REVIEW: Netgear's WNDAP330 Wireless N router

Ian Yates put a new 802.11n device to the test and found its bridging mode impressive.

Last month we reviewed Netgear’s WNHDEB111 “gaming” routers in a small business context, and the little critters not only worked as advertised, but also continued to work. There’s an office in Sydney with six staff and their PCs and VoIP PBX extensions sitting across the road from their main office and just doing what the boss pays them to do – sell stuff. Now and then they notice things going a tad slower than usual, but the moment is fleeting. And they haven’t had any dropped phone calls either.

However, Netgear certainly didn’t design those baby routers for this sort of industrial exercise. For starters, the things have only 100-BaseT ports so they’ll never take advantage of theoretical 300Mbps available under 802.11n. That’s why Netgear also offers the WNDAP330 routers under their ProSafe brand, which come with lifetime warranty, 1000-BaseT ports and three antennas. And one of those antennas is a square paddle that you can aim at the location you’re trying to reach.

These upmarket routers can also do more things than their baby cousins, and can also do more things at once. As well as operating as an access point or a point-to-point bridge, the WNDAP330 can also be a multi-point bridge, or a repeater, and when it is doing the bridge thing it can still be an access point. In contrast, the baby WNHDEB111 can’t chew gum and walk at the same time – it can be only one thing at once. Of course, the WNDAP330 costs a tad more than the $150 being asked for the WNHDEB111.

For the $400-odd asking price you also get a metal case with the WNDAP330, along with the eternal warranty, the three antennas, the multi-tasking and a right royal headache setting a pair of them up to do bridging. Unlike the baby WNHDEB111 there’s no magic front panel button to initiate bridging and there’s no back panel switch to slide to “auto”. The WNDAP330 is a real router and requires real network knowledge to fill in the blanks in the browser-based forms.

As usual when setting up any wireless box, we always start with zero security settings – there’s no point wondering why nothing is connecting if the answer is a mistyped password somewhere. We know there are bad dudes out there just waiting to steal access to your WiFi network, but using an isolated laptop at each end of the link, the risk of being hacked in the fifteen minutes it takes to complete the configuration is better than wasting hours scratching your head and staring at a blank screen.

When you use these routers in bridge mode, there’s not much that can stay at the “automatic” settings. You have to choose which channel to use, and you have to give each router the same SID, plus you have to enter the MAC address of each router into the other’s table of acceptable bridge partners. Fortunately, the MAC addresses are written on the underside of the box, which is quite handy, but not if you’ve decided to deploy them remotely before you finish configuring them.

After you’ve clicked the right options and entered the numbers the WNDAP330s will happily bridge to each other, but there’s no way to know that they’ve done so unless you’re pinging between the laptops. The routers just sit there being routers and don’t tell you anything useful about the link, despite having a menu option called “monitoring”. The “monitor” section will tell you about the existence of the other router, but only if you’ve first enabled “rogue access point detection” in the “security” tab.

Once the pair is bridged, you should apply some security before putting them into production. However, before you try that, apply some Internet access to one end of the bridge and get the routers to agree on the time of day via an NTP server. We didn’t get very far using the supplied default NTP so we used – works for the PCs and servers so it seemed like a good idea to use it for the routers as well. Then we activated WPA2 security at each end, and lo and behold, the bridge stayed solid.

We conducted some arbitrary speed and distance tests and the WNDAP330s did stay connected long after we’d reached the dropout distance point with the WNHDEB111s, and they were holding a higher link speed at the same point. We’ll post an addendum to this test after we’ve had the WNDAP330s operating in the real world for a week or so – at which point we’ll know whether it’s worth spending $800 instead of $300 to connect a couple of offices across the street. It’s looking promising, so watch this space.

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