One of the most essential tech products at home is also probably the one you hate the most: your wireless router.
Setting up a home network can be for some an excruciating experience, one that can leave even tech-savvy folks wringing their hands while switching off between calling the router's customer service line and their Internet service provider.
Cisco Systems says it's designed a new line of routers specifically to avoid this. The Valet and Valet Plus, will be available at retailers like Best Buy, Staples, and Target and online at Amazon.com starting Wednesday for $99 and $149, respectively.
"We're trying to take the negative emotions you have about not being able to set it up, and turn it into a positive experience," said Scott Kabat, director of marketing for Cisco Consumer Products.
Translation: Cisco thinks it's found a way to not make you want to throw your router out a window. Besides making most of the routers and switches that power the Internet, Cisco also makes consumer routers under the name Linksys. But it recognizes that even that product line isn't the easiest for non-technical people to use.
"It talks to a very narrow segment of the population, people who already speak the language," Kabat said.
The Valet and Valet Plus are designed to be the Flip video cameras of routers--an inexpensive and simplified version of a common consumer technology that basically anyone can use instantly. Flip is a line of small, inexpensive video cameras that have basically one button (record) and come with a built-in USB cable and simple editing software for quick uploading of those home videos to YouTube. Introduced just three years ago, the product turned the entire consumer video camera market on its head.
Cisco bought the maker of the Flip, Pure Digital in 2009 for $590 million, and this is the first new product collaboration directly between Cisco networking engineers and Pure Digital's design and marketing people. The company is hoping this more consumer-friendly approach will have a Flip-like effect on the home networking market as well.
Cisco Valet Plus
From the name to the packaging to the software, they're trying to make what is a pretty complicated technology practically invisible to the user. The packaging is sleek and doesn't contain much technical jargon. Unlike most routers, you don't need to know whether you want 802.11 a, b, g, or n. You just pick one model or the other based on the size of your home--range of wireless you need--and the type of device you'll be connecting--wireless only or a mix of wired and wireless.
The Valet line has just three steps to set up the device. There's a USB key, called the Valet Connector, that will save your wireless settings once you've set the Valet up the first time. You can just pop the USB key into any other computer you want to have access to the router, and it can copy those same settings so you don't need to repeat the process each time.
Managing access to the Internet within your home is simplified too. Users have a dashboard that allows devices--a laptop, desktop, TV, video game console, whatever--to be added. Cisco also tries to make parental controls basic: specific sites can be blacklisted, or specific devices--say a child's laptop--can be prevented from accessing the Internet during homework hours or past 10 p.m., for example. And if guests come over, you can give them a separate login to your router without having to turn over your password.
And if you do need help, Cisco promises you can come to them for help via its customer service line. "We won't dump you off to AT&T or Time Warner or whomever," Kabat said.