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Netgear 54 Mbps Wireless Access Point

Model: WG602
Price: $139 MSRP
Rating: 4 out of 5

The Netgear 54 Mbps Wireless Access Point (WG602) is the company's recent offering in the category of stand-alone 802.11g access points. It distinguishes itself with its small size, and excellent software tools that facilitate setup and configuration of the unit.

The WG602 uses the small and low profile rounded-rectangle chassis now common to Netgear products (so long, square blue boxes!). A single antenna protrudes from the rear of the device, and three iconic indicator lights for power, LAN and WLAN activity grace the front.

If the $139 WG602's chassis is one of the smallest among its major competitors, the device's AC power adapter is among the largest. The WG602's large and heavy brick seems to be a throwback to an earlier era, and is a departure from the relatively small adapters now common with wireless devices.

Netgear takes great pains to ensure a smooth installation experience, particularly for less technical users. Their GearBox software is browser-based and includes an Install Assistant application replete with step-by-step graphical instructions on how to physically connect and configure the access point for initial use. They also include printed manuals so there's no need to resort to the PDF files on the CD.

If you have a DHCP server running, the WG602 will pick up an address automatically, or else it defaults to a 192.168.0.x subnet address. If IP addresses aren't your thing, Netgear also lets you access the WG602 via a device name, which is "'NETGEAR" followed by the latter half of the unit's MAC address.

An area where the WG602 clearly excels is in its configuration interface. The layout is extremely well-designed. It's so clean you could eat off it. The configuration screens utilize three columnar frames. Frames are not usually mentioned when a discussion turns to the topic of good interfaces, but in the case of the WG602, it really works well.

The left column lists the setting categories and subcategories, while the middle column is the area where adjustments are made. The right-side column contains a help narrative that automatically changes with each category. In keeping with the ease-of-use theme, the help is actually helpful, not obvious filler like "The Access Control setting is where you can control access to the device" that you sometimes get with online help.

Unlike some other products in its class, the Intersil PRISM GT-based WG602 doesn't offer user-selectable performance modes to optimize for either 802.11g speed or 802.11b compatibility. No matter -- when paired with a Netgear WG511 802.11b/g PC Card, the WG602's overall performance was more or less on a par with the other 802.11g products I've tested in the recent past.

One thing that was somewhat different was the performance curve. Whereas most previously-tested 802.11g products displayed a fairly controlled and linear drop in performance with increasing distance, the Netgear's numbers were punctuated by two sharp drops in throughput. One occurred at a relatively close distance and the other further away, with a plateau between them.

For example, at the initial 10 foot interval, throughput was but a tick shy of 20 Mbps--19.88, to be exact. However, at 25 feet, the WG602 took a substantial performance dive, to just under 13 Mbps. It stayed in the 11-13 Mbps vicinity up until 100 feet, when it took another big dip, to about 5 Mbps. By 125 feet, the WG602's throughput had dropped to around 1 Mbps. (Throughput was tested with NetIQ's Chariot).

Because the WG602 didn't have overt performance settings for b and g cards, I connected to the access point with a D-Link DWL-650+ card in 802.11b mode. So obviously, the WG602 will work properly with non-Netgear 802.11b clients, and those using different chipsets at that (in this case, the TI).

The throughput between an 802.11g card and access point will drop markedly when an 802.11b card is associated, in order to protect access for the slower 802.11b card. When I associated the DWL-650+ card with the WG602, the throughput to the WG511 card fell to 10.93 Mbps, a drop of about 45%. Including that same DWL-650+ card in the Chariot run, so that both cards were transmitting simultaneously, resulted in throughput of 4.67 for the WG511 and 3.26 for the DWL-650+. Unfortunate, but not surprising.

Aside from the strange performance profile I experienced there's a lot to like about the WG602. It offers good speed, and strongly emphasizes ease-of-setup and use with its included software and top-notch configuration interface. A bridging feature might be nice, but even so you could do worse than the WG602.