Buffalo AirStation 54Mbps Broadband Router AP
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Price: $99 ESP
Pros: Bridging function, 802.1x and AES encryption support
Cons: Crude interface, poor long-range signal in some environments
Buffalo Technology's inexpensive AirStation WBR-G54 is back in a new-and-improved version, and it can boast being the first router to earn Wi-Fi Certification from the Wi-Fi Allaince for the final 802.11g specification.
When I first looked at the WBR-G54 at the beginning of this year ( perhaps formerly known as the AirStation, a name the unit and documentation and Web site still carry, though strangely not the packaging), it was a noble effort, but one that was ultimately marred by sloppy implementation and interface.
While this new iteration of the WBR-G54 still has its faults, it's substantially improved in most areas. And although the WBR-G54 is more than suitable for a residential or small office environment, network administrators in larger environments will particularly appreciate the G54 for features that emphasize control of and information from the device.
As mentioned, the unit clearly orients itself towards the needs of an IT administrator. To wit, one of the WBR-G54's great strengths is its logging capability. Give credit to Buffalo right off the bat for providing the feature in the first place, as products in this price and class often don't. But perhaps more important than its mere existence, is the depth and breadth of the implementation.
For example, the WBR-G54 lets you log either errors or notification events, and you can include or exclude over a dozen individual system events from the log. This greatly improves log readability by letting you omit things that you just don't care about (like DHCP messages, perhaps). On the other hand, if you're really a control freak, the WBR-G54 will happily log every packet that it drops at the WAN interface based on your filtering rules.
The WBR-G54 earns extra points for being able to offload logs to a Syslog server (the only truly reasonable way to traverse data-laden log files), and you can select what events will be exported independently from which are being logged on the unit -- and if you want to save the current log to a file, you can. The file is automatically poured into a notepad text file called logfile.log which you then can rename and save where you will.
In addition to the firewall, the WBR-G54 offers real-time notification via an intrusion detection feature, which monitors for behavior like SYN floods, smurfs, address spoofing, and the like. Intrusion notifications can be sent by e-mail, and the WBR-G54 offers fields for e-mail server username and password, in the event that your ISP requires authentication before accepting mail.
You can also configure the WBR-G54 to display pop-up notifications to the IP address of your choice, but this requires the Buffalo Client Manager software to be installed and running on the system, which limits its practical usefulness since the Client Manager runs as an application, not a service, on Windows NT and 2000 and it doesn't run at all on XP (except in the presence of a Buffalo WLAN NIC, which obviates its use on a wired client).
As mentioned earlier, one of the weaknesses in earlier versions of the WBR-G54 was a sloppy overall software interface--particularly an integrated help system that was haphazard and confusingly written. The Web interface still lacks the polish and intuitiveness of those from the likes of Netgear, Linksys, and some others. The interface is cluttered enough that you won't always find settings quickly, and when you do, it may not always be immediately apparent how to configure something correctly.
The help system, on the other hand, has been greatly improved from the original product, with most entries clear and succinct. The system still needs a little work though-- some of the help windows were empty and others called the wrong help info.
Another inconvenience was that the G54's default NTP server address was invalid, which served to skew the log time stamps until I realized it and set the date and time manually. Buffalo is amending this to omit a default NTP server, but will include instructions on how to find one.
On the other hand, a great convenience was the fact that the screen that lists connected clients differentiated between wireless and wired ones. Then again, only clients using DHCP will appear, clients with statically-assigned IP addresses will not.
The performance of the Buffalo WBR-G54 was generally within expectations and actually quite good, particularly at the nearer ranges. Tested with its companion WLI-CB-G54A Cardbus NIC, throughput at 10 feet was 21.07 Mbps and dropped fairly smoothly from there --16.86 Mbps at 25 feet, and 12.85 at 50 feet. It was beyond this point that the throughput numbers of the G54 became disappointing. It could only manage 4.44 Mbps at 75 feet and 3.78 feet at 100 feet. At 125 feet, a steady signal could not be obtained.
I attribute the Buffalo's dawdling at further distances to a combination of its internal antenna and my particular environment, which contains copious amounts of concrete block. In my experience, I have found products with internal antennae like the Buffalo (or the Apple AirPort) to exhibit this behavior. If you're environment offers similar challenges to radio wave propagation, the use of an external antenna may be called for. (Buffalo is also considering increasing the maximum output power to 32mW in the next firmware version, which may serve to improve the long-range performance somewhat.)
Turning on WPA and using TKIP as the encryption method resulted in a reduction of maximum throughput level to 18.22, a roughly a 10% penalty. It's worth mentioning that the G54 is currently one of a relatively small number of products in this class (thanks to use of the Broadcom AirForce 4306 chipset) to have the hardware horsepower to handle AES encryption, and choosing this method did not have a meaningful impact on the unit's throughput.
The WBR-G54 also still supports WEP encryption (though not concurrently with WPA), as well as 802.1X for centralized user authentication. However, unlike the ZyXel B-series products, it can't maintain its own user list on the device; a RADIUS server must be used.
When it came time to test mixed g/b mode performance, the G54's newly implemented frame-bursting capability (called Xpress by Broadcom) served to mitigate some of the performance lost to the need for 802.11b protection mode (RTS/CTS). (Incidentally, enabling the frame-bursting mode neither improved nor detracted from the unit's range.)
In mixed mode, an 11g client running alone with an 11b client associated but not transmitting yielded about 25% less throughput -- 14.95 Mbps. Adding a transmitting b client to the test resulted in aggregate throughput of about 10.5 Mbps, with 9.1 going to the 11g client, and the remainder, 1.56 Mbps to the 11b.
For situations where you're placing numerous access points in an environment (or to control signal leakage outside a facility), you can retard the WBR-G54's power output to minimize overlap and the resultant interference. Rather than simply give the typical four-to-six settings based on fractions or a percentage of full power, the WBR-G54 offers much more granular control, offering settings from 1 to 22mW in single mW increments.
You can also disable the access point entirely, or bridge it to others as a means to extend range using Wireless Distribution System (WDS). I didn't put this feature through its paces, but I will soon when Buffalo releases a stand-alone bridge device later this month.
A handy feature for the very security conscious is the privacy separator, which when activated prevents connections between WLAN clients and would be helpful in any kind of public access environment like a hotspot. Buffalo says it's designed to protect shared folders from unauthorized access by other WLAN users. Sure enough, after enabling the feature, I was unable to ping between WLAN clients.
Buffalo's significant authentication, encryption, and other security and monitoring features make the WGR-G54 one of the most capable and versatile products in its class. While the crude interface detracts somewhat from the overall package, if you need advanced features and can live with the devices less-than-intuitive UI, you'd be hard-pressed to find a WLAN router that will do a better job for less money.