RealTime IT News

Buffalo AirStation G54 Wireless Broadband Router

Model: WBR-G54
Price: ($199 MSRP)
Rating: 3 out of 5

The buffalo is a lumbering animal, not particularly known for its alacrity. The AirStation G54 Wireless Broadband Router from Buffalo Technology, on the other hand, shares little in common with its maker's animal namesake. The Buffalo AirStation G54 is the first 802.11g-based device we've looked at (though it will be far from the last) and in short, it does cash the check that 802.11g writes. Put another way, it delivers on the promise of newest WLAN specification -- to combine the best characteristics of each of its predecessors--the range of 802.11b, along with the high throughput of 802.11a.

802.11g is, of course, currently still a draft specification as of this writing, though it is expected to be finalized by summertime. Not surprisingly, Buffalo is guaranteeing its customers that they'll provide upgrades compliant with the certified 802.11g spec at no charge.

The AirStation G54, which is based on the Broadcom BCM94306MP WLAN chipset, combines a router/firewall, LAN switch, and WLAN access point within its small elliptical chassis. The first thing you notice when you take the AirStation G54 out of the box is the conspicuous absence of an antenna.

There is of course an antenna present, but it's internal. If you have your heart set on an external antenna, you can have one: The AirStation G54 has a small antenna connector on the rear of the unit (the same used on previous AirStation WLAN products). Buffalo offers a number of optional external antennas including directional and outdoor varieties for around $60.

I've got two main physical complaints about the AirStation G54. The first is an extremely short 3 foot power adapter cable. You'll need an extension cord if you plan to put it any higher than that off the ground. Because the actual transformer brick is located at the midpoint of the cable, you can plug into any old outlet, a big plus for those with crowded power strips. On the other hand, on more than one occasion sliding the AirStation G54 more than a few inches caused me to inadvertently detach the power cable from the brick. In short, use an extension cord no matter what.

The second complaint is that while the many of the indicator lights are located on the front of the unit, the status lights for the built-in 4-port switch are on the side of the unit, so no matter how you position the AirStation G54, half of the lights will be out of plain view.

As is often customary with broadband routers, the initial setup to attain a basic level of functionality was uneventful. When you first log on to the router via your Web browser, the AirStation offers you the now de rigueur guided setup for either a DSL or cable modem connection. If you want to bypass all the handholding, you can click the "Advanced" button which drops you into the crux of the unit's configuration interface.

The AirStation G54's browser-based configuration is fully functional, but the layout and descriptions of the features could use a lot of improvement. Navigating this interface can be a bit trying, and you'll likely find yourself hunting around for a particular subcategory or setting. For example, the DHCP server configuration appears in one screen, and then a subset of that feature can be found in a completely separate place.

Buffalo's ambiguous terms will have you ruminating to make sure it is what you really want. Take "Wireless LAN Computer Limitation" -- most vendors call it MAC address filtering. Similarly, WDS (Wireless Distribution System) is a convoluted name for wireless bridging.

Speaking of bridging, a router with an integral WLAN access point that has bridging (point-to-point and multipoint) and repeating functions is worthy noting. Most access points with these features use proprietary methods, and this one is no exception. According to Buffalo, the feature has only been tested with other Buffalo products. I was fortunate enough to have two 11g AirStations, and was successfully able to both to bridge and repeat between them without any difficulty.

One of the big strengths of the AirStation G54 is definitely its logging and alerting capabilities. There are over a dozen parameters that the unit can log, either to its internal buffer or to a Syslog application. (It can also write the contents of the internal buffer to a file, which is a nice feature). The firewall's intrusion detection feature also has the ability to send e-mail alerts.

A word about the AirStation G54's documentation -- much like the user interface, it needs significant improvement. The configuration interfaces online help would be more useful if it wasn't so vaguely and poorly written. The manual provided on CD is written much more clearly, but it contains some erroneous and confusing information. There's an FAQ included as well that you shouldn't even bother with, as much of the information is out of date or incorrect.

At the moment, the AirStation G54 also has some issues with some of the information it provides in the configuration tool. For example, it does not report the correct version of the firmware its running. Buffalo says these issues are known and that fixes are in the works.

Of course, many of the AirStation G54's minor foibles can easily be forgiven if it delivers when it comes to performance, and for all intents and purposes, it does. The AirStation has three modes it can function in that pertain to performance and compatibility. The first (and default) mode is "WiFi" mode, which accommodates either 802.11g or 802.11b devices but is designed for hyper-compatibility with existing 802.11b cards. The next mode is "Auto," which also allows simultaneous connection of both types of devices (though per the specification, if a 802.11b device is communicating with the AirStation G54, any 802.11g device will also be limited to 802.11b speeds). Finally there is a "Turbo" mode, which only supports 802.11g devices. According to Buffalo, this mode maximizes throughput on 802.11g connections. For most of the performance testing, I left the AirStation G54's mode setting on the default "WiFi" mode, with a few runs in Turbo mode to see if there was any measurable improvement. There wasn't.

(Buffalo is currently still fiddling with these modes and doing interoperability testing as the certification period approaches, and several firmware upgrades will be forthcoming).

In tests with NetIQ's Chariot, at close range the AirStation G54 (communicating with its counterpart WLI-CB-G54 Cardbus NIC) turned in average throughput in excess of 14.6Mbps from close range, and the throughput dropped steadily but predictably as distance grew, at all times remaining above the best possible performance yielded by an 802.11b device. As expected, there was no appreciable difference in performance with WEP encryption turned on. The AirStation G54 also successfully communicated in 802.11b mode with a D-Link DWL-650+ client card.

Since this is the first of many 802.11g WLAN devices we'll be looking at over the coming months, there aren't yet any comparable products to contrast the AirStation G54. Still, when all is said and done, the AirStation G54 is a solid product from the standpoint of feature, performance, and price, but one that unfortunately suffers from a sloppy and inelegant implementation in many respects.