LinkSys WRT54G WireLess-G Broadband Router and WMP54G PCI network card review

3.5 out of 5
£144

For

Cheaper now it’s a bestseller (with card sometimes bundled)

Against

If you want to go faster, stay wired; no hardware firewall

Any cynic who dismissed wireless communication needs to update their opinion. A few years on with competing standards absorbed into two main players, it's solid, established and here to stay. The hardware necessary for virtually wiring up the home has dropped in price to reasonable levels and if you remove hardwired firewalls from the equation as Linksys has done, it's another way to stimulate retail consumer sales. For some people the lack of hardware firewall may put this router out of contention, otherwise read on.

There is little to say about the PCI Bluetooth Network Interface card (NIC) simply because it's a network card - just missing the wires. It was plugged into a machine, without removing the existing Ethernet card, we followed the usual Windows Plug and Play instructions and it worked. Without wanting to state the obvious, that's what we take for granted and it's hardly any different to installing a cabled NIC, which is why only the router has a score in this review. We knew the greater challenge would be in marrying the no-hassle wireless network card to the router in the same family of network hardware.

Or so we thought. It was a major shock to follow all router instructions…and find that the router worked without a hitch. We ran broadband bandwidth speed tests (at http://bandwidthplace.com/ ) and found that the wireless network was giving its full 54Mbits/second or 544K. As the NTL connection we were testing with performs between 512K and 600K, splitting the difference wasn't a disadvantage.

So we had no issues with this kit whatsoever, but PC hardware installation is never usually so problem-free. For those people who encounter problems, a secure online setup utility can be accessed on successive attempts. Default settings are printed on the fold-out manual. To reassure the security-conscious you can also set up 128-bit WEP (Wireless Ethernet Protocol) Encryption Protocols as well as the old-fashioned software firewalls. For home users that may suffice but any kind of logging is only viewable from the router screen, when the model above the Wireless-G can export such logs. A port number can be specified and so can a WINS server. That means in a large company, if you don't trust Microsoft's NT/2K DHCP server, you can pick one of your own. At home it's unlikely to be an issue.

In fact Linksys have considered deeper security issues of unwanted incoming traffic by including a 60-Day trial of Norton Internet Security 2003, which will includes the Personal Firewall. Beyond that you'll have to pay the subscription fee starting from £20. If it had been the Corporate Edition for networks it would have been less of a cheek to only make the package a trial rather than fully OEM, as motherboard makers supply. On signal strength we reinstalled the HP iPAQ 5550 PDA and retested from a distance. Once we'd reached approximately 100ft the signal started to fluctuate. This is probably why newspapers such as the Evening Standard have started to publish a Wireless City guide (starting with London), so you know where to find the best signal strength wherever you go.

The final question is whether to go wireless now when cabled NICs are £10 or less and their routers around the £40-£50 mark. We think it's the best of both worlds, you can have this technology today for reasonable prices, or you can stick with the network you can physically see (cable mess and all) at comparative rock-bottom prices compared to their heyday.

Verdict

The WRT54G is however the cheapest in the present Linksys range so it's no-frills. If you like better control over your firewall (in other words, hardware level) then look higher up the range or elsewhere. Only the smallest businesses should consider this kit, otherwise home users are in for a bargain at only £40 more than a cabled router's average street price. What you save on the router however, is made up on the PCI card, at a cost of £45-60. Prices always fluctuate so shop around.

For undeterred home users already using software firewalls, we've been downloading a 130Mb game demo while working on the “server” PC, and sent off the review over internet email, with no impact on connection performance. On a further test we were playing multiplayer Halo on the gateway while streaming music on the client, but couldn't make the connection sweat. Once the firewall question is removed the only issue in the way of choosing this setup for a new network would be whether you wanted an eight-port router from the start.