Sony CarrierGate Wireless Broadband Router PCWA-AR300

Price: $199.99



Pros: innovative split router/AP design; can be upgraded to add 5GHz support
Cons: pricey; few advanced configuration options

The Sony CarrierGate Wireless Broadband Router PCWA-AR300 conjures up notions of telephone company scandal, but its name isn’t the most unusual aspect of Sony’s new 802.11g product.

Sony is a company that’s known to take product design and styling very seriously, and that’s made obvious the minute you take the $199 PCWA-AR300 out of the box. In fact, from a purely aesthetic (and admittedly subjective) viewpoint, this is by far the most interesting physical design of a WLAN product I’ve ever encountered.

For starters, the router and the access point are separately housed in two discrete units. If you saw the router module sitting on someone’s desk, its low-profile rectangular form might cause you to mistake it for a notebook battery, which it strongly resembles. This module is where you’ll find a WAN port and four LAN ports as well as multicolored status lights that glow eerily beneath a translucent surface.

But the access point module is what’s even more unique about the Atheros AR5100X-based PCWA-AR300. It measures a scant 3.5-by-3.5-by-1.5 (HWD) and connects to the router module via a captive 10-foot cable with an RJ-45 connector. The connector has a keyed notch to ensure it fits only into one of two LAN ports on the router module designed to accommodate it.

This physical separation of the wired and wireless components has obvious benefits, as it lets you place the router module on a desk (or on a wall, as mounting holes are provided) while optimizing the location of the access point high up on the wall and/or away from obstructions. The access point is designed in such a way that it can be either set on a desk or mounted on a wall; you simply pop off the access panel to expose the mounting points. (The access point module, by the way, gets its go-go juice in a Power-over-Ethernet arrangement and thus doesn’t require its own power supply.)

Innovative physical design aside, the PCWA-AR300 is somewhat unsophisticated when it comes to its wired and wireless features and capabilities. While the PCWA-AR300 will do just fine for many folks with basic environments and needs, office or even advanced home users may be disappointed by the lack of configurable features the unit provides.

For example, in the wired realm, the PCWA-AR300’s NAT firewall offers only rudimentary port filtering and lacks the ability to define a DMZ or suppress an ICMP response from the WAN interface. And if you’re unlucky enough to have a restrictive ISP, the PCWA-AR300 might not be able to accommodate your WAN connection. While the router can support static or dynamically assigned IP addresses on its WAN interface, things like MAC spoofing, the ability to specify a domain name, or Dynamic DNS capabilities are conspicuously absent.

Also missing are things like content control, e-mail alerts, or the ability to configure the router from a remote location outside the LAN. And, while there is an activity log maintained by the unit, it can’t even be saved to a file, limiting its practical usefulness. (To its credit, the PCWA-AR300 does provide two features that even some non-savvy users are likely to require — IPSec and PPTP passthrough, and UPnP support.)

The “just-the-basics” approach is also evident in the access point module. Aside from MAC filtering and the ability to set WEP or suppress SSID beacons, there is little else available. (At review time, WEP was the only encryption method available, until a firmware upgrade adds WPA and 802.1x support sometime in the fall of 2003.) There is no provision for things like adjustable transmitter power, configuring frame bursting or 802.11b protection mechanisms. (The CTS-to-Self is on by default.) Moreover, the module’s reliance on the router unit for power precludes any possibility of repeater or bridging function.

Incidentally, the access point module is configured completely separately from the router module. That is, it has its own IP address and its own set of configuration screens, as well as several duplicate (though not redundant) settings like its own firmware and log and time settings.

To test wireless throughput, I paired the PCWA-AR300 with Sony’s PCWA-C300S 802.11g Cardbus adapter. The results were very interesting.

At a 10-foot range, the PCWA-AR300 exhibited performance characteristics similar to that of other 802.11g access points I’ve tested, turning in a score of about 20 Mbps. However, at the 25-foot range (which is obscured from the antenna placement by a right angle in my environment) the throughput plummeted to about 6 Mbps. Interestingly, the AP yielded throughput in that vicinity through 50, 75, 100, and even 125 feet– the last of those distances often being difficult to obtain a reliable signal or any kind of reasonable throughput.

The graphed Chariot results indicated that the low throughput was the result of a consistently low signaling rate, rather than a constantly changing one, which could have indicated the possibility of significant signal interference or obstruction. For the most part, the signaling rate between the devices was steady and unchanging at 12 Mbps through multiple runs at each distance point.

Needless to say, this called for further investigation. Substituting the Sony card for a D-Link DWL-G650 produced results that were somewhat different, but not by much. In the case of the D-Link, the near range performance remained relatively high (16 Mbps at 25 feet), but beyond that dropped to levels similar to or less than the Sony card, which are still low when compared to previous 802.11g products I’ve tested.

Another test run with the Sony card after adjusting the location of the access point slightly improved the throughput at 25 feet to almost 18 Mbps, but at 50 feet and beyond the performance was still mired (albeit solidly) at 6 Mbps.

The cause for these anomalous performance characteristics seem to be multifold, and certainly idiosyncrasies of my particular environment are likely part of the cause. However, results also imply other possibilities, like the potential that the Sony APs unorthodox antenna module, which is designed to have one end flush against a wall, may have unusual signal propagation characteristics. (Sony says it’s omnidirectional with a 1 dB gain.)

Suffice it to say that the Sony AP certainly seems to be more sensitive to placement than a conventional dipole antenna, so more experimentation than normal may be necessary to determine the optimum placement, particularly if you’re also using the Sony WLAN client adapter. (The Sony card also is somewhat atypical in its design, which may also be part of the issue. Read the separate review for more details on this card.)

In conclusion, the PCWA-AR300 is arguably the coolest looking wireless router out there, and its split router/access point design is a big plus for anyone who wants to optimize their WLAN signal propagation without affixing a bulky, wire-laden router high up on their wall. The PCWA-AR300 could also be upgraded to support 802.11a; the unit can accommodate two access point units, and Sony says they will likely offer a 5GHz access point module for the product in the future.

But while its very basic feature set will probably be sufficient for many users’ needs — especially in residential environments — its relatively high price (about 50 percent higher than most competitors) and lack of some fairly common wired and wireless capabilities will probably keep the Sony off the short list of many users with above-average requirements.

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