It’s been many years since I last made any significant changes to my wireless internet setup. In fact, the last major router I bought was a Linksys WRT54G, and I bought it at the (now bankrupt) CompUSA store near my house. However, of late the ‘ol 54G has been showing signs of age, and has even crashed a few times in the last couple of months. I finally decided it was time to spend some time researching the current state of the art for wireless standards and routers.
Disclaimer: Although I’ll get into the details later, TP-Link provided the hardware to me free of charge in return for my feedback. They did not edit or otherwise contribute to this blog post, however.
Searching for Signal…
The new hotness on the technology front is 802.11ac which replaces 802.11n, which most devices mnaufactured today support. 802.11ac is an overall bump in speed and reliability. It’s still a draft, and expected to become final in 2013. However, it’s common to see hardware released ahead of the final specification. Usually hardware based on the draft is compatible or just requires a quick firmware upgrade after the final spec is published.
Having brushed up on the technology, it was time to pick a vendor. In the 802.11ac space, there are a number of contenders:
I started on the forums for custom router firmware, since those guys tend to be experts in the best bang-for-your-buck hardware. Then, I went over to Newegg to check out the reviews and get some pricing information.
I ended up digging deeper into TP-Link, as their model was a good $30-50 cheaper than the competition. The difference appears to be that most of the other routers in this space use a much higher power CPU and more RAM. This is probably of interest to people who plan on using their routers as full-blown Linux installs or as dedicated NAS boxes, but not as interesting to those of us who don’t.
One of the major issues with most consumer technology is support – most people will have no issues whatsoever, but if you do, customer support makes or breaks your experience. The TP-Link support guys were very active in the Newegg reviews section, offering personalized support and even replacement hardware to customers having issues.
In one bit of feedback from TP-Link, they were trying to find technically savvy folks who were willing to test out and review new hardware. I threw my name into the hat, and lo and behold I was selected to get one of their new Archer C7 routers, in return for my time in helping to test it.
What’s in the box? Hardware & Docs
The Archer C7 is the top-of-the line model, announced just this year at CES. In addition to 802.11ac support, and all the basic router hardware features like LAN ports, it’s also got a pair of USB 2.0 ports on the back that can be used for file and print sharing. There’s also a convenient switch for power and one to toggle the wireless on and off. I’ve lost the barrel plug from the AC adapter in the morass of wiring behind my router/modem enough times that I appreciate a good physical switch to reboot my electronics.
Beyond the router itself, there’s a standard complement of accessories:
- Wall wart power adapter
- Antenna set (this model comes with 3!)
- An Ethernet cable
- A quick install guide
- A mini-CD with the user’s guide, some setup software, etc
- A letter about GPL software in use as part of the firmware
The nice thing about the included documentation is that it’s all well written. Too much of the time when you have an international company writing documentation, the end result is hard to understand. This can needlessly complicate setting up a piece of electronics. I’m happy to report that the TP-Link documentation is well written and quite useful.
There are also a few guides included for some of the more advanced features, like sharing a printer via the router’s USB ports.
The GPL letter goes over the open source software used in the router’s firmware, and gives you a link to download the source. I tested this for personal curiosity and found it to be working fine.
The Existing Setup
I’ve got quite a mixed network at the house. I’ve got two Macs running OSX, several wireless devices running either 802.11g or 802.11n, and a bunch of wired devices connected directly to my routers.
I say “routers” plural, because in addition to the aging WRT54G router, I have another Asus router on my local network. The two are operating in a WDS mode, which means that they look like one access point to any wireless clients. I bought the Asus router as a cheaper alternative to a wireless adapter for my Xbox 360.
As I’m an avid gamer, I’ve got a PS3 and a Wii in addition to the 360. I’ve also got a gaming rig on the wireless network with a USB 802.11n adapter, and my Nexus 4 for the occasional (okay, frequent…) Android game.
Integrating the Archer C7
Before I begin any complex project such as this, I always take a moment to back up the existing configuration. Both the old routers have a mode where you can download the current settings as a .cfg file which can be restored at a later time.
I also took the additional step of using Chrome to save PDF copies of all the key configuration settings pages on the old WRT54G. That way, I didn’t have to go back and remember things like what ports I had forwarded, or what my static DHCP settings were. The config file backups are typically in binary and not much use outside of a full settings restore. I highly, highly suggest making PDF copies of your settings pages to anyone who is considering a router upgrade.
I saved all the .cfg and .pdf files on an old USB key, and grabbed the router, the key, my laptop, and an Ethernet cable, and went to work. I started by turning off the wireless radio on the Asus router, just to avoid any weird SSID conflicts from the existing WDS setup. Then I pulled out the old WRT54G and put the Archer C7 in its place.
The initial setup went pretty smoothly, and there’s a few things that stood out and really simplified my life:
- The default username, password, and other important details are printed on a label on the underside of the router. This is super convenient. The security nut in me says there’s probably some risk of having these bits of data readily available. However, by the same token most home routers I’ve used print it in the instruction manual which you can find online in seconds, so I don’t really see the additional risk.
