Friday, March 5, 2010

Netgear WNR3500L Impressions

I recently purchased the Netgear WNR3500L wireless router to replace my failing old Netgear WG302 access point. Now that I've had it for a little over 3 weeks, I feel confident passing along my impressions of the device.

A short story: I was actually turned-onto the WNR3500 by my Mom. While she keeps crediting me with her successes, the fact is that I'm only providing her with the basic skills to find out about these things on her own. She did a good deal of research, and when she explained to me why she chose the WNR3500 (without the "L" suffix), I felt confident that it was a good choice.

The reason why both of us replaced our wireless routers/access points (WAPs) was because we were experiencing problems with the wireless signal dropping (in my Mom's case) or the connection intermittently freezing for a minute or so (in my case, what a pain when using a ssh interactive terminal session). We both tried different channels (remember: 1, 6, and 11) to see if interference from our neighbors' WAPs was the trouble. Alas, nothing helped.

The good news: The WNR3500 did help.

The difference between the WNR3500 and the WNR3500L is that the one with the "L" suffix is for use with the open source router project (I think the "L" means Linux, although I think both models effectively run Linux under the hood). Hardware-wise, the WNR3500L has a USB port that the WNR3500 does not have. The USB port can be used to attach a USB hard or thumb drive and use it as a network attached storage node. I also think that this can be used as one means of downloading different firmware to the unit.

Before I start: I wish to tip my hat to Netgear for recognizing the value of open source and encouraging experimentation with the hardware. So many hardware vendors discourage using the hardware for any purpose other than what the vendor originally intended. In this case, Netgear saw the value that open source gave to their business, and as such has encouraged further open source development using their product. Now, Netgear, please find an alternative to Flash on your web site and I'll really give you praise!

Basic Specs

The WNR3500L is a Wireless N draft 2.0 compliant wireless router. It touts...
  • 10/100/1000 Mbps Ethernet port for connection to the Internet (cable modem, DSL modem, etc.)
  • Four port 10/100/1000 Ethernet switch
  • Wireless N draft 2.0 compliant wireless radio (supports 802.11b/g/n)
  • USB 2.0 port (for use as a disk server or development purposes)
The Netgear firmware, as shipped with the unit, provides:
  • A fairly robust stateful firewall (robust in that it has some basic configuration)
  • Support for two wireless profiles: One primary, and one for "guests" that can be segregated from the primary network
  • Allows encryption using WEP, WPA-PSK (TKIP), WPA2-PSK (AES) and combined WPA/WPA2 modes. Encryption key can be entered as a passphrase or a 64-digit hexadecimal key.
  • Auto-selection of wireless channel (don't know how this really works...)
  • Can do PPPoE for use with older bridging DSL modems with providers that use PPPoE
  • Parental controls and basic content blocking mechanisms, including time-of-day blocking
  • Ability to send log events through e-mail
  • Can be converted to a wireless repeater instead of a router/access point
  • Integrated DHCP server (can be configured and disabled) and DNS forwarding
  • Bandwidth control functions ("QoS") to give priority to VoIP or gaming consoles that are delay-sensitive
  • DynDNS.org registration client (for use with the DynDNS free dynamic IP locating service)
  • Traffic metering with warning (or connection disable) when a set threshold is met (for draconian ISPs that meter usage)
  • Integrated upgrade utility that can check Netgear's site directly for firmware updates
These are all configurable through the router's web interface. Netgear has a relatively consistent web interface that they use throughout their entire product line. If you've ever configured a Netgear wireless device, you'll feel right at home with this unit. The web interface works fine with Firefox and does not appear to require Flash or any other plug-ins (just Javascript).

While I did test many of the features, I was unable to test the PPPoE support (I don't have DSL), my application really didn't give me an opportunity to explore the parental controls and blocking functions, and because I'm not using the router functions I couldn't extensively test some of the more nifty features. I can say that I'm impressed with the range of functionality right out of the box without hacking the unit and replacing the firmware. In truth, while I did like the idea of that Netgear supports open source router projects with this unit, I found the Netgear firmware worked fine for my initial applications (although it is likely I'll try some of the open source projects in the future).

