Netgear RangeMax Wireless Router
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Price: $139.99 (MSRP)
Pros: Excellent range and throughput, pretty lights.
Cons: No WPA2 support.
There are times when a standard 802.11g wireless network may not reach into every area of your home or office, and this is especially true if you're trying to cover a large area, or one with an unusual layout -- or if you want to use your network in an outdoor area like a backyard or patio. For these kinds of scenarios, the improved performance of a wireless router based on MIMO technology may be called for. In a nutshell, MIMO products tend to achieve greater range and performance than standard 802.11g devices, by using multiple transmitters and receivers between devices.
The latest MIMO-based WLAN router from Netgear is the RangeMax WPN824. Whereas most previous MIMO-based routers (including Netgear's own WGM124) have been based on technology from Airgo Networks, the WPN824 uses a smart-antenna implementation from Video54 which the company refers to as Smart MIMO (and yes, Airgo disputes whether or not MIMO is the proper term for what Video54 does, but we'll let the market shake that out). According to Netgear, the abundance of antennas on the WPN824 gives it the ability to adapt to signal interference, such as from a 2.4 GHz cordless phone.
The WPN824's white, low-profile plastic chassis eschews external dipole antennas in favor of seven individual internal antennas. In addition to the standard indicator light panel on the front of the router, on the top there's a transparent dome with a ring of seven blue indicator lights. The lights don't convey much in the way of useful information they strobe and can light up individually in the direction of an incoming signal but at the very least they make great (if somewhat distracting, especially in a dark room) eye candy.
Installation and Setup
The process of getting the WPN824 up and running is a bit more controlled than it would be for a typical home or small office router. You can initially configure the router using either an included utility or a Web browser, but in either case, you must go through a setup wizard, which won't proceed unless the unit finds a working Internet connection.
You can bypass the wizard and configure the unit conventionally by entering a specific URL into the browser. To simplify browser access to the router and relieve you of the need to know its IP address, the WPN824 can be accessed at either www.routerconfig.com or www.routerconfig.net. Netgear registered both domain names, and the WPN824 is automatically configured to respond to either URL.
Similarly, to prevent you from simply plugging it in, making sure it works and then walking away, the WLAN function is disabled by default and must be explicitly activated, preferably after you've enabled encryption.
In addition to enhanced smart antennas, the WPN824 also implements the range of performance-enhancing features of Atheros' Super G chipset, including channel bonding, packet bursting, and compression. Beyond the standard radio operating modes (g only, mixed, b only) you can also enable the 108 Mbps mode. That locks the unit on channel 6.
Choices for wireless encryption are either the aged WEP or WPA. WPA support comes in the form of Pre-Shared Key only, so you can't authenticate clients via a RADIUS server or an external service like SecureMyWiFi. WPA2 isn't currently supported, but it will be made available via a future firmware update.
As with all MIMO-based equipment, you need a MIMO receiver on both sides of a connection in order to get the best performance and signal quality, and Netgear's companion card for the WPN824 is the RangeMax Wireless PC Card (model WPN511).
In testing with Ixia's QCheck utility, the combination of the Netgear WPN824 and WPN511 produced throughput between 27.5 to 30.2 Mbps in various rooms on a single level at distances ranging from 10 and 50 feet. That level of performance was also maintained in an outdoor location separated by glass and masonry and at a distance of about 75 feet.
The throughput of the WPN824 was considerably higher than the 18-19 Mbps provided by the MIMO-based Linksys WRT54GX (see review), though the increase seemed to be predominantly due to the SuperG features of the Netgear. When SuperG mode was disabled on the WPN824, its performance became very similar to that of the Linksys box.
The Netgear RangeMax WPN824 provides both SuperG and Smart MIMO capability at a price lower than most other MIMO-based products (though more expensive than standard 802.11g hardware), and is a good choice for anyone who needs or anticipates needing longer range or higher throughput than a garden-variety 802.11g router can provide.