Review: Actiontec GT724WGR
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Pros: Automatic universal DSL configuration; great wireless range; advanced QoS support.
Cons: Clunky administration interface; limited wireless configuration options such as lack of WPA2; Internet access controls cumbersome to setup.
Although DSL is often the slower and sometimes more finicky of terrestrial broadband options, it nonetheless delivers Internet access to some half (or more) U.S. broadband subscribers. Despite distance limitations and performance issues that often fall short of cable broadband (depending on local market conditions), DSL is often priced below cable access and is speedy enough for most casual broadband users.
To get online with DSL you not only need a subscription with your local phone company, but you also need a DSL modem. Some plans include a free or subsidized DSL modem, although these are often basic models. Whether you need to supply your own DSL modem, or want to upgrade or replace the one you have, the $89.99 Actiontec GT724WGR is an all-in-one "universal" DSL modem, which promises to offer high-performance wireless routing and easy configuration for a wide range of DSL providers.
In a world where most broadband modems are basically black boxes with lots of blinking lights, the GT724WGR is...basically a black box with lots of blinking lights. Plus a dash of silver trim. And a single wireless antenna.
The rear of the modem sports an RJ-11 jack for the incoming DSL line, four switched RJ-45 LAN ports, reset button, power input, power switch, and wireless antenna.
Although the unit features only one antenna for its wireless router functions, this removable 5 dBi rubber duck antenna connects to an RP-SMA jack. Which means you can connect the GT724WGR to a much more powerful antenna if you need to significantly extend the unit's range or create a point-to-point link across a long distance.
There can be a lot of factors when configuring a DSL modem for a particular Internet provider. The technology varies from one ISP to another, and few home users can be expected to know the difference between things like DHCP, PPPoE, and PPPoA, or VPI and VCI. The GT724WGR doesn't ask you to know any of these settings for your providerits built-in automatic setup wizard probes your DSL connection and determines the appropriate settings all by itself.
When tested on a DSL line provisioned by Verizon, the GT724WGR configured itself in under two minutes. The only information it required was the account holder's username and password, because the technology that Verizon uses (PPPoE) requires authentication for the modem to connect.
The Actiontec is more than just a simple DSL modem, of courseit is also an integrated wireless router. Like most such routers, you configure and manage the unit through its Web-based interface. If you're accustomed to the administration interfaces seen on routers from vendors, such as Linksys and D-Link, the Actiontec presents a departure from the norm.
On its main administration page you'll see a summary of the DSL link, including the current speed (sync rate). Regardless of how "fast" a DSL modem claims to be, your speed is limited by the maximum set by your service provider. Besides link status, you'll see a summary of your LAN, detailing devices that are currently connected either wired or through wireless association.
Wireless configuration includes a simplified set of options compared to some routers. You can select a broadcast channel from 1-11, but there is no "auto" option for the router to select the best channel based on noise conditions. Security options include WPA and WEP, plus 802.1x for corporate networks, but the router lacks support for the newer WPA2 or WPA with an external RADIUS server.
You can filter wireless clients with a MAC whitelist or blacklist. The process of adding MAC addresses is more cumbersome than it needs to be, though.
If you've used a wireless router with advanced firmware like DD-WRT or Tomato, you may miss the ability to tweak parameters like wireless power output or engage wireless client mode, features which go beyond the scope of the GT724WGR.
For most users the most important wireless feature is range, and here the GT724WGR excels. Even with the router in a shuttered first floor closet, a signal strength hovering around 60% was available at the opposite end of the house, a second floor through several walls and 50 feet away.
Today's routers also act as a security layer between your LAN and the outside world. The Actiontec firewall ships in off state by default. You can dial up the firewall to more secure states, named "low, medium, high, and custom." Each state includes a list of services and ports, which you can further customize by checking things on or off depending on which you want to block or allow.
The firewall includes a wide range of pre-defined protocols, from HTTP to SSH to MySQL and Xbox, but the configuration interface is not very warm and fuzzy for users unfamiliar with network services.
Likewise, you can create port forwarding rules to associate specific network services with client machines inside your LAN. Categories including "Games, Apps, Servers" and more include pre-defined services, but the included choices seem behind the curve by several years ("Games" includes Doom, but no World of Warcraft?). You can use the "User" category to define any network service you want to port forward, of course, as long as you know which ports you need to forward.
You can configure the GT724WGR's "Internet Access Controls" to limit LAN users' access to the outside. "Services Blocking" lets you cut off access to Web, e-mail, FTP, or NNTP, but it seems strange that you can't define custom services to block.
Individual Web sites can be blocked from access by individual client PC's. Unfortunately, the Web site blocking controls are more limited than they could be. For example, there is no way to block a site for all network clients with one clickyou have to configure the block per client. It would also be nice to see support for wildcards or patterns in URL names to block.
Finally, using "Schedule Rules" you can limit individual PC's Internet access during specified times of the day or week.
Active broadband users often juggle multiple network applications simultaneously. It is not uncommon, for example, to be running e-mail, VoIP, file transfers, and maybe even a game at the same time (especially if you're under 30). All this network activity can pose problemsbogging down the router and causing traffic jams.
Quality of Service, or QoS, settings allow you to configure prioritiesor classeswhich discriminate different kinds of network traffic. Activities that require more or faster bandwidth can receive priority while less intensive applications are assigned to lower priority slots.
The GT724WGR includes configurable QoS settings for both upstream and downstream activity. You can slice off chunks of bandwidth and assign them to priority slots and then assign specific network services to these slots. Although the interface itself is Spartan and not exactly user-friendly, QoS itself works well and can manage large amounts of network traffic efficiently.
Integrated or separate
If you already have a DSL modem that is working well and consider yourself an advanced user, you will get more flexibility by adding a separate wireless router that can accept an alternative firmware like DD-WRT or Tomato.
But if you'd rather run your network with a one-box integrated solution that doesn't require advanced technical knowledge to string together, the Actiontec GT724WGR is likely beefier and more feature-rich than whatever your DSL provider might have shipped as a courtesy for your business.
For more router reviews, read "Review: CradlePoint CTR500 Cellular-Ready Travel Router," "Review: Sputnik 720 Wi-Fi Hotspot Gateway," or "Review: Apple AirPort Extreme."
For definitions of unfamiliar technical terms, visit our Glossary.
Aaron Weiss is a frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. In addition to reviews, he writes a monthly Q&A column.