WiFi tries double time
Tweaks to 802.11g access points make them better<@VM>THE LAB REVIEWS
What a difference a year makes. A year ago we tested first-generation 802.11g access points and found them to be less than impressive, delivering pokey transfer rates and limited range.
Perhaps because they knew their 54-Mbps technology was unimpressive, companies quickly went about adding firmware upgrades such as 'turbo' modes, packet bursting, compression and other techniques to effectively double their theoretical throughput to 108 Mbps. The bad news remains: You still can't get anywhere near the theoretical maximum transfer rates touted by many vendors. But the good news is that with all their tweaks, the current crop of 802.11g products is, as you'd expect, roughly twice as fast as last year's. And that means, for the most part, very usable and effective 802.11g wireless technology.
Eight companies chose to participate in the GCN Lab's most recent 802.11g tests. We asked each vendor to send an enterprise access point and one of its own add-on WiFi adapters. Most sent PC Card adapters; USRobotics sent a USB model.
We set up each access point individually, attaching it to a GCN Lab server at point zero. We then tested each AP in two ways. First we tested the AP communicating with its own vendor-supplied client adapter (two companies did not send adapters). Then we tested the AP communicating with a control radio'an internal Intel PRO/Wireless adapter. On the second test, all APs were evaluated with the same internal adapter in order to isolate AP performance.
In both test scenarios, we transferred 95MB worth of files from the AP to the client at increasing distances. We started with the client right next to the AP, then moved out 10 feet at a time until we reached our maximum distance of 100 feet.
What we found
After weeks of testing, we came to a couple of conclusions. First, 802.11g has come a long way in a year, with increased stability and more consistent signal strength. That said, speeds still aren't close to the advertised spec of 108 Mbps. Perhaps the routers can burst to those speeds, but none could top sustained transfer speeds of 20 Mbps in our tests.
Second, range and transfer rates are generally better when communicating with an internal WiFi adapter than with a PC Card or USB adapter, especially at longer distances. This makes sense considering the faster bus that internal adapters use. Still, not every agency has the luxury of buying new notebook PCs with built-in WiFi, so the PC Card results are good indicators of the quality of add-in radios, often the cheapest, easiest way of mobilizing a workforce.
In the PC Card tests, the clear winner was a combination of the NetGear ProSafe AP and the company's WG511T PC Card. Just to make sure the NetGear card really made a difference, we also tested it with the Buffalo AirStation WHR-HP-G54 and Bountiful WiFi Router (neither Buffalo nor Bountiful sent us an adapter of their own). In both cases, the NetGear PC Card performed well.
When each AP transferred files to the control internal radio adapter, NetGear was again the overall winner, although the USRobotics MAXg USR5451 and 3Com OfficeConnect also turned in good performances.
It's worth noting that we did not give the APs separate grades for ease of setup. That's because there was little or no difference among the products' setup routines, and the processes were uniformly smooth. About the hardest thing we had to do was change some APs from dual 802.11b/g mode to 802.11g-only using simple Web interfaces.
When all was said and done, the NetGear was a clear winner'fast, secure and very affordable ($161), especially considering it features power over Ethernet, which is handy for stringing up multiple APs. We'd also recommend the $199 3Com OfficeConnect, which was the only AP we tested to earn Wi-Fi Multimedia certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance for its implementation of IEEE 802.11e quality-of-service standards.
For quick-and-dirty deployments, we'd recommend the even more affordable $80 USRobotics MAXg.
Performance Results: 802.11g WIRELESS ACCESS POINTS
INTERNAL ADAPTER TESTS
Pros: Packed with more security than any other AP
Cons: Sluggish AP-to-PC Card transfers
|GCN LAB Reviewer's Choice|
The OfficeConnect is an enterprise-class AP that could work for most government agencies, in part because it offers more security than most wired networks. In addition to supporting WEP up to the 152-bit encryption level as well as WPA2 encryption, you can also set up multiple SSIDs from the same base station. And each SSID can act as a separate network access point, with differing security levels. So you could have a public access point with restricted network access sitting on the AP beside a secure one with full rights. The OfficeConnect also supports security for a virtual LAN setup, so if you have a lot of VLANs on your network, this AP could offer them the same high level of protection.
Performance-wise, the OfficeConnect was good, although it did not blow the doors off the competition. It started with a transfer rate of 14.38 Mbps up close to our embedded control radio, putting it roughly in center of the pack. The AP remained fairly average throughout the test, until we tested it from 100 feet, where performed better than most, achieving an average transfer rate of 10.78 Mbps.
