ActionLink USB Cable Single Room Network Starter Kit

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, send e-mail
Published by: Actiontec, go to the web site
Requires: Two Pentium-class PCs, each with minimum 16MB RAM and CD-ROM drive, Windows 95 (with USB upgrade), Windows 98, or Windows 98SE or higher, 1 modem and Internet Service Provider account are required for Internet
MSRP: US$69.00

(Ed Note: reviewed in 1999)

Home networking is rapidly gaining in popularity. The demand is coming from all types of computer users with multiple PCs in one home location who need easy to install file and printer sharing, Internet access sharing, and occasional multi-player gaming. Actiontec's ActionLink USB Cable Single Room Network Starter Kit uses a USB cable which can be plugged into any two computer systems with USB ports. The ActionTec DynaNAT(R) software is supplied for modem sharing. A pair of PCs equipped with USB ports, running a USB- compatible OS such as Windows 95b, Windows 95c, Windows 98, or Windows 98SE are required to install the kit. Patch software for some OS versions is included in the ActionLink package.

Many home computer users are finding that linking two PCs together to share files, play games, and share an Internet account is useful, fun, and quite necessary because of the presence of two or more computers. But for companies trying to get home consumers to dive into networking, the biggest problem up until quite recently has been finding easy, quick methods to teach typical home users about hubs, network cards, 10-BaseT Ethernet cables, and Windows network interface card drivers. Forget about it. Most users just want connectivity, not a technical education.

The Universal Serial Bus (USB) system introduced mainly by Microsoft and some key computer makers a couple of years ago, has simplified installation and configuration of a wide range of peripherals (printers, monitors, external drives, speakers, scanners, and so on). ActionTec's USB networking system brings the same level of good functionality and simplicity of installation to home networking.

The ActionLink kit contains a 20 foot (6 meter) USB cable, a CD-ROM containing the DynaNAT software and two manuals (1 for the cable; 1 for DynaNAT). We networked two home computers in a small home office: a brand new Dell Dimension PIII/400 running Windows 98SE, and a PII/266 clone running Windows 98. Both computers had 128MB RAM, 8MB 3DFX cards, 3Com 56K fax/voice modems, and 10/100 Ethernet cards. We had to remove the Ethernet cards from both computers.

Installation is simplicity itself. Install the networking and DynaNAT software on each computer, then plug in the USB cable. That's it. Run the configuration at any time to change the default settings. The software sits in your System Tray and provides troubleshooting help if things go wrong. DynaNAT is software that allows for Internet access sharing. NAT stands for "Network Address Translation" which is commonly found in hardware based routers. DynaNAT acts as a DHCP server; when a client machine is booted, an IP number is automatically assigned to it. A normal 56K modem connection worked properly. There is no faster access available using ActionLink because network cards must be removed on both systems in order for ActionLink to work. Playing Quake 3 over the Internet might have been interesting for us, but with only a 56K connection it was nearly impossible. Playing Quake 3 between the two systems locally was excellent however. The host system had a ping of 0 and the other system had a ping ranging from 50 to 100.

The maximum network throughput you'll achieve on a USB network of this type is about 4 megabits per second (Mbps). 10-BaseT Ethernet tops out at approximately 10Mbps, averaging 5-6Mbps. ActionLink's performance when copying files, printer sharing, and LAN gaming was only slightly slower than standard Ethernet; very nice indeed.

Cons: You must remove any Ethernet cards installed in the PCs you want to network. This is a bit of a disaster because of the growing popularity of ADSL, DSL, and cable modem hook-ups. For us, stepping way, way back to 56K modems speeds from our usual cable modem connection was a genuine disappointment.

Pros: Typical home computer users will find this kit absolutely easy to install and use. Synchronize your files, provide Internet access for both computers, use 2-player games, share files, drives, and peripherals. The ActionLink package includes a reasonably good, basic Firewall (part of DynaNAT). If Ethernet is beyond you, this Kit is an excellent option and definitely faster that a serial cable. Everything installed and worked as advertised and the documentation was great. We'd give this kit our highest rating except for the incompatibility with network cards and the consequent lack of access to ADSL, DSL, and cable modems, but if you're happy with your 33.6K or 56K Internet access (or if ADSL, DSL, and cable modem access is simply not available in your locale), the ActionTec ActionLink USB network kit is a great choice that's priced right.

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