Actiontec 54Mbps Wireless Access Point

By Wayne Kawamoto

January 09, 2003

Getting higher speed with 802.11a is great, but the trade off is range, as this product proves. Luckily, its not as expensive as the retail price would make one think.

Model: HWS05490-01($499.99 MSRP)

If you've been wishing for faster wireless networking speeds, you may be intrigued by products based on the 54Mbps 802.11a technology. Actiontec's competent entry, the 54Mbps Wireless Access Point, offers easy installation; a system that resides and works with existing networks, even 802.11b wireless networks; and comes with convenient 24/7 toll-free support. Performance was in the usual 802.11a areas (though nowhere near advertised specifications), and the range was barely adequate. Luckily, the expensive $499 list price, this product is available from Internet sources for about $200, a much more competitive price.

Pros:

  • Easy configuration
  • Compact device

Cons:

  • Weak connectivity between floors .

BASIC FEATURES

Actiontec's 54Mbps Wireless Access Point and 54Mbps Wireless Card are the first in the company's line of 802.11a products that are based on the Atheros AR5000 WLAN chipset. The access point connects effectively with wired and wireless networks and provides a transmitter and receiver that communicate with wireless network interface cards (NICs).

The Actiontec Access Point is designed to offer performance up to 54 Mbps with a range of 100 feet indoors and 400 feet outdoors, and support for up to 60 simultaneous users. A turbo mode transfers data at rates up to 72 Mbps. Operating in the 5GHz frequency band (5.15 and 5.35 GHz), it minimizes interference with 2.4GHz phones and other devices, and allows it to co-exist with 802.11b networks. The access point supports networking and management features including SNMP, IP filtering, and roaming.

Physically, the access point is approximately the size of an external CD-ROM drive and has the footprint of a half-sheet of notebook paper. Three LEDs indicate power, connection with an ethernet LAN, and wireless activity. The device features two flip-up antennas, ports for Ethernet and serial connections, and a reset button that may be activated with the tip of a pen or paperclip. If you like, you can mount the access point on the wall either horizontal or vertically. It is compatible with Windows 98 and higher.

SETUP/INSTALLATION

As with most Actiontec products, setup is straightforward. To start, plug in the access point's AC adapter, and connect the device to a network hub, using the included Ethernet cable. For my testing, I connected it to Actiontec's Wireless Cable/DSL router, which was, in turn, connected to my network's DSL modem. The brief "Quick Start Installation Guide" walks you through all the necessary steps.

After connecting to power and a network, you insert the "Buddy CD-ROM" into a network computer, and the program offers step-by-step instructions to configure the device. The "Start Here" document adequately outlines this procedure. In my testing, I was up and running within fifteen minutes using the device's default settings.

A User's Guide offers more step-by-step information on configuring the access point, as well as troubleshooting tips and answers to frequently-asked questions. I found that the documentation gave me all of the information that I needed to adequately connect and configure the device. Everything worked right out of the box and was easy to configure through the Web interface.

Actiontec offers a one-year warranty and, if you run into problems, excellent 24-hour, toll-free technical support. I called tech support several times and each time I called, late at night and in the afternoons Pacific Time, I had no problems reaching a technician within a reasonable time. However, I only knew about the toll free number because I had previously evaluated other Actiontec products. The documentation that came with the access point only listed a toll number with hours between 6am and 11pm Mountain Time.

Using the supplied drivers, I installed the Actiontec 54 Mbps wireless PC card in a Celeron-based notebook that was running Windows 2000. The PC card installed without a hitch and was quickly up and running.

PERFORMANCE

In my testing, it turned in typical 802.11a numbers: I achieved average throughput of 23.9 Mbps under ideal (close) conditions. When I moved downstairs, approximately 25 feet away from my loft office, the performance dropped to 21 Mbps. When I moved further, some 40 feet away, the 54 Mbps card lost contact and couldn't maintain an adequate connection to measure.

Through drywall and on the floor immediately below, I obtained average performance of just under 7Mbps. While this is indeed greater than that 802.11b systems, the range was far less than the advertised specifications.

In turbo mode, which uses two channels to increase the throughput rate, the access point and PC card achieved an average of 33.4 Mbps, an increase of almost 40 percent over normal mode, but not even half of the touted 72 Mbps throughput. Performance drop-off in terms of distance was comparable with my experiences in normal mode. I verified my test results with an Actiontec technician who said that my numbers were not unusual.

WEP encryption did not affect performance, as Actiontec claimed. The system worked just fine when microwave ovens and cordless phones were operated at the same time.

SECURITY

Encryption capabilities support both the WEP 40-bit standard and RC4 128-bit standard. It's not necessarily high security, but better than nothing. If you like, you can protect the unit's administration utilities and settings with passwords. Configuring encryption is straightforward through the access point's Web-based interface.

SUMMARY

Actiontec's 54Mbps Wireless Access Point is a competent product that effectively bridges wireless and wired networks and offers performance that's greater than that of 802.11b systems. I was impressed with the device's easy setup and configuration and 24-hour, toll free technical support, and the throughput was typical of 802.11a networks, but unimpressed with the device's range -- again a standard problem with 802.11a.



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