Not all cheap wireless routers are created equal

Not all cheap wireless routers are created equal

Summary: The NETGEAR WNDR3300 is only $20 more retail than the next model down, the WNR2000. It would seem there wouldn't be a huge difference between these two Wireless-N SOHO units, but there is.

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The NETGEAR WNDR3300 is only $20 more retail than the next model down, the WNR2000. It would seem there wouldn't be a huge difference between these two Wireless-N SOHO units, but there is.

Anyone familiar with this column knows that some of my best material comes from doing tech support for my in-laws, as they are always good for a strong dose of reality whenever I get too mired into my own world of geek complacency.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Last week we got a call from my Mother-In-Law that their Linksys Wireless-G router had malfunctioned, and they had lost all their Internet access as a result. It was four years old, so it was not surprising to me that it was time for it to die. So being the good Son-in-Law that I am, I told them I would come and install a new one for them the next day if they went out to their local retailer and picked a new one up.

I selected the NETGEAR WNR2000, an entry-level dual-band Wireless-N router that seemed at least to me as powerful or better than the early model Linksys WRT54G that they were already using. Staples had it for $80 and my Father-In-Law was able to get the guys over at Best Buy to knock another $10 off, so it sounded like a good deal to me. I already had a lot of experience with NETGEAR's Wireless-N products, as I have a high-end business router and several Wireless-N bridges similar to the WNR2000 that I use for HD media streaming for my Roku, my Slingbox and my DirecTV DVRs for on-demand content.

So the next day, I came over, swapped the router out, created a new secure WPA2 wireless network, and added their wireless printer with Wi-Fi Protected Setup. From the upstairs office where the router was located, I did a 300MB wireless download of OpenOffice 3.0 to my father-in-law's laptop, and did a whole bunch of other internet tasks, such as making sure they could get to their email. Everything worked. We went out and got some dinner, went home, and I flew out on a one week business trip the next evening.

The following afternoon I get a call from my wife.

"Mom and dad called, the Internet isn't working"

"What do you mean the Internet isn't working?"

"Dad isn't getting any wireless reception in his office downstairs at all."

"But I tested the damn thing, it should work fine."

"Well apparently, it's not."

"Okay, but mom's laptop should still working fine, it's directly cabled to the router in the upstairs office, she's still only 3 feet away from it, correct?"

"Yeah, hers is working fine, but they called NETGEAR and they went through a whole bunch of stuff on their tech support, spent 15 hours on the phone and now the printer isn't working anymore."

"F$%K. That means they undid all the WPS stuff. Well, I'm not sure what to tell you, the dual-band Wireless-N transciever on that thing should at least be better than what they had."

I'm not going to go into detail but suffice to say my In-laws were extremely angry at me and escalated several calls to NETGEAR while I was away on my business trip. Eventually, they got it resolved -- by replacing the router with another model that cost only $20 more, the WNDR3300, which is part of NETGEAR's "RangeMAX" line.

The new router has similar advertised dual band functionality, but with one key difference -- the wireless transciever on the more expensive unit is about 3 times more powerful. The WNR2000 only had about a 40 foot range, whereas the WNDR3300 had at least a 100 foot range and could easily signal penetrate the walls between the two floors separating the two offices and the cable drop upstairs. With the cheaper WNR2000 unit, my father-in-law had no Wireless-G reception in his downstairs office whatsoever. With the slightly more expensive WNDR3300 unit, he had 3 out of 5 bars using Wireless-G.

The moral of the story? Don't cheap out on your Wireless Router.

Got any other SOHO router stories? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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Topics: Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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17 comments
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  • RE: Not all cheap wireless routers are created equal

    Nothing wrong with cheaping out on the router as long as it fits your needs. The real moral of the story is make sure to test things exactly how the your user is going to use it.

    By the way I have the WND3300 and it's a decent router but I miss the the sophiscated firewall my old D-Link had. I'll probably move back to a D-Link once the 3300 craps out.
    gmclean
  • Your first mistake was buying Netgear.

    I use Netgears VPN firewalls to tunnel and they work well. But I have yeat to buy Netgear WiFi that didn't drop out on a regular basis.
    bjbrock
    • NETGEAR

      I'm usually pretty happy with their products. I use their wireless bridges for HD all over my house, and I use their SRX business-class VPN firewall with wireless-N 5Ghz and it works just fine.

      If anything I would say that Linksys's current consumer stuff is worse than NETGEAR's now, based on recent experience with their products.
      jperlow
      • My 2 cents...

        I'll keep using my WRT54GS v3 as both my B/G access point and
        gateway, and a Apple Time Capsule I picked up off of Craigslist for
        $175 for backing up my Hackintosh, my wife's MacBook Pro, and as a
        N-only access point (cosmetic damage, and you know how some
        Apple people are anal about their stuff not looking good).

        The Linksys is also loaded with DD-WRT to function as a VPN end-
        point, and the Time Capsule gives me enough range where I can
        comfortably use the internet over at a friend of mine's place 4 houses
        down. The Linksys and Netgear wireless-N routers I bought never
        gave me that kind of range, but I'm sure that had I waited, the DD-
        WRT team might have given me the kind of functionality I wanted.
        nix_hed
    • RE: Netgear

      My parent's also have a Netgear router. (DG834G)
      Using the omni-directional antenna the signal is so weak, that, when the kitchen door is open, the signal cuts out completely. The only reliable solution was to replace the omni antenna for a directional one. They've not had any problems with it since then.

