Netgear Cable/DSL Wireless Router 54 Mbps/2.4 GHz

Model: WGR614
Price: $129 (ESP)

Pros: compact size, price, included 8-client software firewall

Cons: firmware limitations currently affect range and performance in some modes, no WPA just yet

The $129, Intersil PRISM-based Netgear Router WGR614 is the company’s 802.11g wireless router product. It provides a great many features, though the practical utility of some of them can be somewhat limited.

Physically, the WGR614 is quite small. It has the same size and footprint (and the same grey, rounded rectangle chassis) as other Netgear products like the company’s Ethernet-to-wireless and HomePlug adapters. It just manages to squeeze the one WAN and four LAN ports on the back of the chassis next to its single (non-removable) antenna.

The WGR614 has useful iconic indicator lights that are easy to identify at a moderate distance, though if you mount the device high up on a wall, they won’t be any more legible than the typical lights-and-labels found on most products. (Netgear provides a vertical stand for desktop use.)

After powering up and connecting the unit, the WGR614’s Smart Setup Wizard correctly detected my WAN connection and prompted me to enter my fixed IP address information.

One that was complete, the first order of business was to update the WGR614 to a recently-released, final 802.11g-compliant version (11.02) of the firmware. (Keep in mind, this is not the same as being “Wi-Fi Certified” for interoperability with other products by the Wi-Fi Alliance. That’s still to come.)

I was dismayed to read a note on Netgear’s support page admonishing me to record all my configuration information prior to the firmware upgrade, since it would all need to be re-entered. However, I was equally pleased to see that after upgrading the firmware, my settings were in fact retained.

Interestingly, the WGR614 is one of the few products I’ve seen that let you specify from a drop-down list the region in which you’ll use the device. Once done, the WGR614 will only display the wireless channels permissible for the region selected.

The WGR614 is one of relatively few products in its class that offers both logging and e-mail alert capabilities. Personally, I would always rather have logging than not, but in the WGR614 the feature is a double-edged sword, because you can’t specify what events to include or exclude from the log. As a result, logging is an all-or-nothing affair, and while the logs provide lots of good information, you’ll likely have to sift through a lot of irrelevant data to find something in particular. Also, you can’t send the logs to a syslog server or save them to a file– but you can e-mail them to yourself hourly, daily, weekly, or when they’re full.

Content filtering is also present in the WGR614, in the form of keyword and domain blocking (you can similarly block LAN users from using certain network applications). You do get some fine control over the filtering in the ability to schedule it by time of day, and you can specify a trusted IP address that won’t be bound by any restrictions.

On the other hand, this router-centric approach is somewhat less iron-clad than a service-based method like that found in Belkin products , for instance. Also, you can circumvent the filter to some extent by entering a site’s IP address directly (which the router cannot filter). But if your filtering needs are relatively straightforward, the WGR614 will do the job.

Incidentally, the WGR614 includes a bundled version of the Freedom Personal Firewall from Zero-Knowledge systems. I didn’t use it extensively, but it provides some useful features like the ability to manage cookies and block Web site ads. Of course, a software firewall is always an advisable supplement to a hardware firewall, so cheers to Netgear for providing it, and including an eight-client license so you can legally install it on more than one PC.

Like many current routers, the WGR614 support Universal Plug-and-Play (UPnP) , simplifying the setup and use of many networked games (it sure makes playing Xbox Live a whole lot easier). Beyond simply enabling or disabling the feature, the WGR614 lets you modify some UPnP variables and it displays a port map table so you can see what UPnP devices are accessing the router and what ports are in use.

The WGR614’s wireless MAC filtering is not terribly unique. What is fairly unique, however–and a huge time saver– is the fact that it will display a list of associated WLAN clients and their respective MAC addresses, saving you from the task of having to enter addresses manually culled from far-flung hardware.

The wireless side of the WGR614 operates in the now-customary three performance modes for the final 802.11g specification: 802.11g only, 802.11b only, or a hybrid b/g mode. Something the WGR614 lacks at the moment, though, are 802.11g-based frame bursting — in this case Intersil’s promised PRISM Nitro — or 802.11b protection modes. (Both are still undergoing fine-tuning, and are expected to emerge in a firmware update in August.)

Also currently missing from the WGR614 is Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) capability. This too is coming, but it won’t make it into the product until shortly after the aforementioned performance modes are added, which translates roughly into a September timeframe. Netgear indicated that it would support WPA or WEP, but not both concurrently.

The wireless throughput of the WGR614, tested in native 802.11g mode and with a Netgear WG511 client NIC, began promising enough at 20.18 Mbps at a 10 foot range. This of course dropped with increased distance (16.08 at 25 feet, 11.25 at 50 feet, and 11.79 at 75). Beyond 75 feet however, the connection was so tenuous that I couldn’t successfully complete a test with NetIQ’s Chariot despite numerous attempts.

None of my initial efforts– re-orienting the unit, changing the performance mode, or using another brand of client, solved this problem. However, returning the WGR614 to the version of the firmware immediately preceding (11.00) the final-g version improved the range of the unit to the extent that a stable signal at 100 and 125 feet was possible and throughput scores were decent, if not impressive (about 5 Mbps and 1.8 Mbps, respectively).

Taken as a whole, these two sets of performance numbers were somewhat reminiscent of a draft-g WG602 access point I evaluated earlier in the year, which posted very similar throughput figures at the various ranges.

Running in mixed b/g mode an 11g client was only able to muster 6.23 Mbps, while when running g and b clients simultaneously, the 11g client’s share was 3.67 compared to 1.59 for the 11b client. All of these figures are below par, which I attribute to the lack of fully-cooked frame bursting or 802.11b protection mechanisms in the product firmware and drivers.

In the final analysis, the WGR614 is a potentially capable product which at the moment is hobbled by some firmware issues that limit features and have a detrimental impact on performance and range. I suspect that after one or two more rounds of firmware all of the issues will be resolved, but in the meantime, it’s probably prudent to sit tight, or at least avoid upgrading the firmware until these issues have been resolved.

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