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Compact Wireless-G Broadband Router WRT54GC Review

Compact Wireless-G Broadband Router WRT54GC Review

  1. jdepew
    The Linksys WRT54GC, a Compact Wireless-G Broadband Router, announced a few months has started to show up for purchase at several online retailers, and we're here with the first review of it.

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    Many of the large SOHO networking manufacturers have had compact wireless routers in the market for several months now, such as the Asus WL-330. Linksys had a product for just about every niche in the market with this one exception, and with its introduction fills the gap quite nicely. At an MSRP of $79.99USD, and easily found for around $65, its quite the bargain compared to the Asus 802.11g solution (WL-530G) at $79street and slower 802.11b at $60.

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    While the name WRT54GC implies that it is similar to rest of the WRT54G line, its quite a different beast altogether, much like the new GX (see our upcoming review of that as well). Keeping this naming convention was a very smart move by Linksys to build on top of the tremendous name the WRT54G has built for itself. In fact, just as the GX is built on a solution by Airgo moving from the Broadcom solutions of the G and GS, the GC is based on a Marvell chipset.

    This has significant implications for one of our favourite topics at LinksysInfo.org, 3rd party firmware. Linksys has not yet released the firmware source code for this product, but as we'll see later, the firmware has taken more than a few pages from our favourite firmware solutions. This review is going to cover a few different topics. First we'll take a look at the design and features of the WRT54GC, then we'll give you a look inside the software features and web administration. Third we'll give you our performance impressions. Initially these will be largely subjective, but will be updated as we define a test setup that we're confident in.

    Design

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    At first glance the WRT54GC appears tiny. In fact, it is. It only measures 0.86" x 3.86" x 0.98" (98 mm x 98 mm x 25 mm). It's hard to imagine what size that is, but to get an idea of it, I thought a comparison with the nearly ubiquitous iPod would be appropriate. Here it is standing next to a 4th gen 20Gb Apple iPod. As you can see, it is just barely shorter and thicker than the iPod, but is a bit longer. When they say that this could be a pocket router they mean it.

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    Inside the box, you'll find a 5.5' CAT5 Ethernet cable, power supply and setup software. The power supply is comparatively HUGE. Now the WRT54GC only uses a 3.3V 2A supply, so its really not that big, its just large compared to the router. It may seem odd that there are no antennas included in the box, but that's because one is already integrated, but more on that later.

    The design is very attractive and is a continuation of Linksys' transition to the new corporate design that has shown up on all the recent releases. The mix of dark grey slotted sides and matte silver surfaces makes for a very slick appearance. Even though it is so small, it certainly doesn't feel flimsy.

    In fact, it feels solid throughout and the flip out foot and antenna cover don't feel like they'd snap if you applied too much pressure. Overall, while the traditional purple and grey Linksys look is more recognizable, this new design trend is a good direction that tries to convey a more professional and study look.

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    Up front are 7 LEDs that glow standard computer green to indicate their successful operation. Starting from top to bottom are LEDs and indicators for Power, Internet (WAN port) Connection, Wireless, and 4 LEDs for the four wired ports built in. Long gone are the days of multiple indicators per port for connection, activity, and collision or trouble. These are lit solid on successful connection and blink with activity at their respective port.

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    Out back and surrounded by a yellow ring are four wired LAN ports which are 10/100-TX autosensing. The fifth Ethernet port, colored by the new Linksys purple is your WAN port where you connect your cable, DSL or other ethernet based modem. How extremely poetic that the Linksys colored port is your broadband gateway to the Information Superhighway (now that's a 90's term if I've ever heard one).

    Not only can that port be connected to a modem, but also to another wired network. This is convenient if you are traveling and have a hotel or conference room with only wired internet and you'd like a little more freedom. Just plug in and surf with the advantages of a SPI firewall and NAT even away from home. or the office. The little tab you see extended at the top of the router is external antenna port cover.

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    A quick look around back shows off the various mounting options available for the WRT54GC. If you choose to sit the router flat on a desk there are four soft padded feet to make sure this little beauty will not mar the surface you have graced with it. These feet also provide a good non-slip grip. Even at the edge of my glass top desk and several cables hanging off the back, the WRT54GC held on tight. If you choose to sit the router in a vertical position, a substantial foot coated with the same non-slip rubber swings out from the bottom.

    This foot also hides the hole for the reset button. A third mounting option is also featured on the back. The cross shaped holes are for wall mounting. For those interested they are 2 5/16" apart on center. All of the device default settings are imprinted in the back and remain the same from the rest of WRT line, web admin is at 192.168.1.1 with a blank username and 'admin for password. Having that information within three inches of the reset button will undoubtedly help ease setup confusion or remembering the default settings if forced to reset to factory defaults. For those that need it, the router's WAN MAC address and serial number is on a sticker out back as well.