- Instead of having just a default IP address, by the router also has a default DNS entry for the router’s IP. That’s pretty slick, and certainly makes remembering it and entering it easier. Instead of going to
http://192.168.0.1to pull up the configuration interface, I went to
(If you’d like to play along at home: there’s a simulator here where you can play with the settings UI)
I used the “quick setup” feature to get the basics going, like the SSID, encryption method, and the WPA key. I noticed WEP wasn’t an option during this setup phase, and that’s probably smart. WEP is not considered at all secure by modern standards. However, it is available if you go into the security settings after the quick setup is finished.
Bringing Everything Online
My Windows 7 laptop immediately recognized the new network and I could connect right away without issues. I plugged the Tivo into one of the gigabit LAN jacks, and that worked right away as well. Both of the Macs in the house had no problems connecting, either. Likewise, my Nexus 4 worked immediately. That brought a large chunk of my network online, with only a 30 minute effort.
I then connected directly to the Asus router’s LAN ports to reconfigure its wireless. In the past, I had difficulty using it in “Ethernet bridge” mode with the old router. However, it too worked flawlessly on the first attempt. After a quick check of the Archer C7’s UPnP settings, I booted my Xbox 360 and got connected to Live with “Open NAT” on the first try.
My HP DeskJet has built-in support for wireless, but no way to enter a WPA key manually. I used the C7’s WPS feature and the DeskJet’s WPS pin to get the two connected. That also worked without any issues, and my wife was printing inside a few minutes.
The one hiccup in the setup was my Asus Eee PC Netbook. I had long avoided using WPA-PSK on my home network in favor of WEP just so I wouldn’t have to tackle setting up WPA-PSK with the oddball hardware and CentOS 5 install on it. I banged away at it for a while, but finally caved and put Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on there instead of CentOS 5, which fixed my driver issues and everything ran smoothly.
After I got all the clients online, I turned my attention to the advanced setup options in their web UI. Port forwarding was no big deal, and UPnP is on by default, so there was nothing to do there.
I have static DHCP set up for a few of the clients on my network that I need to connect to remotely. The C7 was a bit picky about MAC address formatting (had to be dashes between bytes instead of colons, like my old setup) and there was no “description” field, which I find handy for keeping track of which MAC/IP address corresponds to which device. I also had to reboot the entire router to get the settings to take effect.
However, it handled the static allocations without any issues, and all of my machines are now where they need to be. I was able to set up static allocations both inside and outside of the DHCP address lease block, which not all routers can do.
There are handy bits of documentation on each page for each setting, much more detailed than I’m used to. As a power user, I can’t say I was referring to these frequently, but it was still nice to have since sometimes the terminology varies depending on the vendor.
A couple of things that I think hardware providers could improve on in their web UIs is:
- Pretty graphs. There’s a nice page in the UI for tracking what clients are using bandwidth on the network, but a realtime graph would have been awesome here.
- Web 2.0. There’s probably a good reason for sticking with iframes for compatibility with older browsers, but some AJAX refreshing of the data on some of these screens would have been nice. Some of the status/statistic screens refresh periodically and kick you back to the top of the page.
Now that everything is squared away and running smoothly, it’s time to play!
First up was the Playstation 3. It’s been bugging me to download new firmware, but it really had a hard time with my network previously. With the new router, everything went smoothly and quickly.
I also tested a couple of rounds of Black Ops 2 on the Xbox 360, and that also worked fine. UPnP was enabled by default, so I had no NAT-related issues.
After testing the consoles, I kicked off a long Steam download on my gaming rig to ensure there weren’t any issues dealing with a large load over an extended period. The download was smooth, and afterwards I was enjoying some Dishonored.
Finally, I did a quick torrent download of the Ubuntu Server CD. Torrent traffic tends to be taxing on NAT traversal and also tends to saturate download bandwidth. The performance was consistent across the entire download.
One question I always try to answer when dealing with a new router is “can I run other firmware on it?” The TP-Link brand has a lot of DD-WRT supported models, and the Archer C7 features Atheros-based chipset. At this point, 802.11ac support is still somewhat in its infancy, and “alternative firmware” support for this particular chipset is not there yet.
Given that it is an Atheros chipset similar to those used in other TP-Link device, I expect that over time we’ll see compatibility with the major open source firmwares.
On the hardware side, I am sold. This is a solid piece of gear, and I’m happy to have it as part of my network. I don’t yet have a pair of 802.11ac adapters to test the highest speeds this router is capable of, but thus far I’m happy with the performance.
Software setup was easy and straightforward. I had no (router-related) issues during setup or getting my crazy assortment of devices online. All the “advanced” features I rely on to keep my network running smooth were present, well documented, and easy to use. The interface is typical for stock firmware in that it is serviceable but could use a Web 2.0 facelift.