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Hot Spot Shortcut, in the Weeds

You want to hear a really scary statistic? Twenty-five percent.

That’s how many wireless routers get returned to the store. Not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they’re too complicated to set up.

Come to think of it, that means there is something wrong with those routers.

Cisco Valet wireless router
Source: cisco.com
Cisco Valet wireless router

A wireless router is a plastic box that, when plugged into the D.S.L. or cable modem that delivers your Internet service, creates a Wi-Fi hot spot in your home. With it, all your laptops, iPod Touches, set-top boxes, game consoles and other gadgets can get online.

To Cisco Systems , that “25 percent” statistic is especially scary, because the home Wi-Fi router market is enormous. In this country, 65 percent of homes have high-speed Internet service, but only half of those have gone wireless.

So about a year ago, Cisco, maker of Linksys routers, made a huge and expensive gamble in hopes of becoming, in its own words, “the Apple of the networking industry.” It paid $590 million to buy Pure Digital, the company that makes Flip camcorders.

Why? Because Flip camcorders are drop-dead simple to use — push one big red button, and you’ve mastered it. No wonder the idiot-proof, stripped-down, no-zoom Flip camcorders dominate the market.

Imagine, Cisco’s executives thought, if Pure Digital’s simplification wizards could be thrown at the task of simplifying the wireless router! Imagine if you could press one big red button to set the thing up, instead of spending a weekend futzing with S.S.I.D., WEP-2 and D.H.C.P. The new team’s mandate was this: “We want you to make it Flip easy.”

The result is the new Cisco Valet ($100), a sleek, two-tone plastic wedge of a router. You’ll be hearing plenty about it; Cisco plans to spend more on advertising this thing in the next three months than the entire industry spent on Wi-Fi routers in the last five years.

So how did the new team make the Valet Flip easy?

Some of the efforts were psychological (which doesn’t necessarily mean ineffective). For example, the Valet comes in simple, white, uncluttered packaging. The off-putting word “router” doesn’t appear anywhere on it or inside it. (Instead, the box says, “The simple way to create your own wireless hot spot.” Good; most people have probably heard of a hot spot.)

The Valet comes with a toll-free help line that’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Outstanding.

The package opens like a cigar box; on the inside of the lid, you find the real masterstroke: a white U.S.B. flash drive. Each time you insert it into a Mac or a PC, that computer gets added to the network — no network name, passwords or decision-making required. This is a far cry from the usual ritual of inserting a setup CD, typing “admin” into your Web browser and encountering one form after another full of confusing abbreviations. (If any of that sounds familiar to you, well, my sympathies.)

The software even names your new network for you. Your hot spot gets named something cute like HappyDog, MonkeyTree, TinyFish or PeachLion. (You can rename it if you’re gagging.)

The software on the flash drive presents four easy-to-figure-out tiles. Click “Computers and devices” when you’re ready to add another machine to your network. Click “Parental controls” to limit your offspring’s access to the Web. (The Valet blocks both pornographic Web sites and individual sites that you specify. It also lets you restrict access to the Internet according to an hourly schedule — one for school days, one for weekends.)

A third tile says “Guest access”; visitors to your house can use your hot spot to get online, just by typing the password that appears here. (They can’t see your files on the network; it’s an Internet-only account.)

The fourth tile, “Valet settings,” opens the rabbit hole into the traditional Web page of technical Linksys router settings — I.P. addresses, port forwarding, D.N.S. servers and the like.

This is all a huge improvement, yes. Bravo.

Unfortunately, tragically, the Valet router is nowhere near Flip easy. Why tragic? Because this was the world’s one great hope for a truly simple router. It was Cisco’s big chance to go all the way — but it didn’t, and each shortfall hurts the mission.

The shortfall

For example, a warning sticker comes on the jacks on the back. It says, “Plug in Easy Setup Key to get started,” followed by four lines of type that are too small to read. You’re led to believe that if you plug in the Valet first (instead of running the software on your PC), you’ll mess everything up.

No product marketed for novices should begin your setup experience with a warning sticker — especially since, as a product manager confessed, it actually makes no difference whether you start with the Easy Setup Key or not. (This assumes, of course, that you even realize that “Easy Setup Key” refers to the flash drive in the box.)

Once you do insert the flash drive, nothing happens. You’re supposed to double-click on the setup program icon. That’s not Cisco’s fault; neither Windows nor Mac OS X automatically runs software on a flash drive when you insert it. (That’s a security measure to prevent auto-running viruses.) But you can already see that this thing is not going to be Flip easy.

When you do double-click the setup software, what friendly, welcoming screen appears? The software license agreement. It’s more than 11,000 words long — roughly 10 times as long as this column.

Did you ever read one of these things? Me neither. But every single sentence of this one is pointless, impenetrable or insane. Apparently, Cisco reserves the right to spy on you (“Cisco may collect and store detailed information regarding your network configuration and usage”), to come and get your router whenever it likes (“The technology and documentation are licensed and not sold to you by Cisco”), and to orphan your software (“This agreement does not entitle you to any support, upgrades, patches, enhancements or fixes”).

It’s not really fair to pick on Cisco; almost all software comes with stupid, impenetrable license agreements. But darn it, this was Cisco’s chance to demonstrate its ability to think outside the box, and this idiotic document is nobody’s idea of a user-friendly welcome screen.

There should also be a progress bar or status messages while the Easy Setup Key does its thing. A message says that the process may take “up to five minutes,” but for all you know, the software has simply crashed. And the user guide, a PDF document on the flash drive, is a passive-voice, jargon-laced abomination.

The Valet offers excellent range; it should fill a two-story house with signal. But it’s a single-band router; it broadcasts on the 2.4-gigahertz frequency, which can cause interference with cordless phones. (Many other routers in this price range offer a second frequency as an option.) And techies should note that it’s a mixed 802.11b/g/n router. That is, it works with all kinds of Wi-Fi gadgets, but it can’t exploit the speed advantage of “n-only” laptops.

For $150, the Valet Plus model bolsters the range by about 20 percent, and the Ethernet jacks on the back transfer data faster (they’re gigabit Ethernet). But neither model offers a U.S.B. jack for connecting a hard drive for network backups.

Cisco absolutely, positively had the right idea for fixing home routers: eliminate the infuriating morass of technical mumbo-jumbo. Reduce the forehead-slapping number of steps. Make it simpler.

And the Valet is absolutely, positively a very good start. It may be the simplest-to-set-up router on the market. And for sure, fewer people will return it in frustration.

But you still encounter too many pawprints from Cisco’s entrenched engineers, not to mention its lawyers. For now, the quest for the Wi-Fi router with one big red button continues.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.