RealTime IT News

Linksys Dual-Band Wireless A+G Broadband Router

Model: WRT55AG
Price: $299
Rating: 4 out of 5

Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too? The newest broadband router from Linksys certainly suggests you can. The Linksys Dual-Band Wireless A+G Broadband Router (WRT55AG) one of many products coming down the pike which supports dual-band-- or tri-mode, if you prefer--wireless operation. That is, it simultaneously supports both 802.11b and 802.11g in the 2.4 GHz band, along with 802.11a in the 5 GHz range as well.

This fact alone would be enough to make the WRT55AG noteworthy, but I also found the product to be very feature-rich, particularly in the areas of security and access control.

From the outside, the $299 WRT55AG's chassis looks very much like prior Linksys products, with two adjustable (though fixed to the unit) antennae on the rear and a phalanx of indicator lights up front.

Rather than using an amalgam of existing 802.11a and 802.11b/g silicon, at the heart of the WRT55AG lays the new Atheros AR5100X chipset, which can communicate across all three wireless technologies.

I got the WRT55AG up and running quickly and without incident. At first glance, the administration console seems somewhat Spartan, but that's only because Linksys tucks another entire set of configuration tabs under the label of 'Advanced', where many of the more infrequently-used (but still useful) settings reside. This approach keeps the interface from becoming impenetrably clogged with scores of features you may not need very often,

I'm generally impressed with the breadth and depth of the WRT55AG's configurable features. Just to get them out of the way though, I'll tell you the two things I didn't like.

Rather than let you specify the LAN subnet mask of your choice, you're limited to selecting one of seven Class C masks from a pick list. Home or small networks that have more clients than can be accommodated by the number of hosts that a Class C subnet gives you -- 256 -- will be extremely rare.

On the other hand, some more security-conscious users (myself among them) tend to use Class A subnets, because in the event their firewall is breached by a sophisticated attack, the additional time it takes to scan and map a Class A's 16,000,000 IP addresses (compared to 255 on a Class C) can afford a modicum of additional protection.

That said, the subnets choices provided will satisfy the majority of users, so it's admittedly a minor nit.

My second complaint is a bit more substantial--namely, the lack of any e-mail alerting of router logs or firewall intrusion attempts. To be sure, many routers lack this feature, but its absence in the WRT55AG is incongruous given the otherwise comprehensive set of features.

Aside from these particular omissions, security features of the WRT55AG are formidable. The unit's filtering page lets you create access policies for both inbound traffic on the WAN port as well as on the LAN itself. I could deny Internet access to specific PCs while still allowing them to communicate with other computers on the local subnet.

You can also block Web browsing to specific sites by URL and keyword. Moreover, you can also schedule these policies by day of the week and time of day.

The WRT55AG offers four Web filters, for WAN proxy server, Java, ActiveX, and cookies. These filters are global, so they're either on or off; they can't be applied to specific computers or times of day. Additionally, when you restrict access to Web sites that use Java, ActiveX, and cookies, you're probably precluded from reaching the vast majority of Web sites. As such, the practical value of these features is dubious. Still, it's nice to have them for the overly security conscious among us.

In the wireless realm, the 5GHz and 2.4GHz modes have their own separate control panels, so you can configure them independently of each other. You can also disable or enable one or both of them.

Interestingly though, only the 5GHz 802.11a mode offers the ability to retard the transmitter power and thus limit its range. Both modes, on the other hand, let you specify the data rate that will be used. Incidentally, the 5GHz radio tops out at 54 Mbps, and does not support the additional 72Mbps "Turbo" mode found in previous Atheros 802.11a products. (Atheros will be providing "Super" speeds in future upgrades apparently.)

The 2.4GHz radio has both 'mixed' and 'G-Only' modes, the former designed to accommodate the slower speeds of 802.11b clients. To get the best comparison between the 802.11a and 802.11g, for performance testing I operated the WRT55AG's 2.4GHz radio in "G-Only mode." I left both the 5GHz and 2.4 GHz modes enabled throughout the testing, though I didn't operate 802.11a and 802.11g clients against the router simultaneously. For 802.11g testing, I used a Linksys Wireless-G Notebook Adapter (WPC54G); a Netgear HA501 Card Bus Adapter served as client for the 802.11a testing.

In its respective modes, the wireless performance of the WRT55AG compared favorably to stand-alone 802.11a and 802.11g devices. It turned in 20.74 Mbps in 802.11g mode at a 10 foot distance, dropping down to 4.39Mbps at 125 feet. The degradation was more or less linear, though there was an unexplained dip at 50 feet which was likely due to transient interference.

In 802.11a mode, the WRT55AG yielded just shy of 20 Mbps (19.95, to be exact) throughput at 10 feet, gracefully dropping down to 4.72 Mbps at 100 feet. In 802.11 a mode, I couldn't get a reliable signal past 100 feet, but -- as Atheros likes to tell us -- more recent 802.11a client hardware may have fared better had it been on hand (the HA501 is an Atheros first-generation product).

When all is said and done, the WRT55AG leaves an impression of a solid and capable product. With a couple of exceptions, the WRT55AG has just about every feature you'd want in a wireless broadband router. At $299, the price is more dear than lesser models, but the features and performance of the unit largely justifies the cost.