Netgear WNR854T RangeMax NEXT Wireless-N Router – Gigabit Edition

Netgear WNR854T RangeMax NEXT Wireless-N Router – Gigabit Edition

By Craig Ellison

October 30, 2006

While the software is the same, the Gigabit ports and the best performance we’ve seen yet (without obstructions) give this Draft-N product set something to crow about.

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Model: WNR854T
Price: $179 router, $119 CardBus cards
Pros: Gigabit LAN ports; Clean design; Excellent performance in unobstructed tests.
Cons: Basic router functions; Poor throughput compared to D-Link’s Rangebooster N with one or more walls obstructing.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Netgear WNR854T RangeMax NEXT Wireless-N Router, one of Netgear’s Draft-N products, is its clean, sleek design. Unlike competing Draft-N products that typically use a combination of three external antennas, Netgear has chosen to build its three antennas into the case. This eliminates the setup step of attaching external antennas, as well as the concern about how to orient them. Netgear claims that the internal antennas will work as well as their competitors’ external antennas in most installations.

Setup of the WNR854T, which is based on Marvell’s TopDog chips, is quite straightforward. The router comes packaged with a CD that has a simple setup wizard. A piece of red tape that covers the four LAN ports instructs you to run the setup CD first. Though the setup wizard was adequate, we preferred the more complete setup wizard on the D-Link RangeBooster 650N.


RangeMax Next Setup Wizard

The ports on the router are color-coded  — yellow for the Internet port and orange for the four gigabit LAN ports. Gigabit LAN ports? Yes, Netgear was the first to introduce a home router with gigabit LAN ports [Actually, D-Link’s GamerLounge DGL-4300 was first with gigabit and Wi-Fi (802.11g) in one router back in 2004 — added 11/10/06]. With Draft-N products having the potential of real world throughput in excess of 100 Mbps, the traditional 100 Mbps ports found on most routers could become the bottleneck. And, given that most new desktops and notebooks ship with gigabit Ethernet, Netgear deserves kudos for leading the way with gigabit LAN ports. Gigabit LAN ports future-proof your investment on the “wired” side of your network, and ensure that the Ethernet won’t be the bottleneck. Other manufacturers have announced products with gigabit ports, and those products will be available for the holiday season.

More advanced users, likely to be early adopters of the new Draft-N technology, can bypass the setup wizard by browsing to www.routerlogin.net, or to the default IP address of the router. Netgear thoughtfully printed the default IP address, user name and password on the bottom of the router.

Like the rest of the design, the front panel has a clean, uncluttered look. The WNR854T uses multi-colored LEDs to backlight the LAN ports and status indicators. On the LAN ports, yellow indicates a 10/100 connection; green indicates a gigabit connection. On the Internet port, yellow indicates that there is a connection to the modem but the router hasn’t received an IP address from the ISP. Green indicates a good Internet connection. Blinking lights on any port status indicates data activity. The power indicator has five status modes, detailed in the manual, to show operational or diagnostic functions.

Draft-N products, those products based on the first approved draft of the forthcoming IEEE 802.11n standard, received some fairly negative press based on the first round of products that shipped in June. However, as with any emerging technology — and Draft-N products certainly qualify as emerging technology — manufacturers release frequent firmware updates to improve performance, range and interoperability. A lot of work has been done to improve operability since June, so if you purchased some of the first products available, you need to check the manufacturer’s Web site for upgrades.

The WNR854T includes an option to automatically check for new firmware. Upon our first login, the router found a new firmware update, Version 1.3.33, dated October 11, 2006. We updated the firmware using the Router Update page. The simple process took only a couple of minutes. Netgear warns you to reset your router to factory defaults after the firmware upgrade to ensure that the new code is loaded and executed. If you’ve changed any of the default settings, you should save your current configuration, such as wireless network name, wireless security, port forwarding settings, etc., using the backup settings menu before you restore your settings to factory default.


WNR54T Router Upgrade (click for larger view)

Netgear didn’t break any new ground with their user interface or with the included features on the WNR854T. If you’ve ever logged into a Netgear router before, the user interface will be very familiar. The menu runs vertically along the left side of the screen. The center of the screen is reserved for displaying status or configuring the router. The right side of the screen displays context-sensitive help.


WNR54T Status Page (click for larger view)

Wireless setup is very straightforward. You have the option of changing the network name (SSID), and configuring it for 802.11b/g (why would you, if you spent the extra money to buy a Draft-N product?) or 802.11b/g/Next. Security options include WEP, WPA-PSK, WPA2-PSK and WPA-PSK/WPA2-PSK modes. Note that the WNR854T does not support enterprise security or external authentication servers.

There’s also an advanced wireless setup page, but with so few options, they could have easily been included in the basic wireless setup. These options include disabling the wireless radio, turning on/off the SSID broadcast, and a choice of wireless optimization modes.