The few gripes I have are...
  1. The network time server is not configurable. I run my own time server, and the router wants to get the time from some external source. It would be trivial for Netgear to make this a configuration option. Right now my router is doing the equivalent of the stereotypical VCR "flashing 12:00" mode.
  2. The "guest network" option was enabled by default. Given the range of Wireless N, I feel that leaving any open access is very dangerous and is definitely violating most Internet providers' terms of service.
  3. The unit is light, and plugging wires into all the Ethernet ports will cause the unit to fall off a shelf or table. It would be helpful if the base had more weight.
  4. While I am only using 802.11g wireless adapters in my computers, I still am not seeing even close to 54 Mbps speeds (closer to 10 Mbps). It isn't clear why this is the case (it may not be the fault of the router).
  5. While Netgear came so far with their support for open source, their router recovery CD only works with Windows.
None of the gripes gave me that "oh, crap, why did I buy this?" buyer's remorse thoughts.

In general, I like the router. I am actually thinking about using it as my primary firewall and Internet access gateway (rather than using the second Ethernet port on my server for this purpose).

For those really hard-core hardware enthusiasts, here's what's inside:
  • Broadcom BCM4718 system-on-a-chip processor (includes 802.11n support functions)
  • Broadcom BCM53115S 5-port Gigabit Ethernet switch with two inband management ports and four per-port QoS channels
  • Two integrated EHCI-compliant USB2 ports (one on the board, inside the case, TTL-level).
  • 32MB SDRAM
  • 8MB Flash memory (approx. 5.2MB used by router firmware)
Those who are interested in hacking the WNR3500L should check out the wealth of information on the My Open Router (www.myopenrouter.com) site. In addition to a few choices of alternative (open source) firmware there are also development documentation and discussion forums.

I was able to pick-up my WNR3500L at my local Fry's Electronics for just under $100 (without tax), which happened to be the same price as the WNR3500 (without the L). Many places will charge about $20-$30 more for the WNR3500L.

All in all, I am happy with the router. There are cheaper models out there from other manufacturers (and even from Netgear). However, I think this was a good deal for the flexibility and functionality.

9 comments:

Navenka Gabrielson said...

Did you ever figure out why your G connections were still slow? Thanks! -d2g

SG said...

Nice review, I am thinking of buying this and this is the only useful review I have found

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your write-up; it's very informative.

Anonymous said...

I use this router with default (updated) firmware. I have never had such a stable router. I have 3 gigabit devices + a 10/100 switch with 3 100mpbs devices on it. I also have 5 or so wireless clients and it all just works.

I do not use N networking but prefer G and get 54mbps regularly. The router is in the basement and I'm on the first or second floor.

I use QOS and even downloading torrents quickly my business Vonage line is not corrupted.

None of these things were true with my linksys wrt54g v9.

I find network throughput to be fantastic and stability to be unbeatable and this is on the Netgear FW.

Tushar said...

Nice review. Read somewhere that this cannot be used with an ADSL broadband connection. Is that true?

Tushar

cpu said...

There should not be any difference between using this with any specific type of Internet service, as long as the interface is an Ethernet connection. In the case of regular ADSL, you would plug the WNR3500L into the cable modem.

That being said, those who use services such as at&t Uverse don't have a regular DSL modem - they have what is called a "residential gateway." That gateway device has a firewall and wireless "router" built-into it. I believe that it may be possible to turn off those functions and allow the Netgear router to be used for your firewall and wireless access. However, I don't know how doing this would affect TV service. It may be more trouble than it's worth.

For the person who asked about my slow connections (back in May): It seems as though some of this was related to unrealistic expectations of wireless in general, some was due to interference from neighbors' wireless routers, and some was due to the limitations of the wireless adapter in my laptop.

Stability-wise - I agree that this router has been very stable and works well. I did ultimately use ddwrt on it, and I wish that the amazing chipset in this router was better supported. If I had some more time to spend on it, I would actually make some changes to ddwrt to properly support the switch functionality and contribute it back to the project.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review, but I have a question.

