What is it about gadget geeks? If there’s one obsession common to all the generations of geekdom, it’s got to be the desire for unification of all needs into one tool. It started out modestly. Maybe with the guy who fashioned his flint so he could easily both scrape and cut the animal hide. Then there was the guy who first put a nail puller on the back of a hammer, and on to to the combination compass/signaling mirror, the Swiss Army Knife, Leatherman, and an astounding array of multi-purpose hand tools. But it was with the advent of electronic gadgets that things really started to get out of hand. Read on for a rumination on multi-purpose gadgets and a review of a combo DSL/Wi-Fi/VoIP router.Sure, a radio and record player together. That makes sense. Clock-radio? Brilliant! Camera cellphone? Handy! Calculator watch? Uh, okay. Combination necktie/thumbdrive? Tazer/mp3 player? Coffee mug/digital photo frame? Noooooo!
Then you have the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none problem. Many times you have many useful functions in one device, but some, or sometimes all, of the features are sub-standard. I can’t even begin to list all of the gadgets that have had an mp3 player embedded into them (toilet paper holder, anyone), but with the exception of phones, they are universally crappy mp3 players, and 99.9% crappy at any and all of their intended purposes. In some cases, the inferior multi-technology is so counteracted by its convenience that it doesn’t matter. There’s no cell phone camera that can even hold a handle to the worst DSLR camera, but that doesn’t prevent people from using them everyday. And pretty much every cell phone is an excellent phone/pocketwatch even if you didn’t realize it. Even though pocketwatches fell out of favor decades ago, many people have realized they really don’t need a wristwatch anymore and have revived the practice of pulling their timepiece out of their pocket.
As you can see from my survey of combo gadgets, they run the gamut from inspired to insipid. I’d like to spend the rest of this essay discussing the inspired ones. Many of the most successful electronic gadgets of all time are successful precisely because they can do so many things. The personal computer as we know it is a word processor/video game/cash register/musical instrument/scientific calculator/mathematical instrument/music and movie player/etc and with the addition of the internet it’s also a message sender/telephone/television/encyclopedia/newspaper/etc. Today’s hottest gadget is a hand held music and video player/telephone/internet device/GPS/ebook reader/camera/computer. Of course, I’m talking about the iPhone. And it does each of those things just well enough to be a smashing success.
People love multi-gadgets, though, for their convenience, and a big part of that convenience is space savings. Why carry around a hammer and a nail puller (each with its own handle) when you can just carry the one tool that shares a handle? The devices and their power cords that the iPhone replaces would take up a whole briefcase.
I wired my home so that every room has cat5 and coaxial cable running to a central location in the utility room. Every window and door has a sensor, wired to that location as well, and cable for surveillance cameras. In the utility room, I have two patch bays, one dedicated to the security system and one for video and networking. Satellite, telephone, and DSL lines also run to this area. From that spaghetti of cables, I can easily run video signals, network, or phone service to whatever room needs them.
The way I’ve had the system set up for the past year, it’s got some problems. First, I’m running out of room in my patch panel. I have blocks where the phone and network sources are farmed out to their respective outlets, a video distribution block for my satellite TV, and a gigabit ethernet switch that I need to replace with one with more ports. That doesn’t leave much room for a DSL router, VoIP router, and wireless access point. And more seriously, because my VoIP router is “behind” the DSL router, and neither supports QoS, I can’t prioritize my voice calls, so when I’m downloading something, it can affect voice quality. I went looking for something better, and the geek in me desperately wanted to find one device to rule them all.
I found the Zoom 5695: a combination DSL/Wi-Fi/VoIP router. It basically takes three boxes that would all be in the same place, and need to each be plugged into the wall and to each other, and combines them into one. It also reduces much of the complexity of getting each of the three devices to be configured to work together. It’s not the only device of its kind I could find, but it’s a somewhat niche market, due in large part to the fact that most DSL routers are sold by telecom companies that have no interest in you using VoIP.
Probably the best thing about the Zoom is the fact that getting a DSL router, Wireless access point and VoIP router working together the way you want can be a real challenge, and I’ve wasted enough hours of my life fiddling with the settings on cheap networking equipment that I can honestly say that I’m done. That being said, it’s not because the Zoom is short on features. In fact the only router I’ve seen that’s as feature-rich as the Zoom is the Buffalo WiFi router that I hacked up with the uber-feature-rich open source Tomato firmware. As you can see from this screenshot, there’s not much advanced functionality that you’re missing here.
