Some people probably still remember that I used to have an absolute fear of flying and planes altogether. To the point that I have avoided going to the on-site interview of the company I’m now (years later) working for, because it would have taken place in California and I got scared. While I still do not like to travel, I’ve been traveling quite a bit in the past few years, not only back and forth between Venice and Los Angeles, but also within Europe and within other cities in the USA both last year and this.
In particular, TripIt is telling me I’m going to be away from home at least 41 days this year (and this is without including trips that are not scheduled yet, such as a visit back in Italy, and another trip to the United States in November). And most of them are not for personal reason (although some are, luckily). With all of this going on, I’ve started looking at any reasonably cheap option for me to reduce the pains of traveling.
One of these options came to me through a few colleagues, who presented me the Asus WL-330NUL — a tiny wireless router, the almost exact size of the Ethernet adapter that was bundled with my laptop, that provides you with your own, personal WiFi network, routed to another, less-private network, either wireless or wired. An absolute must if you spend a considerable amount of time in hotels.
First of all, the device itself is tiny, as I said it’s almost the exact size of my Ethernet adapter and it can replace it 100%. Indeed, the device has four interfaces (although not the proper term): USB (gadget), Ethernet and two wireless radios; the USB connection is used both for host connectivity and for power: if you connect the router to your computer via USB, it’ll present itself as a
cdc_ether device, which Linux supports full well as if it was a standard Ethernet port — if possible, it’s better supported than some of the USB Ethernet adapters out there in the wild.
Once your computer sees the connection via Ethernet, the device itself can be configured to either use a wired or wireless upstream connection — if you choose to use a wired network, which is what I do, as I’ll explain in a moment, then this by itself is going to be already a replacement of the ethernet adapter; indeed at first the device will configure itself to be a simple bridge between USB and Ethernet, although that’s not what I use it for.
Once you configured the wired or wireless upstream connection, you can focus on setting up your own private WiFi network: the second radio can broadcast your own SSID and handle your own 802.11n network, protected with WPA for instance. Since you have a stable SSID/key combination, once you turn the device on, all your gadgets will connect to that network, without requiring manual, device-by-device, configuration.
Even better, since you’re now behind a router, for what the hotel or other provider is concerned, you have a single device: you consume a single IP and a single connection. For networks where you have to login separately for each device every 24 hours (or even every reconnection), this also means you only have to do it from one device, where it’s handy, and everything else will follow.
As I said above, my suggested approach is to always use the wired network if the hotel makes it available (most of the non-economy hotels do). The reason why I’m saying this is that it’s easy to misread the security implications of a device like this. While it is true that it can create your own private WiFi to then route to the hotel wireless, when you do so you add nothing to security, even if your WiFi is WPA2. The reason is simple: the public wireless network from the hotel is still completely unencrypted, so anybody eavesdropping can see what you’re doing, unless you’re using encrypted websites and even then part of your traffic can be inspected, such as which websites you’re consulting. If, on the other hand, you use the wired network, while not totally secure (the hotel and the provider can still see the non-encrypted connections), you’re still stopping a good bunch of people from gathering your data.
Finally, there is one more feature that is important if you travel a lot among hotels of respectable size: all of them use multiple access points for their WiFi networks, even though they broadcast the same SSID (and sometimes they don’t); these access point do not allow you to roam data across them, so if you have two devices, say a Nexus 7 and a Chromecast that you bring with you, they may not be able to talk to each other without a device like this, as they may end up on different APs, and unable to “see” each other on the network, or at least not consistently enough to stream from one to the other. Since with this device you can just connect all the gadgets at the same network and access point, your problem is then solved.
I’ve been using the device for ten days now on two hotels and two airports, and it’s definitely handy. I can’t complain about the range either: I’m now in Pittsburgh’s Bakery Square at the SpringHill Suites and my phone connected fine to it across the square in the Coffee Tree Roaster shop. Oh yeah and my room faces away from the square too.
Also, the power supply (by Asus!) that I bought last year (the original US one that I got with it just died on my, so I bought a different one) comes with a USB charging port by itself, which means I can just WiFi from my laptop even with a single power socket, freeing up the USB port (I only have two and one I use for my smartcard reader). I guess I could probably run this off my Anker battery but I have not tried that yet, as I somehow doubt that the airlines would be okay with me broadcasting my own WiFi on their planes. In any case, this is now part of my essential tools.