Wi-Fi as we know it has been around for a good 10 years now — 802.11b arrived in October 1999 and 802.11g followed in 2003. And yet for the most part, the products for home use of wi-fi are a craptastic minefield of flaky products with terrible performance and reliability that a Trabant would be embarrassed by.
And every manufacturer you can name has contributed steaming product dung to the sh*tpile.
Yes, I’m annoyed.
For as long as I’ve had wi-fi, I’ve found that a typical router will crap out after 6-18 months of use. I’ve tried every brand available and talked to many a sys-admin in search of recommendations. It makes no difference. The products are, almost universally, crap.
The last time I moved, I found myself in an area with a lot of competing wi-fi signals. Since the POS I had was giving up the ghost anyway, I decided to buy a new setup. For various reasons I went with a pair of Netgear WPN824 (version 3 if you care). It’s cheap and cheerful and gets good reviews. More importantly, you can set them up as repeaters so the two routers combined should give a nice broad area of coverage with a strong signal.
The setup was slow, painful and not as described. I ended up calling Netgear support, who eventually solved the problem by switching off all of the advanced features of the router, like speed. Nice.
Anyway, that was 6 months ago, and now the things are failing 4-6 times a day. I actually switched back to a wired connection because I was so tired of futzing with them. Having finally lost patience, I did a bit of superficial digging and decided on the Linksys WRT160N. There were a couple of warnings about not being able to install custom firmware, but I wasn’t planning on doing that anyway. Reviews were generally good.
I checked online and the local TigerDirect seemed to have a decent price, so I drove over there and bought two. Tiger have decided (who knows why) to resurrect the CompUSA name. That should have been omen enough.
I got the routers home and plugged them in. First of all, no repeater mode. Suck. Will have to get creative to work around that. But an initial run on a wired connection with Speedtest.net showed about 3x faster downloads that I was getting with a wired connection on the Netgear. Yay!
Then I try a wi-fi connection. My trusty Android Wi-Fi Analyzer suggests a good channel and off I go. Sitting NEXT to the router, and connected by 802.11n, I get less than 1/3 of the throughput of a wired connection. 10 feet away IN AN OPEN ROOM I get no usable signal. I reach for Google, and crappy N support is a “feature” of the router. The official response is that this is a known issue and you need to downgrade to firmware from 2008 because the latest firmware is shite. It’s been shite since February 2009 and as far as I can tell, Linksys/Cisco don’t give a damn. They certainly aren’t releasing any updates. See this post for a typical example.
So back to Google. I finally found a review site that seems to be worth a damn — www.SmallNetBuilder.com. Here’s an example of their rankings. They also seem to follow up on products after a few months to see if they stand the test of time, unlike the “proper” review sites like cNet and PC World who apparently would give a thumbs up to a router with the brainpower of Sarah Palin if it’s little lights blinked okay.
After much debate, and considerable reluctance after my prior experience, I decided on the Netgear RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router (WNDR3700). Not cheap, but actually threatened to do what I needed.
One of the nice things about the WNDR3700 is that it contains two radios, so you can set it up as a repeater without killing your bandwidth i.e. set one radio up as a repeater connecting to another WNDR3700 and set the other radio up as a standard access point.
So I returned the Linksys WTF160Ns to Tiger, argued with the guy that wanted to charge a restocking fee for a defective product and picked up a couple of WNDRs from BestBuy and Staples (no-one nearby had two in stock)
It took a good 4 hours to get the damn things set up. A prime example of “why is this not easier”.
Here are the issues I ran in to:
1. I could not get the repeater function to work.
When you set up repeater mode, you need the MAC address of the base station and the repeater unit. Netgear very helpfully includes a sticker on the bottom of the router that has the MAC address of the router. But guess what? Since it has two radios, it has MULTIPLE MAC ADDRESSES. Found that nugget buried deep in a Netgear forum. The MAC address on the sticker was, of course, not for the radio I had assigned to the repeater function.
2. Using the repeater mode disables any security option except WEP
3. “Draft N” is a lying SOB of a label
It took a long time for 802.11n to get formalized. But what isn’t clear until you try to use it is just how cluster-f*cked most of the draft implementations are. I have 2 macs and a netbook that are all nominally 802.11n devices. One of the perks of “n” is that it can run on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. This is good because cordless phones, baby monitors, regular wi-fi, bluetooth, Microwaves and Old Man Cranky’s viagra prescription can all run at 2.4GHz, so it’s a little noisy. 5GHz is, by comparison, a charmingly desolate chunk of frequency. Yeehah.
Except not every 802.11n device supports 5GHz. Back to the drawing board. Stopping only to revisit issues around item #1 on this list.
4. WEP sucks
I’m not as paranoid about the security aspect of WEP. My principal concern is that on many routers it apparently reduces throughput by 50%. Yay.
So after yet more googling, I went with WPA2. I was very proud of myself until…
5. WPA2 Implementations Suck Too
One of the devices I wanted to connect is a Nintendo Wii. Wii doesn’t like WPA2. Specifically, Wii doesn’t like long keys because Nintendo were alledgedly too lazy to implement WPA2 fully. Now if I hadn’t already set up a bunch of devices with the nice long key, I would just have changed it. But there is a workaround. Apparently the passphrase you use with WPA2 gets converted to 256 bit key. But sometimes that doesn’t happen correctly, so this chap has a web app that will generate a 64 digit hexadecimal version of the key. It looks something like “b2334781c5b2c1d8628ed47b5699e76d15a9ecd1092c911b5830bf37a8c56294”. It’s really fun typing that in with the wiimote. But at least it worked.
So after multiple days of messing about, I seem to have more or less everything working. My download speed is about 2x what it was and I’m not fishing for the router reset every time I want to get online. I’ve yet to win my battle with WPA2 and the iPhone 3GS, but I suspect the Nintendo workaround will bear fruit.
The big question is: how many months will I get out of this setup and will it actually be any better in the long run than what wasn’t working before?
More importantly, I am left asking why on earth it takes this much time and energy to solve what should be a well understood problem. Instead of routinely squeezing new products out of their collective corporate behinds, you’d think Netgear, D-Link, Linksys, Cisco and all the others would take a minute to make stuff that (a) actually works and (b) doesn’t require a day of Googlewhacking to debug.
Update: I forgot to mention one other thing — I also got a performance boost from replacing Time Warner Cable’s default DNS servers with OpenDNS server IP’s. You can sign up for a free account here, or just use their IP addresses instead of whatever DNS servers your ISP provides — OpenDNS nameservers are 126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52.
Great post Nick. Been there. I’ve completely bagged using “n,” it’s a waste of time and totally incompatible with itself in my experience. A few years ago, I moves to using very basic and ultra cheap Linksys WRT54* routers loaded with DD-WRT firmware. It turns the basic routers into killer devices.
I have had zero downtime since I’ve done this. I don’t have super fast speeds with “g,” but they’re pretty decent and you can crank up the output power to irradiate your kids as an added bonus.
I'm glad to hear I'm not alone 🙂
There's certainly something cute about kids that glow — I'll give it some thought!