Step one was getting it up and running with my DSL line. I had lost the paper I’d received from Qwest, but after one five minute phone call, I had all of my account information ready. I entered it into the router, restarted and….. nothing. I couldn’t get DSL to sync. I sent off an email to Zoom tech support and they replied back promptly and had me change an extremely esoteric setting (I had to change the ADSL setting from “ADSL2plusAuto” to “T1413”) and I was up and running. I set up my network name and WPA password, and I was good to go. I went to my favorite online speed test (that tests VoIP functionality) and I was surprised and delighted to clock the highest speed test results I’ve ever seen on my admittedly-weak DSL connection.
For my final step, I entered in the SIP information for my VoIP provider, Viatalk. I’ve had great success getting Viatalk service working on various devices. I use it on my MacBook using the free VoIP software Gizmo5. I use it on my iPhone using Fring, and I have been able to use the service successfully in many places using many types of devices. Viatalk is also very inexpensive and uber-geeky in its dedication to esoteric voice features. If you need VoIP service, you should sign up.
Unfortunately, even though the new router has QoS and I can prioritize voice traffic, my crummy DSL line isn’t quite up to snuff for flawless VoIP service. I have plenty of bandwidth, but the signal isn’t reliable enough to maintain a constant connection at top bandwidth. My lack of broadband options is the price I pay for living at the top of a canyon up in the woods.
Another kink in my all-in one plan was that my patch bay is located in the back corner of my basement, and the Zoom router’s Wi-Fi antenna isn’t strong enough to provide a strong signal to the farthest reaches of the other end of my house. When I built the house, I anticipated this eventuality, and ran ethernet at power to a point inside a closet that’s in the center and top of the house. I installed my Buffalo/Tomato Wi-Fi router in that location and disabled the Wi-Fi in the Zoom. Remember how I said I didn’t want to waste any more of my life fiddling with router settings? Well, it took me more than an hour to figure out how to set the Tomato firmware to be the access point but use the Zoom as the DHCP server. With an external antenna, and the settings in the Tomato firmware that lets me amp up the signal to the point that the FCC would be justified in coming and busting my ass, I can get a strong signal anywhere in my house, and even out in the yard.
So I got the all-in-one wonder, and ended up not needing the Wi-Fi capability anyway. Oh well. And I actually would have really appreciated having another capability built into the Zoom router: a gigabit ethernet switch. But it’s working out okay. I badly need the four extra ethernet ports that the Zoom provides, but I’ve allocated them to devices on my network that don’t need the higher bandwidth. My PCs and Network Attached Storage, and media centers need the gigabit, so they can pass around big files between themselves. But the Wi-Fi router doesn’t, since 100 megabit ethernet is way faster than any wireless signal and streaming audio over AirTunes on my Apple Airport Express is fine with 100 Megabit too.
But let’s set our sights a little higher. What if I could get every function offered by every device down there in my patch panels into one device? What would it do? Well:
- DSL router
- VoIP router
- Wireless Access Point
- Gigabit Ethernet Switch
- Home security and fire alarm system
- Home automation and lighting control system
- Video surveillance system and DVR
- Audio and Video server
- Uninterruptible Power Supply
Given the right software and add-in hardware, an off-the shelf personal computer could fulfill all of these functions, though it would probably make more sense to keep the UPS and Switch as separate devices. The security, particularly the fire alarm, would make the use of an unreliable device not a very good idea, and it would probably make sense to make it so a user-error while fiddling with one of the trivial systems wouldn’t bring down the fire alarm, so maybe we should peel that one off as well. But it wouldn’t be that hard to develop a reliable, low power, modular Linux-based home server that could combine the rest of these features into one easy-to-configure box that could be mounted into the wall and managed from any PC on the network. As wired homes become more popular and in-demand, I predict that there could be a market for a device like this, perhaps leased to the homeowner by the network provider, much like the satellite and cable TV DVR boxes. In fact, Cable/Satellite receiver and DVR capabilities could be centralized into this device, and streamed to the TVs in the house over Gigabit Ethernet (with an HDMI converter and IR receiver at each TV). Of course, if the cable companies had anything to do with this device, it would be bargain basement quality with a mediocre user interface. But we all need our dreams.
Want to buy the Zoom 5695? You can get it at Amazon.com