AcerRouter 101 10/100BaseT IP sharerReview date: 15 August 1999.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
I've checked out IP sharers before - see my review of the Lightspeed models here. They're handy little gadgets for a lot of small office situations; you hook the sharer up to a modem (or, less commonly, an ISDN or other higher speed adapter) and to your Local Area Network (LAN) and it lets every computer on the network access the Internet for basic Web surfing and e-mail and FTP, optionally disconnecting after a given period of inactivity.
It's not nearly as good as having a proper high speed pipe connecting your office to the Internet, but neither is it nearly as expensive, and for the basic connectivity that's all the average small business or home network needs, an IP sharer is a marvellously simple and straightforward solution. There's no duplication of modems and scuffling for free phone lines, and there's no gateway computer to configure. You plug it in, you run the simple setup procedure, and you forget about it. It just works.
Acer is a rather better known brand than Lightspeed, but it still doesn't carry a big name price premium. The AcerRouter 101 IP sharer retails for about $425 (Australian dollars). This is about a hundred bucks more than the basic Lightspeed sharer, but the Acer unit offers rather more.
Like the higher-spec Lightspeed sharers, the AcerRouter can connect to two modems and use them simultaneously, to improve throughput when demand warrants it. You'll need a couple of separate Internet accounts or an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that permits multiple simultaneous connections to the one account, and you still won't get more than modem speed on any given connection, but you can at least have a couple of modem-speed things happening at once. As with the Lightspeed dual-port IP sharers, the AcerRouter can dial the second modem only when there's enough going on to warrant it, and disconnect when demand drops again - or it can try to stay connected all the time.
The Acer also supports both the 10BaseT and 100BaseT Ethernet protocols, a feature the Lightspeed competition can't match. This makes it easier to integrate the Acer sharer into simple 100BaseT networks, because connecting even one 10BaseT device to a 100BaseT hub will choke back the whole network to 10BaseT speed. This is because the hub repeats everything it gets on one port to all of the other ports, and can't buffer data that's going to a slower recipient or block data that's not addressed to the device attached to a given port. More expensive switching hubs can do all this, but they're overkill for simple networks.
The AcerRouter can be connected straight up to a spare port on the hub and work in 100BaseT mode. Of course, the data actually going to and from the AcerRouter isn't going to use more than a tiny slice of the 100BaseT bandwidth even with two 56K modems in full flight, so your actual Internet access will be no faster through the AcerRouter than through a similar 10BaseT sharer, but at least everyone else will be able to talk at full speed.
On the back panel of the AcerRouter is the barrel socket for the included AC adaptor, and five RJ-45 connectors. Two of these are serial ports; you get a pair of RJ-45 to standard 25 pin serial plug cables in the box. If your modem has a nine pin connector you'll need an adaptor to fit it , but most are 25 pin.
Like a lot of other low cost 10/100BaseT gadgets, the AcerRouter has no 10Base2 (coaxial) network connector on it. If you're running an old 10Base2 network and don't want to upgrade to the considerably less troublesome 10BaseT, one of the cheaper Lightspeed sharers is a better option.
The AcerRouter comes with a small, slim but adequate manual in comprehensible if not elegant English, and a single quick-start sheet which really does cover all that most users need to know about setting the thing up. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's a foolproof plug and play gadget, but, like the Lightspeed IP sharers, it's about as close as you can get.
The first step is to plug in the modem(s) and the power, and connect the AcerRouter to a network hub. You can also connect it to a single PC, if you like, but in plain networks the hub connector's the one practically everyone will use.
The secret to the simplicity of these IP sharing gadgets is that, thanks to their TCP/IP-aware nature, they can be configured in a Web browser. Just enter the IP address of the sharer once you've connected it to your network, and you can fill in a simple form to tell it your ISP account details. Login scripts are supported, just as they are in Windows 95/98. The AcerRouter uses Java for its setup interface, so older browsers won't work with it, but all of the current big names on PC and Mac will work fine.
Like the Lightspeed sharers, the AcerRouter also comes with an extra serial cable for directly connecting it to a computer to set it up the non-Web way, at 9600 bits per second via a simple terminal program. You can also program it via Telnet over the network. You'll only need to do this if you have to change its default IP address (192.168.1.1) so that your network can see it (to learn why a network might not be able to without reconfiguration, check out my networking guide here).
Again like the Lightspeed sharers, the AcerRouter can act as a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server, so you can set other computers on the network to be assigned an IP address by it, which is all you need to do to make it your Internet gateway. If you don't want to use its server abilities, you can turn them off, set your own addresses or use a different DHCP server, and manually set the AcerRouter as a gateway on all connected machines.
Once it knows that, you're basically ready to go, as is anyone else on the network. Actually, it's even easier than setting up the Lightspeed gadgets, because the AcerRouter doesn't need to be explicitly set to programming mode with little switches on the back - anybody who knows the (changeable) administrator login name and password can set the Acer up any time.
The AcerRouter, by default, acts as a quite secure firewall between your LAN and the Internet; you can see out, but they can't see in. If you want people to be able to see a local FTP or Web server, you can tell the AcerRouter its IP address and it'll route incoming requests to that machine transparently. For this to work properly you'll need an Internet account with a fixed IP address - the local server will appear to be on whatever address your account uses, and if that address isn't fixed (ordinary dial-up accounts assign you a different address every time you connect) people won't be able to find you.
You can also allow remote dial-ins - you can configure up to three accounts for people to call your modem(s) and access your network. You can do the same thing with Windows' Dial-Up Networking - in fact, with Windows 98, you can do the whole Internet connection sharing thing quite easily with no extra hardware or software at all - but the IP sharer does it without involving an expensive and unreliable Windows box.
If you don't need its extra features - 100BaseT mode, dual ports, remote connection options - then the AcerRouter isn't worth the extra money over the little Lightspeed units. But it's not much more expensive, and it's considerably more flexible. For simple, straightforward Internet sharing (that won't crash every time Windows does...), this is an excellent solution.