      The receiving machine(s) aren't exactly blameless either. Those embedded around a laptop's display can be very temperamental.
      Custard_over_2x_Pie
  • Just a couple of things

    "Click on the ?Read the rest of this entry? link below for more."

    I wonder why this is in every post of yours, when the post continues directly below it.

    Also, why should a router die in 4 years? It seems that I've apparently been very lucky, and also, it's odd that there aren't more people really mad about this short-lived category of products.

    I also must say that wireless products need much more standardization, both in usability and definition (one company's wireless bridge does what the standard definition of that is, while another company's unit, under the same 'description' does not.) Also, unit to unit variation on pieces of the same exact model number show much more variation in quality than any manufacturer should be allowed to get away with. (Observations on Netgear, DLink, Linksys, and Motorola. Buffalo is the only manufacturer I've always had good results with - and they've been gone for a while over patent stuff.)
    chrome_slinky@...
    • Post separator

      It's visible when you look at my blog from its root page.

      http://blogs.zdnet.com/perlow
      jperlow
    • It may not die, but that doesn't mean upgrades aren't a good thing...

      I had an old Linksys router (circa 2001) that didn't come with wireless. I was getting tired of having to plug my laptop into a hardwired connection, so I figured it was time to jump on the wireless bandwagon and bought an ultra cheap Fry's special - an AirLink 101 Super G router for $15 bucks (it was on sale).

      Funny thing - my DSL speed more than doubled instantly. I was getting, at best, maybe 1.2 Mb/s. Now with the new router in place, I'm getting closer to 5 Mb/s throughput.

      Sometimes, it just pays to upgrade.
      Wolfie2K3
  • Don't buy more radiation than you need

    And this is a cheap way to boost your wireless connection:
    http://www.freeantennas.com/projects/template2/index.html

    Neat, huh? :-)

    I love my Linksys WRT54GL, by the way.... Great machine, lots of configuration tweaks are possible.
    pjotr123
    • If you haven't already done so...

      ...update the firmware to dd-wrt v24!
      no_zd_user_name
  • I just bought a Belkin ..F5D9050... G+ router..

    When I opened the box there was a nice note from Belkin telling me that even though my router said it was a G+ ... it had been upgraded at the factory to be a dual band Wireless N router.

    It is SWEET.. I was going to be happy buying the $50 G+ one to replace my 9 year old wireless B linksys that had served me well... Now I have N and my Vaio is screaming fast... I had no idea it was going to make this much difference or this would have happened a long time ago.
    condelirios
  • RE: Not all cheap wireless routers are created equal

    Best way to handle such crap is to get a el
    cheapo
    router and flash it with firmware from Sveasoft
    that
    costs $20. It gives features that the standard
    software does not give like WDS, tweaking radio
    power
    etc... Not for the faint hearted though. I find
    this
    acceptable compared to the nincompoops in
    support who
    always equate everyone to a dumb guys and are
    not
    technically qualified to even recognise that
    the
    person on the other end is clued in. Escalation
    to a
    tech savvy support guy happens, if at all,
    after a lot of
    fighting.

    Mohan
    smohan1962
  • RE: Not all cheap wireless routers are created equal

    I have to agree, Netgear rangemax series give really good signal. I have another model in the series and am quite pleased with it, it gives me a 4/5 bars signal in the yard which is at least 50 ft away from the router and behind multiple walls and furniture.

    Entrepreneur
    marent-22833059731220713809064907006984
  • Belkin's lifetime warrenty!!!

    My wife works at an office in her boss's basement. Last year his internet died and he ask me if I could take a look. (I'm the unofficial IT department) After looking at the router showed no WAN connection. A quick call to Belkin proved the WAN connection was bad. The Belkin Tech cupport rep ask for the address to send a new router. I explained that this was an old router (a B, not even a G). They said no problem. Belkin routers have a lifetime warrenty. Gave them the address and 4 days later a new Wireless N router arrives with a note apologizing that the model they were replacing wasn't availiable anymore and their hope that this upgrade would be satisfactory. Lets see, 5 year old .11b router dies, gets replaced by a new .11n router for FREE!! BONUS!!! Seriously, this experience has me sold on belkin equipment.
    Scubajrr
  • This model is garbage

    So I was in a similiar situation. I had a Linksys WRT54G that had served me for years but lately about 2 times a week I had to power cycle the router because it stopped routing packets out the internet. I figured after 4 years or so it was time for a new one. Picked up a WNR2000 on Black Friday came home and setup a WPA network. Iinitially it worked fine but then my speeds would drop to barely dial-up speeds even though I was about 20 feet from the thing. Power cycling would fix it for a few more days and it would repeat again.

    The other issue I had was the web interface for it would refuse to work via wireless after the router was on for a few days. Again power cycling the device would fix it again.

    I should have known paying $50 for an N router was too good to be true.
    mike.celone@...
  • Avoid WRT54G and WRT54GS

    Linksys (Cisco) used to use a Linux firmware on versions of these routers before V5. But, V5 and up use VxWorks and are garbage. Most users will not notice. But, if you use sessions like ssh, your session will be dropped intermittently.

    Get the Linksys WRT54GL, it has Linux firmware and is a rock solid model.
    Chris_Clay
    • The WRT54GL is really just a WRT54G

      However, they changed the model number so they could jack the price
      up by $20.
      nix_hed