Katherine Boehret

Feeling at Home With a Router

Like a hornets’ nest, the home router sits undisturbed by those who know better than to touch it. This antenna-enhanced box sends data to and from desktops, laptops, smart phones and TiVos (TIVO) throughout the house. Its indicator lights glow, signaling all is well with the network.

But setting it up can be a major ordeal. People beg their techie friends for help. Some sit for hours on the phone with customer support. A few brave souls muddle through a sea of acronyms and secure codes in an attempt to install the router. Once it is set up, many are afraid to change its settings for fear of disrupting it and losing Internet connectivity.

Enter Valet (TheValet.com), a new wireless router designed for people who are tired of being intimidated by a blinking box. Valet is designed by the people who brought us the Flip video camcorders, the ultra simple handhelds with ultra simple software that just work. And it comes from Cisco (CSCO), which also owns Linksys—a router brand that people know and trust.

I’ve been using Valet for the past week, but it took me only 10 minutes, from start to finish, to get it going, thanks to a simple USB key that plugs into the computer and sets everything up in the background in less than five minutes. I tried it on a Windows 7 PC running and on an iMac, as well as on mobile devices, including a BlackBerry, Palm (PALM) Pre and the HTC HD2. The Valet is available Wednesday for $100 on Amazon.com (AMZN), TheValet.com and Staples (SPLS) stores. Over the next two weeks, it will be sold at Best Buy (BBY), Target (TGT) and Wal-Mart (WMT). There’s also the $150 Valet Plus, with a Wi-Fi range about 20% greater than the Valet.

I ran into a bug while trying to install the Valet software on a Mac: I plugged in the USB key but its built-in software didn’t install and I got a message telling me that Valet wasn’t able to set up on my computer. A Cisco representative said this was a rare Mac bug that will be fixed over this week and next week.

Along with its simple setup, Valet automatically creates a guest network to go with the main network so visitors can log onto a household’s Wi-Fi—either with or without a password, depending on settings—and not gain access to files shared within that network. The Valet software has parental controls that make it a cinch to set up restrictions like blocking certain Web sites or cutting off Internet access after a certain time on school nights or weekends.

MOSSBERG

The Valet isn’t the first router to enable parental controls and guest-network access. Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) $179 AirPort Extreme Base Station allows users to set up guest networks. Likewise, Netgear’s (NTGR) six most recently introduced routers, priced from $70 to $190, offer guest networks and parental controls. But just as the Flip camera’s built-in software simplified the process of editing, uploading and sharing home videos, the Valet’s software makes networking approachable for anyone—regardless of technical skill.

The Valet comes in a box with a USB Easy Setup Key, wireless router, Ethernet cable and power adapter (the last two are hidden under the box’s interior packaging). Instructions on the box told me to plug the USB key into a PC or Mac. Then on-screen directions popped up, instructing me to plug the Valet router into the wall with the power adapter and then into my home’s modem using the Ethernet cable. I selected the “connect” option on the computer screen, and four minutes later, the network was set up.

The device’s software, called Cisco Connect, is divided into four categories: Computers & Devices, Parental Controls, Guest Access and Settings. With these, I could quickly see how many devices were connected to my network and learn the name and password for the guest network if I forgot it. (Valet networks have pre-set, randomly selected names and passwords that people can easily change. My network’s default name was RubyPanda and its password was mango62—both simple word/number combinations that are easy to remember.) If the guest network is password-protected, guests have to enter that password on a Web browser page, like at a hotel. This could be confusing for people used to entering network passwords at the operating-system level, right as they select the Wi-Fi network. A Cisco representative said using a Web browser page is a more consistent way of entering passwords and it saves people from having to answer questions they may not be able to answer if they’re logging onto the main network, like the name of the “WPA key.”

If people get stuck during setup, which happened with me when I ran into the Mac bug, a screen immediately displays a customer-service number for Valet that’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I spoke to a woman who tried several troubleshooting methods, but she didn’t know about Valet’s rare Mac bug. Once a computer is set up with the Valet network, the USB key can be taken to other computers to update them with the same network passwords and settings.

Using the parental controls couldn’t have been easier. After a password is set up, Web content can be blocked at a teen or child level on some or all devices. Specific sites can be blocked, and when I blocked Facebook on a connected Mac, it wouldn’t open on that computer without the parent password. Time restrictions on Internet usage can be set up here, with different settings for school nights and weekends.

Though the $100 Cisco Valet is more than twice as expensive as some wireless routers, its built-in software puts great emphasis on simplicity and ease of use, and turns setting up and using a a home network into an unusually pleasant experience.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg.

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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