Interestingly, results tailed off when we tested the OfficeConnect AP with 3Com's own PC Card. At 100 feet, the combination could only muster 1.58 Mbps. But that's more a reflection of the embedded radio we used as a control, because nearly every pair of products we tested performed worse when using a PC Card add-in radio.
If all you care about is wireless performance, the OfficeConnect is a little pricey at $199. But if you need high security and can live with less than cutting-edge speed, then this is your AP.
3Com Corp., Marlborough, Mass., (800) 638-3266, www.3com.com
NetGear ProSafe WG102
Pros: Best performance at long distances
Cons: Not exceptional at short distances
|GCN LAB Reviewer's Choice|
The ProSafe from Netgear is built for endurance, not sprinting. At test distances 30 feet and under, the ProSafe hung firmly in the middle of the pack using both the NetGear PC Card and the internal adapter. It improved slightly in the middle distances (30 to 50 feet). But at distances of 50 feet and greater, NetGear easily outperformed the other APs regardless of the radio we tested it with. At 100 feet using the NetGear PC Card, the ProSafe had a transfer rate of 5.87 Mbps. Communicating with the Intel internal adapter, the ProSafe was the clear leader at 13.09 Mbps.
We even got performance out at 140 feet. At that distance, most of the other APs lost contact with their preferred PC Cards and had extremely slow connections to the internal chip. But the ProSafe turned in rates of 4.58 Mbps and 6.98 Mbps for the NetGear PC Card and internal radio, respectively. That's speedy, considering the distance.
NetGear's offering has three AP modes (regular, bridge and repeater) and power over Ethernet. And with RADIUS authentication ability, WEP encryption up to 152 bits and WPA2 encryption, the ProSafe includes a good deal of security. For a high-performance AP with PoE support, the ProSafe's price is definitely right.
NetGear Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., (888) 638-4327, www.neatgear.com
USRobotics MAXg USR5451
Pros: Great price, good performance up to 40 feet
Cons: Not many extras
|GCN LAB Reviewer's Choice|
USRobotics products are usually compact, no-frills, inexpensive and reasonably fast. The MAXg is no exception.
The product's security features are about as minimal as it gets in this roundup. But the MAXg proves you don't need extra features to turn in a good performance.
USRobotics sent us a USB adapter instead of a PC Card to test with its AP.
Communicating with the company's own adapter, the MAXg came out in the middle of the pack, hitting 12.02 Mbps at 20 feet. At mid-range, the AP-USB adapter combination was middling (4.67 Mbps at 40 feet), but we were impressed by transfer rates of 3.43 Mbps all the way out at 100 feet.
When tested with our internal control chip, the MAXg flew out of the gate, topping out at 15.94 Mbps at 40 feet. Although it dropped off a bit over the long haul, it still managed top-range performance of 9.17 Mbps at 100 feet.
The MAXg's speed is especially impressive when you consider its $80 price tag. That's a no-frills price, but even though the MAXg doesn't have high-end security features, all the basics are here, from RADIUS support to WPA2 encryption. If you need good coverage (and have plenty of outlets for powering your APs), then the MAXg will serve you well.
USRobotics Corp., Schaumburg, Ill., (847) 874-2345, www.usr.com
SMC EliteConnect SMC2552W-G
Pros: Good security
Cons: Subpar performance and high price
At almost two pounds, SMC's EliteConnect was the heaviest AP in the roundup. But it certainly can't blame its slow transfer speeds on being heftier than the other APs we tested.
It started out adequately enough, turning in reasonable transfer rates like 11.83Mbps with the SMC PC Card and 12.64 Mbps with the internal adapter, both at 20 feet. But soon after that, its speed began to drop off considerably. By the time it got out to 100 feet, it produced the second-worst rate for each adapter, at 2.13 Mbps with the PC Card and 4.50 Mbps with the internal chip.
The product's security features are above average, with RADIUS support, WEP up to 152 bits and WPA2 encryption. Its power-over-Ethernet capability gives it an edge over about half the APs we tested, and two removable antennae should allow you to orient the EliteConnect for maximum signal strength. Plus, its serial port allows direct telnet access to the AP, which is something few in this roundup have.