    External Antennas

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    While the internal antenna does a good job, there is an option for adding an additional external antenna. The external antenna port can be exposed by lifting up on the rounded edge of the tab. Under this tab you'll find a RP-SMA antenna connector. This is the same type of connector used by the majority of Linksys products outside the WRT router line which uses a TNC connector. Linksys' solution for high performance antennas are the HGA7S and HGA7T in sma and tnc formats respectively. Each claim a 7dbi gain. as you can see they are quite large and dwarf the tiny wrt54gc.

    In fact, you have to use the foot stand if you plan on keeping the gc upright. As i said before, we are still working on the objective performance tests, but subjectively, this antenna will jump a signal from good at 20' to excellent. because of the large size and the common sma connector, i thought to give an antenna from an old wmp11 802.11b pci adapter a try. as you can see by the photo of the two antennas overlaid, it much smaller and rated at only 2.2dbi. i also got a significant gain in signal strength with this antenna, so i imagine the 7dbi antenna will maintain excellent signal strength much further out. we'll update this review when that data becomes available.

    Setup

    If you've had an experience at all with any of the WRT range of wireless routers, the web setup page will instantly be recognizable to you. It shares the majority of the same features that we've come to know and love in the WRTG4G, such as a strong SPI firewall, NAT, superior wireless performance and rock solid stability. Where there are new or interesting features, besides the obvious form-factor, we'll point them out here.

    After physically setting up the router, and connecting to the router either by Ethernet cable or to the default Access Point SSID 'linksys,' you can get to administration pages by navigating your browser to http://192.168.1.1 You'll be prompted for a user name and password. The defaults here are a blank username and 'admin' for the password (without quotes). Now that we've access the web interface, lets dig in. Setup Hierarchy

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    On the whole the WRT54GC's administration web pages are very similar to the tried and true setup of its big brother, the WRT54G. If you are familiar with the full sized version, you should have no trouble navigating the pages for the GC. Since the majority of the features are the same, I will highlight the noticaeble differences. If you are coming from a 3rd party firmware on a WRT54G or GS, you will find yourself right at home. It seems Linksys has picked up some the more convenient features and added them into the interface. They've also refined some of the standard pages as well. Perhaps this is a sign to come of features to be added to the entire range.

    Basic Setup

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    As you can see above, the Basic setup page is very familiar with one glaring exception. The 'Assign Static DHCP' button. This had been one of this reviewer's primary reasons to look into the first customized firmwares for the WRT54G. Its nice to see this feature becoming more mainstream.

    Static DHCP

    If you are not familiar with Static DHCP, which may seem a bit of a idiosyncratic name - Static Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol - it works in much the same way as standard DHCP. When a client connects to a network, setting configuration by DHCP rather than manually allows a DHCP server, if present, to send the client an IP address, DNS, and routing information. This allows for either many clients to connect with relatively little configuration or one client to connect to a variety of different network settings with ease. By adding on the 'Static' qualifier, you can choose to always assign the same IP to a specific client when it connects.

    This can be very useful for many reasons. First, the client doesn't have to do any manual configuration. Second, by knowing just the MAC address of the client trying to connect, you can always identify it with that unique identifier. Third, using constant IP addresses makes using applications like VPN much easier. Frequently VPN solutions won't allow you to connect to a computer by its hostname but only by IP when connecting to the network through the VPN tunnel. With S-DHCP, these won't change. Overall, its a nice feature to have included that will make a lot of advanced users feel much more confident in this product.

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    You can make use of Static DHCP by entering a client name that identifies the client to you (e.g. WorkLaptop), the IP address you'd like reserved for it, and the physical MAC address of the adapter in the client. Another nice feature we'd have like to seen included that would have nicely complemented the Static DHCP was a local DNS Server allowing you to address your clients through names such as clientname.local.net, again rather than IP addresses. This is a feature seen in many aftermarket firmware solutions and may be something for Linksys to look into.

    Dynamic DNS

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    Dynamic DNS, while unchanged from previous implementations, is always worth noting. Dynamic DNS, or DDNS, is a service offered by several providers that allows you to assign a host name to your router even if you have a Dynamic IP address provided to your modem/router by your ISP. For example, if you are running a webserver behind your router (ports appropriately open/forwarded), anyone accessing it would have to know your IP.

    Dynamic DNS allows them to use a name instead - for example http://ourlinksys.homeip.netrather than http://158.12.54.2. This router has support for DynDNS.com and TZO.com accounts. Typically using this feature means running a client that frequently updates your providers name server, but, this router has clients for these two services built in - just fill in your account information and you're set to go.

    Wireless & Wireless Security

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    As you can see, the Basic Wireless are just that - basic. IN the US market version of the router, available channel options are 1-11. Remember that only channels 1, 6, and 11 do not overlap. Modes include B-only, G-only, and Mixed. Because this router uses a Marvel chipset rather than Broadcom, SpeedBooster is not available as an option.

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    The Wireless Security tab brings some a little more excitement to the picture. Not only are WEP and the more secure WPA modes available, but WPA2 is also available. WPA-AES and WPA-TKIP are supported along with WPA2-AES. The interesting WPA2 Mixed Mode option enables a combination of both WPA and WPA2 to operate at the same time, allowing clients that do not yet support the newer standard to still connect while providing enhanced security for those that do. Look for WPA2 support to become much more widespread across the industry within the coming months. If your wireless product doesn't currently support it, write your manufacturer and demand that it be added.

