if this is down, you can login locally using the router admin password, but only basic WAN and LAN settings can be modified. If the internet is OK, the router is associated with the Cisco Connect Cloud account, and all settings are then accessible via the local LAN or remotely from any browser. It's a somewhat clumsy system — reverting to a standard fully-featured text-based menu in the absence of a web connection might have made more sense. (Cisco has responded to early customer complaints on this issue, and does allow a firmware downgrade to a traditional interface, bypassing Cisco Cloud Connect altogether).
The interface is fairly intuitive, if a little slow and unresponsive, with configurable widgets showing the status of various settings arranged to the right of a list of categories. The top six categories are labelled 'apps', with router settings below these. It seems an odd distinction, but any setting in the app section is only accessible when there's a working web connection. These built-in apps provide parental controls, USB storage settings, LAN client management, Wi-Fi guest access, media prioritisation (QoS) and an internet speed test applet. Third-party apps do not appear on this list, however.
There are plenty of advanced settings tucked away in the various LAN and WAN settings menus, such as port forwarding, DMZ, MAC filters and so on, so experienced users need not despair of too much dumbing down. The DLNA media server and file sharing (via SMB or FTP, but not HTTP) are configured in the USB Storage app, but confusingly printers are added via the Device List. All remote access features can be disabled if needed without affecting local configuration options, but third-party apps may be affected as these hook into the cloud-based service, not the local network.
Performance was a very mixed bag. Using our standard setup of a notebook with an Intel Ultimate Wi-Fi Link 5300 and Passmark Performance Test 7, at 1m range on the 2.4GHz band (auto 20/40MHz setting) it delivered a distinctly average 44Mbps. However, at 25m it showed impressive stamina, maintaining around 26Mbps with no trouble. At 5GHz (with 40MHz-only channels configured) it improved to 57Mbps at 1m but dropped marginally to 23Mbps at 25m. These are good long-range results, but they don't really compensate for the unexceptional close-range performance.
Although we applaud the attempt to simplify configuration, other router manufacturers are already heading down similar paths. The app platform may be unique, but its success depends very much on enticing good developers to produce appealing apps. As a showcase for this new platform, the EA4500 is fine, with good usability and a solid, if unexciting, feature set. But its wireless performance is disappointing, and some fine tuning of the setup and configuration procedures is still needed.
Caption by: Kelvyn Taylor
Caption by: Kelvyn Taylor