Still, even with all these features, the $399 price is too much to ask, especially when you take into account its relatively poor performance. Last year the SMC AP stood out among a crowd of laggards, but it seems the competition has caught up.
SMC Networks, Irvine, Calif., (800) 762-4968, www.smc.com
D-Link Air Premier DWL-2210AP
Pros: Four different AP modes, 802.11a compatible
Cons: Worst overall performance
The Air Premier is designed to fit into any office environment. There are four different modes you can set the AP for, including standard AP mode, point-to-point transfer, point-to-multipoint transfer and as a repeater for large networks. And although it has 802.11g and 802.11b on board, it also is compatible with 802.11a networks. Unfortunately, this jack-of-all-trades is no master of performance, turning in the worst overall transfer rates of the review, especially using its own WiFi PC Card.
With D-Link's own recommended PC Card, the AP started out with a 9.91 Mbps transfer rate at 10 feet, putting it at the bottom of the pile. It dropped steadily after that, dwindling to 1.41 Mbps at 80 feet. Then it lost the signal. This made it the only AP/PC Card combo that could not complete the 100-foot test.
It fared better communicating with the internal chip to transfer files, holding its own with a 9.28-Mbps transfer rate at 50 feet, slightly above a few others at that distance. It was able to complete the test and make it to 100 feet with the internal control chip, with a 6.43-Mbps transfer rate at the finish line. Overall however, it performed poorly.
The D-Link might be a good AP if you need to use one of the transfer modes it supports that the others don't, or if you are integrating it with an older 802.11a network. But don't expect the transfer rates that most of the other APs in this review can deliver.
D-Link, Fountain Valley, Calif., (800) 326-1688, www.dlink.com
Pros: Denial-of-service protection; unique physical design keeps the AP cool
Cons: Very expensive
Bountiful WiFi representatives visited the GCN Lab back in December when they were getting ready to launch the new Bountiful Router. The little blue AP certainly looks different from any other AP we've seen, with a pagoda-style top sticking up to help ventilate it. But the real story is that the extra ventilation is necessary because of all the power going to the AP, theoretically to support huge distances and transfer rates never before experienced.
We were intrigued but skeptical. Now that we've tested it, we'd say the Bountiful performs well but not as well as some other APs, and certainly not well enough to justify the high price.
Tested with a PC Card, the Bountiful had an average transfer rate of 13.33 Mbps at 10 feet, putting it near the top of the pile. At 100 feet and using the PC Card, Bountiful transferred files at 4.73 Mbps, which was a solid result.
Communicating with the internal control radio, the Bountiful actually fared worse than most other APs. It started at 12.64 Mbps and hit just 6.43 Mbps at 100 feet. But we will say this for Bountiful: Its Router has range. It was able to maintain a respectable connection at 140 feet, one of the few routers to do so. At that distance, communicating with the control radio, Bountiful Router transferred our test file at an average of 3.02 Mbps'not blazing fast, but certainly good enough for most mobile applications.
The Bountiful offers good security features, and as a router it has four open ports on the back. But we were expecting more from this product. Unless you can get significantly better performance out of it, we'd have a hard time recommending you spend $625 for any wireless router. Take the money and buy two of something with similar or better transfer speed.
Bountiful WiFi, Woods Cross, Utah, (801) 390-6440, www. bountifulwifi.com
Linksys Wireless-G WAP54GP
Pros: Four different AP modes
Cons: High price for average transfer rates
Linksys' Wireless-G WAP54GP comes with adequate security features, including support for RADIUS authentication, WEP up to 128 bits and WPA2 encryption. But it's the AP's ability to switch among four modes of access point operation (regular access point, point-to-point bridging, point-to-multipoint bridging and repeater) and power over Ethernet that make it a features winner.
However, the multiple-mode capability did not help the performance testing. We found that the Wireless-G perform- ed slightly above average using its preferred PC Card but near the bottom of the pack with the internal adapter. In fact, at 20 feet it was clocked in at a higher transfer rate with its own adapter (12.64 Mbps) than with the internal control (11.83 Mbps), which was atypical.
Past 20 feet, the rates with the preferred adapter stay in the top half of the pack. But out at 100 feet, the Linksys can't compete with other setups regardless of the client radio.
Even with the multiple AP mode capability, the Wireless-G's price of $249 seems a little high. Power over Ethernet will attract some offices to this well-known brand, but there are other POE access points that deliver better performance at lower cost.