There’s a provision to enable restricting wireless access based on MAC addresses. This list can be populated from currently attached stations.


Wireless Access Control List

The WNR54T has a standard setup for configuring the built-in DHCP server, but does add a feature for DHCP reservation. With DHCP reservation, you can ensure that a specific MAC address is always assigned the same IP address. This simplifies setting up devices that you may want to set up port forwarding to, such as Web cameras or servers.

While it includes port forwarding and port triggering, the included list of pre-defined services is limited. For port forwarding, there are only 12 services defined. And for port triggering, there are no pre-defined services/games included. You have to know the port ranges and triggers for each service in order to set this up.


Port Forwarding/Port Triggering

For best performance with Draft-N products, you’re better off purchasing the corresponding client card from the same manufacturer that produced your router. For our tests, we tested with a pair of RangeMax NEXT Wireless N Notebook Adapters (model WN511T). As with the router, we were pleasantly surprised that the setup checked for an update and gave us the option of installing the download rather than installing from a CD. Of course, for this option to work, you have to have an Internet connection when you run the setup wizard. The setup wizard gives you the option of using the built-in Windows wireless client, or installing Netgear’s Smart Wizard Wireless Assistant. We chose to install the Netgear client, and were also pleasantly surprised. The tabbed interface is easy to use. Displayed across the bottom of the interface in all four tabbed pages is your current status, showing signal strength, link speed, security, attached network name and Internet connection status.


Static status bar shown on all four tabbed pages of the client

The Settings tab shows your current profile. The Network Tab displays wireless networks discovered, along with their operating channel, mode, signal strength and encryption type. You can sort on any column by clicking on the column heading.


Networks Discovered

The Statistics tab displays detailed information about packets sent and received, along with a graphical representation of current performance and a graph of performance over time. In the image below, traffic was being streamed between two nearby wireless notebooks through the router. Note the 100% performance.


Smart Wizard Statistics

Performance

Of course, performance is why you’d purchase a Draft-N product. We tested the Netgear WNR854T using the exact same testing methodology and test environment as when we tested the D-Link RangeBooster 650N. Using Iperf, we streamed data between two notebooks with the WN511T client cards installed. Both the router and the cards were updated with the latest firmware available as of October 18, 2006.

I tested in a typical home environment (mine). Before testing, I did a site survey and discovered five nearby wireless networks, including one with 100% signal strength on channel 11. To minimize interference, I re-configured the WNR854N to operate on channel 1.

I created four test scenarios, and for each one, ran performance tests a number of times. The results below are the average throughput for each test scenario.

TestThroughput
(Room/Test #)(Mbps)
Same room (1)93.7
Bedroom (2)48.1
Living Room (3)68.5
Kitchen (4)22.6

Test One  —  Both notebooks in the same room as the router. The router was over six feet away from the notebooks. Result: 93.7 Mbps
Test Two  —  One notebook was in the same room as the router. The second notebook was moved to a bedroom over 19 feet away. There was one wall between the router and the client. Result: 48.1 Mbps
Test Three  —  One notebook was in the same room as the router. The second notebook was moved to the living room downstairs. Result: 68.5 Mbps
Test Four  —  One notebook in the same room as the router. The second notebook was moved to the kitchen directly below the location in test two. Result: 22.6 Mbps

For those of you who are statistically inclined, the standard deviation of the test results ranged from a low of 0.9 (same room) to a high of 3.1 (living room).

For the “same room” test, the performance was significantly faster than D-Link’s same room test which clocked in at 62.8 Mbps. Interestingly, on the bedroom test  —  the second nearest location with a one-wall obstruction  —  throughput dropped to 48.1 Mbps as compared to D-Link’s 56.0 Mbps. On the living room test, which has a fairly unobstructed path to the router, the Netgear outperformed the D-Link 68.5 Mbps versus 49.3Mbps. But on the final test, the Kitchen, which has multiple walls and a floor obstruction, the D-Link outperformed the Netgear by more than 50%.

Empirically, it appears that the Netgear turns in blazing speed when there are relatively few obstructions, but the D-Link outperforms when there are obstructions. Of course, it’s almost impossible to determine whether or not that’s caused by Netgear’s internal antenna design.

Bottom Line

Overall, the WNR854T turned in outstanding performance in unobstructed tests, and good performance, but not as good as D-Link’s, in tests with obstructions. However, I was disappointed by the router’s lack of advanced features as compared to D-Link’s. The WNR854T lacks configuration for QoS, has support for only one DDNS provider, and port forward/port triggering options are sparsely populated. For many, those advanced features don’t mean much  —  what they want is speed. And with gigabit LAN ports and a top measured throughput of 93.7 Mbps, the WNR854T delivers.

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