Review: 4 Routers Take Wi-Fi To Nth Level

All right--so the high-speed 802.11n standard is still in draft form, but the channel doesn't want to wait to deliver solid, secure, high-performance wireless solutions to every corner of businesses of every size. What are the options?

Marc Spiwak, Contributor

January 25, 2007

13 Min Read

All right—so the high-speed 802.11n standard is still in draft form, but the channel doesn't want to wait to deliver solid, secure, high-performance wireless solutions to every corner of businesses of every size. What are the options?

The CRN Test Center has taken a long look at 801.11n wireless routers now shipping from four prominent vendors to the channel. There is good news and bad news.

The bad news: The number of tasks customers want to solve through wireless networking is rapidly increasing. From VoIP to streaming media to growing security concerns, solution complexity continues to build.

The good news: The products reviewed can address many of those customer issues while offering financial rewards to the channel with marginal investment in training.

The latest 802.11n-draft routers are designed to perform better and handle more traffic. Some of the units feature Gigabit Ethernet ports, and all of them contain faster processors and more robust circuitry. Test Center engineers asked vendors to submit their latest 802.11n routers for this roundup.

Engineers evaluated equipment from D-Link Systems, Cisco Systems' Linksys division, Netgear and Trendnet. Each vendor also sent in a "matching" N-draft NIC.

Products based on the forthcoming 802.11n standard can solve some of the real-world problems Test Center engineers have seen caused by the poor performance of 802.11g routers, which commonly buckle under heavy traffic loads.

The N-draft routers were evaluated for quality and reliability, feature set, price/performance, ease of deployment, ease of use and profit potential. They were tested for performance using the SolarWinds Engineer's Toolset, which includes 47 tools for network analysis and diagnostics (www.solarwinds.net). One of the tools is a Real-Time Bandwidth Gauge that can monitor the amount of data being received and transmitted for any network device.

To test each router, engineers installed each vendor's matching N-draft network card in a new dual-core Hewlett-Packard notebook and connected it wirelessly to the router. A second notebook then was connected to one of the router's wired ports. The wireless notebook was configured with a shared folder that could be accessed by the wired notebook. A 100-Mbyte file then was copied from the wired notebook through the router to the shared folder in the wireless notebook; the same file then was copied back the other way. Engineers timed the file transfer and observed the measured performance with the bandwidth gauge.

Engineers tested the routers for compatibility with integrated 802.11n using a brand-new Acer Ferrari 1000 notebook, which contains an integrated Broadcom N-draft wireless chipset. Note that the Ferrari notebook had no trouble connecting to any of the routers.

NEXT: D-Link DIR-655 D-Link DIR-655
The DIR-655 Xtreme N Gigabit Router is one of the most powerful wireless routers D-Link has ever released. It was tested with its accompanying DWA-652 Xtreme N notebook adapter. The router is designed for small businesses, consumers and gamers in need of a high-performance wireless network. To help speed throughput, the router features a four-port Gigabit Ethernet switch and a Gigabit WAN port. A USB port allows other devices to be connected.

When connected to a cable or DSL modem, the router can provide Internet access to multiple computers or other devices and can form a secure wireless network for shared files and storage. Like all N-draft routers, the DIR-655 is backward-compatible with the 802.11b and 802.11g standards.

Many routers combine all wired and wireless traffic into a single data stream with no special priority placed on any of the packets. That causes delays and poor performance in applications such as video streaming, VoIP and online gaming.

D-Link's Intelligent QoS Technology prioritizes packets based on their sensitivity to delay so that multiple applications can stream smoothly.

The DIR-655 Xtreme N Gigabit Router has a 3x3 antenna configuration, which is supposed to offer better performance. And note that all N-draft routers use MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) technology, which overlays the signals of multiple radios to boost the effective data rate. As such, MIMO technology does require multiple antennas, but unlike aerial antennas, MIMO antennas don't have to be visible to work properly, and they can even be hidden completely inside a chassis.

All of the N-draft routers reviewed offer speeds up to 14 times faster than wireless G, as the N specification promises speeds of up to 300 Mbps on paper. In reality, however, network conditions such as the volume of traffic and environmental factors such as building materials and the presence of other wireless signals in the 2.4GHz frequency range will lower the actual data throughput.

The DIR-655 includes a setup wizard to help speed the installation, and Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) support provides easy connectivity. An integrated wireless security wizard is used to make security settings. The router supports WEP, WPA and WPA2 encryption and includes Stateful Packet Inspection (SPI) and Network Address Translation (NAT) firewall protection for enhanced wireless security.