Linksys, a division of Cisco Systems, Irvine, Calif., (800) 546-5797, www.linksys.com
Buffalo AirStation WHR-HP-G54
Pros: Excellent signal strength up to 30 feet, inexpensive
Cons: Signal drops off quickly at long distances
If we handed out 'most improved' awards, we'd have to give one to the Buffalo AirStation WHR-HP-G54. In last year's roundup, Buffalo's product was plagued with problems that made it our least-favorite wireless device. But that's in the past. The new AirStation is a perfect fit for small offices, especially where the majority of users are within 40 feet of the access point.
For starters, this $79 AP can also be a router. It has adequate security built in, including the ability to reduce signal strength to prevent data from floating outside the office. And it's tiny, weighing just 9 ounces, so it's easy to move around.
Transferring files to both an internal chip and an external card was extremely speedy out of the gate. At 10 feet using an external PC Card, it was hands-down the fast- est performer, hitting 16.66 Mbps on average. Tested with our internal control radio, the Buffalo hummed along at 15.94 Mbps at 20 feet. In fact, this was a terrific product through about 30 feet'but then it began to lose signal strength quickly. It wasn't the worst performer at longer distances, but it was clearly near the bottom of the pack.
Regional offices and small agencies take note: For a small-scale WLAN or even a quick-and-dirty pilot, a few Buffalo wireless routers won't deplete your budget and will afford you a good wireless experience in a controlled area. For larger deployments covering wider areas, you might want to look elsewhere.
Buffalo Technology, Austin, Texas, (800) 456-9799, www.buffalotech.com
AT A GLANCE: 802.11g WIRELESS ACCESS POINTS
| ||3Com OfficeConnect 108Mbps POE AP||Bountiful Router ||Buffalo AirStation WHR-HP-G54||D-Link Air Premier DWL-2210AP||Linksys Wireless-G WAP54GP||NetGear ProSafe WG102 ||SMC EliteConnect SMC2552W-G ||USRobotics MAXg USR5451 |
|Wi-Fi WPA Enterprise-certified||Yes||No||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No|
|Wi-Fi WPA2 Enterprise-certified||Yes||No||No||No||No||No||No||No|
|Ports||10/100 Ethernet, serial||10/100 Ethernet 4-port switch, serial||10/100 Ethernet 4-port switch, serial||10/100 Ethernet||10/100 Ethernet||10/100 Ethernet||10/100 Ethernet||10/100 Ethernet|
|Standards||802.11g, 802.11b||802.11g, 802.11b||802.11g, 802.11b||802.11g, 802.11b||802.11g, 802.11b||802.11g, 802.11b||802.11g, 802.11b||802.11g, 802.11b|
|Antennae||one removable||one removable||two removable||one removable||one removable||one removable||two removable||one removable|
|Security||WPA, WPA2, 802.1x RADIUS, WEP 64/128/152-bit, multiple SSIDs, 802.1q security for VLANs||WEP 64/128-bit, WPA, WPA2, 802.1x RADIUS, DoS prevention||WEP 64/128-bit, WPA, WPA2, wireless power output setting||WPA, WPA2, 802.1x RADIUS, WEP 64/128/152-bit||WEP 64/128-bit, WPA, WPA2, 802.1x, RADIUS, multiple SSIDs, VLAN support||WPA, WPA2, 802.1x RADIUS, WEP 64/128/152-bit||WPA, WPA2, 802.1x RADIUS, WEP 64/128/152 bit||WEP 64/128-bit, WPA, WPA2, 802.1x RADIUS|
|Extras||Power over Ethernet, WMM-certified for Quality of Service||Broadband gateway/router functionality||Router and AP modes||Four modes (AP, PtP, PtMP, repeater), 802.11a-compatible||Four modes (AP, PtP, PtMP, repeater), power over Ethernet||Three modes (AP, bridge, repeater), power over Ethernet||Power over Ethernet||N/A|
|Weight (inc. antennae)||13 oz.||1 lb. 2 oz.||9 oz.||8 oz.||15 oz.||14 oz.||1 lb. 14 oz.||8 oz.|
|Dimensions (excl. antennae)||3.9 x 5.5 x 1 inches||7.1 x 8.9 x 1.9 inches||5 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches||4.3 x 5.5 x 1.3 inches||7 x 7.9 x 1.3 inches||4.2 x 5.5 x 1 inches||5.5 x 8.7 x 1.5 inches||4.3 x 7.1 x 1.7 inches|