D-Link hardware mashup is all mashed up
By David Pogue
New York Times News Service
Even before someone coined the term "mashup," mashups were popular in the technology world. Some are made in heaven, and are now standard pairings: clock-plus-radio, refrigerator-plus-freezer, cell phone-plus-camera.
Others are still on the early-adopter fringe: TV-plus-Internet, camera-plus-Internet, fridge-plus-Internet.
This month, D-Link, the networking-equipment company, will offer a mashup that nobody’s ever tried before: wireless router plus home backup hard drive plus digital picture frame. That, in a nutshell, is the D-Link DIR-685 ($300 list price).
The 685’s heart is in the right place. Its inventors have noticed that our high-tech homes are becoming cluttered with network-related gadgets and their associated cable creep. As long as people are going to buy all these different network gadgets, D-Link figures, why not combine them into one?
It’s the right idea. Unfortunately, D-Link is the wrong company to make it a reality.
First, the good news: Once you get the 685 set up, it works very well indeed. It broadcasts your Internet connection wirelessly — a fast, strong Wi-Fi signal (802.11n). This single router turned my entire house into a Wi-Fi hot spot, thanks to its ability to blast through floors and walls. I was even getting 3 bars of signal out of 4 all the way upstairs.
Every conceivable home-router feature is on this machine’s configuration screens: port forwarding, Application Rules, individual Web-site blocking, a sophisticated firewall, UPnP, Multicast Streams, Wake on LAN, users and groups, network access lists, scheduled lockouts, logs, security formats like WPA and WEP, remote management and much, much more. (And no, I’m not going to define those. If you’re among the geeks D-Link is apparently courting with this router, you know perfectly well what those things are.)
But you can get a much less expensive router to do those tricks. The 685’s selling point is that it has some unique tricks up its sleeve.
One of them is a tiny (3.2-inch) color screen. It’s useful for inspecting the router’s settings, but it can also display dozens of Internet information widgets: weather, New York Times headlines, stocks, sports scores, stocks, Twitter posts, and — delightfully — photos from your Flickr or Facebook accounts. It’s as though your router is now a Chumby, if you remember that desktop gadget.
(Too bad you can’t make the screen show you exactly what other people in the house or office are downloading or reading online. Now that would be an interesting feature.)
The 685’s case is so attractive (its antennas are concealed inside), and its widget feature is so cool, that you might be tempted to set the thing on your desk and glance at its parade of Internet info-bits throughout the day. Unfortunately, nobody will do that; this thing has a really, really loud fan. If you’re close enough to the router to see your photos and widgets, you’re also close enough to be driven mad by its jet-engine whirring. Bedroom placement is out of the question.
The 685 also has a slot on the side for a hard drive — which is not included. That’s OK, though; that way, you can buy your own hard drive online, in the capacity you desire. (Shop for a "2.5-inch SATA" hard drive.) Once you click it into place, the router’s screen offers you the chance to format the hard drive, and you’re off and running.
Why would you want a hard drive in your Wi-Fi base station? Because now it’s an NAS drive (network-attached storage), which is geek-speak for "a hard drive that every computer in the house can access at once, wirelessly."
For example, the whole family can use it as a backup hard drive. You can use it as a central storage repository for files that everybody needs — including, intriguingly, your whole family’s iTunes music collection. That’s right: Put your iTunes folder on this drive, and now all computers can play whatever music is in it. The router’s name shows up at the left side of the iTunes window as though it’s an iPod, which is very cool.
You can even teach the 685 to download BitTorrent files in your absence. That’s right, software pirates: You can have it download huge TV and movie files even while you and your laptop are out of the house.
All of this is great, right? So what’s the problem?
User-friendliness is the problem. Frankly, you’d have better luck figuring out how to fly the Space Shuttle.
The frustration begins with the bright orange sticker that’s been slapped across the network jacks on the back. The sticker says "STOP — Do not proceed until you’ve run the setup software CD."
What’s wrong with that? Three things. First, it’s directing you to work through a multi-step, complex, user-hostile procedure — wiring the D-Link router to a PC that already has a wired Internet connection, then running the pointlessly protracted installation software — that’s actually unnecessary. The router works just by plugging it into power and your modem.
Second, the setup software CD works only on Windows — no Macs or Linux, thank you. D-Link doesn’t mention this limitation on the box, on the setup sheet or even on the CD itself.
Third, when you finally try to remove the orange sticker, it shreds, leaving gummy residue and paper fragments precisely where they shouldn’t be: in the Ethernet jacks.
It goes on. For example, Quick Start sheet instructs you to connect a cable to the router’s WAN port — but that port is not identified anywhere. There are five identical, featureless and unlabeled Ethernet jacks on the router. Which one’s the WAN port? Let’s play Ethernet Roulette!
Above all — and this is the mind-blowing part — D-Link is selling this very complex piece of consumer technology without a single word of instructions for the features that make it unique.
Those cool features like sharing a hard drive, sharing an iTunes library, downloading BitTorrent, connecting a USB scanner or printer that all computers can share? There’s not a single syllable about them in the user guide.
In short, D-Link has gone to the considerable expense of inventing, designing and marketing a smart machine that could save a lot of people a lot of cost and complexity — and then hobbled it by making it much too cryptic and technical for 90 percent of its potential audience.
The DIR-685, in other words, is a very cool mashup — but at the moment, it’s also a bit mashed up.