D-Link's management interface is easy enough to navigate although it appears busier-looking than some others. Engineers tested a sample router loaded with firmware version 1.0, dated Sept. 2, 2006. The DIR-655 offered the second-best performance of all, with a receive speed of 36 Mbps; the 100-Mbyte file was pulled in over wireless in 15.5 seconds. The same file was sent back out at 30 Mbps in 23.5 seconds.

Solution providers implementing the DIR-655 should first sit down with the customer to discuss how they will be using their wireless connectivity and determine if guests will use it. If the router is primarily for internal use, then the solution provider should simply make sure confidential files and portions of the network are inaccessible to employees without the proper access permissions. If Wi-Fi access will be offered to guests, then it is especially important to block resources such as printers and confidential information from them. If the customer does not have proper antivirus solutions in place, it's also a good time to recommend one.

D-Link's DIR-655 Xtreme N Gigabit Router has a suggested retail price of $200, and the DWA-652 Xtreme N Notebook Adapter costs $120.

NEXT: Linksys WRT350N Linksys WRT350N
Linksys' WRT350N is a futuristic-looking N-draft router that can form a wireless network for multiple users and let them share a high-speed Internet connection. Like D-Link's DIR-655, Linksys' WRT350N Wireless-N Gigabit Router has a built-in four-port full-duplex 10/100/1000 Ethernet switch to connect wired devices together at Gigabit speeds.

The WRT350N uses MIMO technology to create a stronger signal that travels farther with fewer dead spots.

Like the D-Link router, the WRT350N prioritizes packets based on their sensitivity to delay so that multiple applications can stream smoothly. Various preset configurations can be selected depending on the applications the router will support. The administrator also can prioritize packet types manually if preferred.

Linksys' WRT350N incorporates Storage Link technology and a USB port that can support networked-attached storage.

The router's wireless transmissions can be encoded with 256-bit encryption to prevent unauthorized users from getting at the data. It supports VPN pass-through and has an integrated SPI firewall to block attackers. It also can serve as a DHCP server.

Enhanced reception is provided by an antenna array with two small rods with a paddle in between them. The unusual-looking array is really designed more for style than function, though it does work well.

The WRT350N is configured from a browser-based utility. The task is simple and straightforward. The only printed documentation included with the unit is a simple "start here" type leaflet. And even though full user documentation is available through the management interface, Test Center engineers would like to see Linksys include more substantial printed documentation. The router's management interface ranked second-best for intuitiveness and ease of use.

The Linksys router comes with three free months of Norton security software. Solution providers should configure the software for their customers only after making it clear that it's a temporary package. A better idea is for the integrator to perform a complete security audit on the entire network while installing the router and then present the customer with a list of recommendations and remedies. It's likely that the customer will beef up security after adding wireless access. It's also a good time to offer increased storage space and perhaps network monitoring and management options.

The sample WRT350N came loaded with firmware version 1.03.3, dated Nov. 13, 2006. The router was tested with the WPC300N Wireless-N Notebook Adapter. Performance-wise, the unit came in third place with a receive speed of 23 Mbps; the 100-Mbyte file took 35 seconds to download. This was the only unit to upload faster than it downloads, with the 100-Mbyte file uploading in 32 seconds at a speed of 26 Mbps. The WRT350N is priced at $200. The adapter costs $120.

NEXT: Netgear WNR854T Netgear WNR854T
Netgear's WNR854T N-draft router has enough bandwidth and processing power to simultaneously handle file transfers and downloads, video streaming, games and VoIP calls. Advanced MIMO technology makes it all possible.

Engineers tested Netgear's RangeMax Next Wireless-N Router Gigabit Edition Model WNR854T, which features an integrated four-port 10/100/1000 switch. Note that Netgear offers a similar model with just a 10/100 switch. The router was tested using Netgear's companion RangeMax Next Wireless-N Notebook Adapter, model WN511B.

The device's preset internal antennas are designed to automatically optimize coverage. The result is that the WNR854T looks quite plain and is not immediately recognizable as a wireless router, though the internal antennas work just fine.

The WNR854T is loaded with security features. It includes integrated NAT and SPI firewalls, 64- and 128-bit WEP encryption, Wi-Fi Protected Access Pre-Shared Key, denial-of-service attack protection, intrusion detection and prevention, and Exposed Host (DMZ) for secure gaming.

Proper security is more strongly enforced with Netgear's router than other units, mainly because its wireless connectivity doesn't work out of the box. The solution provider is forced to enter the router's browser-based configuration utility just to make it work. Test Center engineers prefer to have full functionality available out of the box, with custom settings made optionally.

The router's software and management utility ranked fourth because of its relative complexity and intrusiveness. Fortunately for less technical users, setup using Netgear's Smart Wizard is simple and thorough.