You mention that the reason you and your mother were getting this new router was because the old was dropping wireless signal.

I've experienced that problem several times over at least 3 (and likely more but I didnt recognize the issue correctly over the years) different routers from different brands. What's odd, is that I've found that price, nor brand, nor age necessarily predicts the onset of this problem but that problem appears eventually in all. For example, I had a Dlink DIR-615 which while not an expensive router, is nonetheless a newer router from a decent brand. It worked for a time, then, starting dropping requiring power cycles every day or two. Ironically, I replaced it with an older, cheaper, and arguably "inferior" TrendNET G class router and it worked better though it still requires cycles at least once or twice a week.

I've looked around the net and havent found any reason given, let alone a solution. The solutions that are offered seem to be: buy brand X, throw money at it, or "you're not holding it right". ;) I suppose I'm just being a bit fussy about it all, but it bothers me that no one seems to have a reason, even one as simple as, "it burns out". I was just wondering if you had a theory as to why this occurs.

cpu said...

Thanks for your excellent and well-thought-out comments!

I actually do have an update on the signal loss issues, and I think some aren't associated with the router (although in my Mom's case, I think her's was).

I realized after moving things around a bit that the problems I experienced were actually due to placement of the router. Right on the other side of the wall where I originally had the router is a large bathroom mirror that extends most of the length of the wall. Not too far from that is the metal fireplace flue (a 12" diameter pipe). Then not far from that is yet another bathroom mirror (for the other bathroom). These three obstacles were the likely cause of most of the signal issues I had, and relocating the router was more likely the cause of my improvements.

Now that said, there are three other issues with these consumer-grade wireless access points that I have heard have been likely causes of problems, and while I'm not sure if they are all correct, I believe this is what happened with my mother:

1. The power supplies are cheap, and when they start to fail they aren't capable of supplying sufficient current to drive the RF section of the router properly. This is also the cause of some unexplained crashes right before the router dies completely.

2. Like #1, there are instances where cheap capacitors (or other components) are used in these routers, and over time they degrade to a point where they no longer function in-spec.

3. Overheating of the chips cause them to fail in unusual ways. In the case of two DSL modems, I've noticed that the system-on-a-chip processor (usually Broadcom) gets hot to the point where you can't even keep your finger on it while the device is running. A simple heat sink would be helpful here, but heat sinks cost money.

Not knowing exactly why your units are failing, I'm going to suggest that you eliminate heat as an issue as a first step. Something that may be worth trying is to see if your equipment stays up longer with the case apart than with it together. If that seems to help, then heat is the likely culprit, and you'll probably want to plan to do something about that before you buy your next router.

The other issue may be power. If you're comfortable working inside the router, see if the voltage that the power supply is rated for is what you're seeing WITH THE ROUTER CONNECTED AND ON. What I'm trying to say is that if you have a 5V power supply that puts out around 5V with nothing connected, and around 4V or less when connected to the router, then the router's components are likely starved for power and work as well as they can under the circumstances. If you have an equivalent power supply from some other piece of equipment (make sure the voltage and polarity are the same, and the current rating is equal or higher than the original) to test, then I would try that as well.

It's my opinion that all of these failures are really unnecessary. If the electronic components are failing, it is because they are either of horrible quality or care was not taken in engineering to assure that they were not stressed beyond their rated limits. Either way, it is hard to tell this from looking at the box.

Finally, there is one other problem for those routers with chronic issues, and that's software bugs. I mentioned how I was running DD-WRT on my WNR3500L. I had to stop because it didn't initialize the switching chip properly and I started seeing dropped packets in wired connections with MythTV. It is a very subtle problem also - one that I only see under certain network stresses (like the kind that MythTV generates). Now it seems the original Netgear software (firmware) works fine, but DD-WRT doesn't. I have heard people complain about the exact opposite also.

I realize this isn't anything more definite than what you mentioned, but I think it gives you some stuff you can try and see if it helps (rather than to just keep on buying routers over and over again).

Anonymous said...

I purchased this router two days ago. The guest network was disabled as default. Possibly mine has newer firmware.