    Firewall

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    The VPN Passthrough tab remains the same as in the rest of the WRT family. The web filters option has been expanded to individual options for proxy, java, active x, and cookies. Selecting any of these options will prevent VPN users access to these web features.

    Access Restrictions

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    The Access Restrictions page has been cleaned up for a much more intuitive user interface. One of the most likely uses of this page is parents controlling their children's content and access or employer's doing the same with their employees. It does seem a bit limiting that only two services can be blocked per user policy. It sounds like it could become a difficult choice for parents concerned about children file trading, "do I block eMule and bittorrent ports and if so what are they?" In fact, the two presets not shown are NNTP and SNMP.

    Seems like an odd port choice to block, NNTP, doesn't it? Linksys could stand to expand this list to make it easier for parents to administer. Additionally, it seems sort of anaemic to be only able to block 4 website URLs or keywords at a time per policy. This could certainly be expanded with a list input rather than text boxes.

    Applications & Gaming

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    For those more advanced users that dare to operate in the DMZ or run servers behind their router, Linksys provides both Port forwarding and triggering. They make available several default options with plenty of extra spaces available for expansion. One glaring omission from the defaults is VNC. In my mind this is a must have for defaults, since VNC is so easy to setup otherwise. No use in confusing first time VNC users.

    Administration

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    Most of the changes in the Router Administration pages are made to the Management tab. This page has been expanded to include a few new options, again some we've seen in custom WRT54G firmware. Allow remote IP address has now been expanded from a simple yes/no option to allow you to choose an IP or IP range. This will be convenient for those who setup and maintain routers for others. Also new are the expanded UPnP options. Not only can UPnP be simply enabled or diabled, is has been given the power to allow users to disable access through the UPnP 'Internet Gateway' Icon that shows up in Windows Network Neighborhood.

    Status

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    Everything in the Status menu remains the same as well. A quick look at the wireless clients table will reveal a nicely refined tabular format that is much easier to read than previous implementations.

    Performance

    We are still working on defining a standard set of testing protocols to ensure consistent and comparable performance results across reviews and firmware updates. With that said, I can give you some very subject performance impressions. I personally used this router when on a recent road trip and used it to create a wireless access point for everyone in the hotel rooms rather than trying to share the one wired High Speed Internet among several people. This little router served its purpose very well, and I was delighted to find wireless to wireless client transfers we very speedy.

    I was transfering 100's of 6Mb digital photo images at a time and there was never a hiccup. Regarding wireless performance, on the road, the router went without its high gain antennas and I only used the built in antenna, but was able to maintain a 'Good' Signal with at least 48Mbps at ~15' outside the room including heavy metal doors and concrete walls. Laptops used were a Toshiba Satellite A15-S1292 with a Linksys WPC54G PC Card adapter and a VPR Matrix 185-A5 with built-in 802.11g miniPCI card. Using the external antennas here at LinksysInfo.org HQ, I was able to maintain Excellent signal strength at 20'. This review will be updated when I have assembled a full suite of test tools and defined our future test standard.

    Internals

    Thanks to the FCC website, we were able to snag some more detailed information about the components used inside the router. This photo is from the FCC's InteralPhotos filing document.

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    As you can see there are two small antennas connector to the board in perpendicular planes and a small heatsink over the CPU. The WRT54GC uses Radio CPU Switch Marvell 88E6060-RCJ 6 port 10/100 Swtich Chipset with Auto MDI/MDIX Product Page RAM EtronTech EM636165TS-5 (200Mhz) x 2 Product Page Flash MX We'll get you more info once we crack ours open.

    Conclusion

    Overall Impression

    The WRT54GC is quite a powerful router that belies its diminutive size. It would be hard to get such a feature packed 4 port router any physically smaller. If you are interested in being able to deploy a wireless access point or router wherever you go, this little guy will certainly fit the bill. It's small enough to throw in a laptop bag without weighing you and give you all the comforts of home on the road or wherever you can find broadband. The wireless range is excellent for such a small package and doesn't force you to use an extra external antenna, that as we've seen can far outweigh the benefits of its compact nature.

    Summary

    Pros
    • Compact Size easily fits in laptop bag
    • Competitive Price with full size and pocket routers
    • Impressive Wireless performance
    • Previously Unavailable features like Static DHCP available
    • WPA2 Support
    • Easily adds wireless to any situation
    Cons
    • Unreleased Firmware Source - little chance at 3rd party choices
    • External antennas are added expense (MSRP 49.99 HGA7S) and are LARGE
    • Power supply is nearly the size of router itself
    LinksysInfo.org Rating: 4 1/2 Signal Strength Bars : [​IMG]


    All Content and Photographs © 2005 James Depew and LinksysInfo.org.
    All product names are trademarks of their respective companies.