When installing the router, solution providers should explore other avenues of profit such as additional units, adapters, servers and storage. Customers also might want to set up a hot spot for guest access. Make sure the customer has the proper security measures in place. Network monitoring services and a maintenance contract also could be in order for larger networks.

It's important to note that the included software disc was hand-labeled, suggesting it was not the shipping version. The firmware was version 1.4.07NA, with no release date, but it, too, might not have been shipping code. The router came in last place for performance, with a receive speed of 10 Mbps; the 100-Mbyte file took 1 minute 30 seconds to download. The 100-Mbyte file was uploaded in 1 minute 52 seconds at a speed of 9 Mbps.

NEXT: Trendnet TEW-631BRP Trendnet TEW-631BRP
Trendnet's TEW-631BRP Wireless N-Draft router features Advanced MIMO antenna technology and StreamEngine technology by Ubicom, which helps prioritize traffic to prevent lag or jitter for streaming applications such as VoIP, video, music and gaming. The router was tested with its companion TEW-621PC PC Card notebook adapter.

The TEW-631BRP provides advanced security with Wi-Fi Protected Access for secure wireless traffic and a rule-based SPI firewall with NAT to protect against hackers and denial-of-service attacks. Additional security is provided by an SSID Enable/Disable function and access control filtering by service type, URL and MAC address.

It supports cable and DSL modems with Dynamic IP, Static IP, PPPoE, PPTP and L2TP. It also will support VPN pass-through sessions and 64-/128-bit WEP, WPA/WPA2 and WPA-PSK/WPA2-PSK encryption. It also provides UPnP and ALGs support for Internet applications such as e-mail, FTP, gaming, remote desktop, Net Meeting and Telnet. Internet access can be restricted by time of day or via policy-based parental controls.

The TEW-631BRP is the only router covered here that does not include a built-it Gigabit Ethernet switch. Instead, it has a slower four-port 10/100 switch and 10/100 WAN port for Internet access, which contributes to the lower cost of the unit. The TEW-631BRP router costs $130, and the TEW-621PC PC Card costs $100.

The TEW-631BRP is easy to manage using its browser-based configuration utility. Trendnet's utility ranked best of all for its straightforward appearance and ease of use. The Trendnet router was the only one to feature an on/off switch, which lets users shut down the wireless portion quickly and simply without turning off the wired switch.

Note that Trendnet offers other products that can easily integrate with the router. Some things might be needed, such as N-Draft Wi-Fi receiver cards added to notebook and desktop computers. Others such as security Webcams and VoIP phones can be installed with little effort and yield increased profits. Trendnet's new TVP-SP4BK ClearSky VoIP Bluetooth Conference Phone Kit lets customers hold quality conference calls wirelessly up to 100 meters away from the router through a Bluetooth connection. The benefit of this device is that customers can hold conference calls wherever they like without being restricted by wires or ports.

The TEW-631BRP router came loaded with firmware version 1.0.2.4, dated Sept. 13, 2006. Even though this router had just a Fast Ethernet switch, it nonetheless performed the best. It posted a receive speed of 41 Mbps; the 100-Mbyte file took just 13.7 seconds to download. The 100-Mbyte file was uploaded in 21.2 seconds at a speed of 34 Mbps.

Trendnet is developing its formal channel partner program, which is expected to launch in the third quarter of 2007. The company plans to provide industry-standard financial incentives to partners. Currently, solution providers can obtain the product via Trendnet's distributors.

NEXT: The Bottom Line The Bottom Line
Trendnet's TEW-631BRP had the most intuitive management interface and delivered the best performance. It is priced the lowest and packs a three-year warranty. Its WLAN on/off switch is quite convenient. For these reasons, the router comes out on top. However, it was also the only router not to feature a Gigabit Ethernet switch. If Gigabit Ethernet connectivity for wired devices is required, consider D-Link's DIR-655, which delivered nearly as good performance as Trendnet, but for a higher price. The DIR-655 also features a USB port that allows storage connectivity.

A close third is Linksys' WRT350N, which delivered decent performance and also features a USB port. Solution providers also need to consider Linksys' large channel presence and three-year warranty.

Netgear's WNR854T should have performed better than it did. That, plus the fact that it has to be configured before wireless will work, makes this router the least desirable of the group. To be fair, it seemed as though the Netgear unit was a very early release, so it could be expected to perform better in its fully polished form. Netgear, which perhaps has the most targeted channel program, will be worth a second look when it begins shipping units.

If Gigabit Ethernet ports are not important and price is, then Trendnet's TEW-631BRP is the router of choice.

EDWARD F. MOLTZEN contributed to this story.

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