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10/7/2005
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Review: Hawking’s HBB1 Broadband Booster

Wouldn't it be nice to have a crossing guard sitting on your modem, making sure all your Internet traffic just got along? That's exactly the premise of Hawking Technology's HBB1 Broadband Booster. And don't let the name fool you. Broadband is broadband. The booster manages the more esoteric side of Internet-to-network activity -- the bandwidth.

If a water pipe is in good overall shape, the water pressure is amazing when you open up that first faucet. Stream water out of the garden house at the same time and the pressure will drop a bit. Let loose with the backyard sprinkler system while those first two are still running and the pressure drops yet again -- and so on, until, eventually, we’re talking trickle and not a stream at all.

That’s roughly the same thing that happens on your home or SOHO network except “water pressure” is now called “bandwidth” -- the measure of your network’s ability to carry data. Everyone logged on to your network uses a slice of its available bandwidth. Lightweight applications, like e-mail or web browsing, use small slices. The heavyweights, streaming audio and video, gaming, and the like, demand big slices --sometimes to the point of seriously stealing bandwidth from other applications, causing them to slow down and sometimes even halt. Worse still is when your streaming applications can’t steal the needed bandwidth and sputter rather than stream.

In the upscale world of IT, the big boys have Quality of Service (QoS) algorithms that balance the differing priorities of data. In the up and coming world of home and SOHO networking, that same feat can be accomplished with Hawking Technology’s HBB1 Broadband Booster -- without the major expense or investment of time required at the IT level.

The most difficult part of installing the Broadband Booster is getting to it. Hawking has mastered the art of the Chinese Puzzle Box with interior compartments that first slide out of their exterior shell and then open like a book so their lids can be raised, revealing the small (XXX) booster, a network cable, and a dreaded power brick. Yes, it’s yet another thing that needs to be plugged into that octopus you once called an electrical outlet. In this case, however, the power brick is sized more like a power ice cube, making it friendlier to surrounding power plugs. Should that still not be small enough for your massed electrical array, Hawking also includes and 5-inch extension cable that terminates in a standard electrical plug.

The booster itself connects between your cable modem (it’s DSL and T1 capable as well) and your router so it can intercept and analyze incoming data. You’ll need to observe the correct direction of the connections and the booster is labeled to facilitate that. (Hawking suggests that the Broadband Booster is put to its best use in a network with at least two nodes, thus the mention of a router. It can, however, be used between just a computer and cable modem if, for example, you are prone to engaging in VoIP sessions while playing Web-based games, or doing FTP tasks.)

Technically, that’s all the installation you need to do. The Broadband Booster auto-senses the data flow and prioritizes based on its proprietary QoS algorithm called “Stream Engine” (by Ubicom). For the majority of the situations in which it’s used, the defaults will work fine. Should you feel the need to make changes, the HBB1 can be addressed as a device through your browser where it presents you with a graphical interface displaying both operational and administrative options that you can modify to a certain degree. The default parameters already understand P2P, a long list of online games, as well as streaming audio and video. As with all things, it’s often best not to mess with success. (There’s even a somewhat arcane, but well explained, method of changing your password if you’ve forgotten it.)

Does it work? There are four LEDs on the top of the device that indicate power, router and Internet connection, and boost. The boost LED lights when the HBB1 is at work. Is it just eye candy, like those flashing LEDs that simulate auto alarm systems? Not by my testing. Home alone, I went for the obvious. Hooking up the HBB!, I VoIPed a friend in Chicago and then started backing up and updating my blog site during the conversation.

I had only tried this combination once before and, at that time, I was lucky I already knew most of what my friend would be saying. This time around, there were no annoying dropouts and, yes, the boost LED told me it was doing its job. The trade-off, of course, is that, in my case, the blog updating took a little longer than I remember it taking in the past. That’s the compromise you make when you start prioritizing –not everything can be the top priority.

Should you buy it? Not if you don’t need it. The Broadband Booster excels during VoIP, video and audio streaming, web hosting, online console gaming and the like. E-mail and web browsing see relatively little, if any, benefit from the HBB1.

Hovering around $71 (street), it’s not exactly cheap but it’s less expensive than tossing your current router in favor of a QoS enabled replacement. Hawking Technology covers the HBB1 Broadband Booster with a two-year warranty and offers toll-free technical support. So if it blows up or drains your brain with a problem, you’re pretty much covered.

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