Saturday, July 14, 2007

NetGear WNR854T Wireless-N Router

The full thingy on the box says, "Netgear RangeMax Next Wireless-N Router GIgabit Edition (WNR854T)". It should more properly say, "Pretty Pathetic".

Let's look at the "Pretty" part first. It is pretty. Most wireless routers look like something designed in Communist Russia -- crude, ugly, at best functional. A couple of them look like miniaturized alien spacecraft that just hunkered down for a landing on the shelf above your computer desk. The RangeMax Next, on the other hand, looks like a sleek piece of computer furniture, sorta like the wireless router counterpart of what my Macbook is to computers. It's pretty. It looks great up there above my computer desk.

Also good: All five ports (the four switch ports and the WAN port) are Gigabit Ethernet ports. And the switch ports even work at full speed as just a plain old switch. Tests with my Macbook also show that it is approximately 4.5 times faster than my old D-Link DI-524 Wireless-G router when it comes to retrieving files via the Wifi connection. This is about what you'd expect, because Wireless-N claims to go 240Mbit/sec while Wireless-G claims to go 54Mbit/sec (reality is that neither comes anywhere close to acheiving their claims in the crowded spectrum of my apartment, where I can pick ten WiFI networks out of the air when I go to join my network).

Now for the bad. First of all, let's look at the operating software accessed via the browser interface. It's pretty. It's also pretty pathetic. D-Link has a reputation as bottom feeder Taiwanese junk, but my D-Link is positively brilliant compared to this Netgear POS. My D-Link reboots the router when you change most major settings, but at least the D-Link doesn't take much time to do so. The WNR854T, on the other hand, reboots the router when you change even minor settings, and takes freakin' forever to reboot. Indeed, watching the blinky lights, it appears that many times it reboots twice before it'll finally accept a connection.

Now let's look at that wireless performance. It appears that this router, which uses a Marvell chipset, has problems talking AES to the Atheros chip in my Mac. So using WPA2/AES-PSK does not work with the expected speed. Connections slow to a crawl after the first megabyte or so are transferred. My suspicion is that this is a problem with the key-shifting algorithm used inside the Netgear, which attempts to derive "truly" random numbers using various entropy sources and thus runs out of keys once the entropy pool is exhausted. Whatever it is, I'm back to WPA/PSK, which at least isn't utterly broken like WEP but still isn't as secure as WPA2/AES.

Now, let's look at the "auto" setting for channels. I've set up an alias for the /System/Library/PrivateFrameworks/Apple80211.framework/Versions/Current/Resources/airport utility on my Macbook, so I can type "airport -s" to do a channel scan and see which channels are in use. When I allowed the router to choose its channel, it plunked itself down right in the middle of four other networks! So I moved the Netgear manually to a channel in the middle of three open channels, and it is now operating at the speed I expect.


So anyhow, I thought I was fine, but then I enabled netatalk on my Linux box and tried to copy over a 500gb file (an ISO image) via the wireless to my Macbook. After exactly 13 seconds, the router rebooted. WTF?! So I tried again. After exactly 13 seconds, the router rebooted. GAH! And this is with the latest firmware update too!

This sucker is going *BACK*. Period. I'm going to try a D-Link DIR-655 next, which uses the same Atheros chipset as the Macbook and hopefully will be far more stable at high speeds.

-- Badtux the Networking Penguin

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