ASUS WL-500W Super Speed N Multifunctional Wireless Router Review

This article continues our series of reviews of network equipment that supports the draft 802.11n standard. Today we are going to talk about the WL-500W router that represents a successor to the previously tested WL-500g Premium. We will see what the differences from the previous model are and what improvements have been made in it.

by Platon Scheblykin
11/27/2007 | 02:25 PM

This article continues our series of reviews of network equipment that supports the draft 802.11n standard. As you can guess from the device name, the ASUS WL-500W carries on the traditions of such popular products from ASUS as WL-500G Deluxe, WL-500g Premium, WL-600g (counting ADSL devices in as well), etc.

 

To remind you, we tested the WL-500g Premium in our labs before (for details see our article called ASUS WL500g Premium Wireless Internet Router Review). At first sight the WL-500W seems to be the same Premium with the addition of support for the IEEE 802.11n draft. To be exact, it is a four-port Fast Ethernet router with two USB 2.0 ports and with functionality typical of hi-end home routers. The WL-500g Premium left a good impression on me, especially with its hardware section, despite certain drawbacks.

So, I’m interested not only in the speed characteristics of the new router but also in its hardware components – whether anytyhing has changed since the Premium model.

Specifications and Accessories Bundle

Parameter

Characteristics

Wireless standard

- IEEE 802.11b/g
- IEEE 802.11n (draft)

Encoding standard

- WEP (64/128bit)
- WPA
- WPA2

Antenna

- 3 external dipole antennas

Signal modulation

- OFDM
- CCK
- DQPSK
- DBPSK

Operating frequency

- 2.4 - 2.5 GHz

Nominal data transfer rate

- 802.11n (draft): up to 270Mbps
- 802.11g: 6, 9, 12, 18, 24, 36, 48, 54Mbps
- 802.11b: 1, 2, 5.5, 11Mbps

Transmit power

- 12~15dBm (g mode),
- 15~18dBm (b mode),
- 14~16dBm (n mode).
 (at normal temp. range)

Operating channels

11 for North America, 14 Japan,
13 Europe (ETSI), 3 (non-overlapping)

WAN

1 RJ-45 (10/100 BaseT) Fast Ethernet 10/100Mb/s port
with auto crossover

LAN

4 RJ-45 (10/100 BaseT) Fast Ethernet 10/100Mb/s ports
with auto crossover

Other interfaces

2 USB 2.0 ports

Power

External power supply unit

Dimensions

215 x 160 x 42 mm

Additional features

- Download Master: Download ftp, http and BT (BitTorrent) automatically;
- FTP Server;
- WebCAM Server;
- Printer Server: TCP/IP 
(LPR, supported in Windows XP, Windows 2000 and MAC OS).

The contents of the box are quite standard for the device class:

Exterior and Interior Design

As I noted at the beginning of this review, the WL-500W is almost an exact copy of the WL-500g Premium in terms of functionality. The same is true for the exterior design. The WL-500W looks exactly like the previous model excepting the three antennas. Some other network devices from ASUS have the same case design, by the way. It is indeed modern and ergonomic. The case of the WL-500W is made from white matte plastic and has slightly rounded-off angles. The router can be placed flat on its rubber feet or mounted on a wall using special adjustable brackets on its case. The quality of assembly is high as you can expect from a device boasting the ASUS brand. The details are all fitted together perfectly. The router is ventilated passively through the holes in the top and bottom panels. It doesn’t heat up much at work. When we reviewed the WL-500g we noted such a drawback as the light shining though the holes in the top panel. This doesn’t look nice under dim ambient lighting if the router is wall-mounted. The new model is not free from that drawback, unfortunately.

The front panel of the WL-500W contains all of its indicators. There are seven of them in total (from left to right):

I really missed a USB indicator when using the router. Otherwise, the indicators are quite enough and it is easy to memorize their positions. Each indicator is based on an SMD LED and there are cut-out icons for them in the front panel.

The light from the PCB goes along acrylic light pipes that are the reason for the stray light. The indicators are bright enough for the router’s activity to be visible even under daylight, but the icons are small and hard to discern even from a short distance.

The router’s connectors, buttons and antennas are all placed on the rear panel. Here they are (from left to right):

By the way, the WL-500W has non-detachable antennas, which is a drawback. You cannot replace them or detach for transportation.

After we’ve examined the exterior we can now proceed to discussing the router’s internals. It is easy to take it apart, just like the WL-500g Premium. To reach the PCB you have to unfasten four self-tapping screws hidden under the rubber feet at the bottom of the case. The PCB is not fastened inside the case and is held in place by means of tight-fitting case details.

As you can see from the photo, the antenna cables are attached directly to the WLAN module. Their connectors are additionally fixed on the PCB with glue. When testing the WL-500g Premium we found that its antenna cable had fallen off from the PCB and its fastening was very insecure. This time the manufacturer saw that such a thing wouldn’t happen.

All of the router’s components are installed on one PCB as is often the case. The only exception is the WLAN module which is assembled on a separate miniPCI card inserted into the appropriate slot on the mainboard. The components are mounted neatly, without stains or anything. Most of the chips on both cards are covered with metallic screens. As for chips themselves, the PCB of the WL-500W is exactly like the PCB of the WL-500g Premium (compare the two photos below: the WL-500g Premium is on the right, and the WL-500W is on the left). So, this review will copy the other one in this section.

 

So, the ASUS WL500g Premium is based on the BCM4704 processor from Broadcom. It is a 32-bit MIPS processor with a default clock rate of 300MHz, but it is clocked at 264MHz in the WL500g Premium.

The router’s firmware is stored in a Spansion flash memory chip (8MB capacity, 90ns access time when initializing and 25ns access time when accessing a memory page).

The router has 32 megabytes of system memory in two DDR SDRAM chips from Hynix.

There are two controllers outside the screen. One is the VT6212L chip from VIA, the other is the BCM5325E chip from Broadcom. The latter is a Fast Ethernet switch with an integrated 128-bit frame buffer and automatic cable type detection (ordinary or crossover).

 

The VIA chip is a four-port USB 2.0 host-controller. The router has only two USB ports, though.

And finally, a console can be connected to the WL-500W via UART bus for debugging purposes. This connector was missing in our sample of the router, but there was a seat for it on the PCB.

The single new component in the WL-500W is the WLAN module that supports draft IEEE 802.11n.

By the way, this router is one of the first devices for which the manufacturer guarantees full compatibility with the final version of the new wireless communication standard. The separate card carries a BCN4321 MAC-level controller and a BCM2055 RF chip.

 

These two chips make up the Intensi-fi chipset from Broadcom that is becoming ever more popular among WLAN equipment makers. Here are its specs quoted from the Broadcom website.

The electronic stuffing of the WL-500W had done well in the WL-500g Premium, and ASUS engineers didn’t want to invent anything new, except for the WLAN card. There is only one problem here: the new model uses a Fast Ethernet switch. This solution was good for the 802.11 standard but not quite for the new WLAN standard. As we learned from our tests of the D-Link DIR-655, the 802.11n can only reveal its full potential when used together with Gigabit Ethernet.

Firmware and Web-Interface

As you’ve learned from the previous section, the new router is almost the same as the WL-500g Premium on the hardware level. So, you can suppose that the firmware may be identical as well. That’s almost 100% true. Running a little ahead, I can tell you that the new model’s firmware is different in its Wi-Fi related section and has a new page for simpler traffic prioritization setup. Otherwise its functionality hasn’t changed.

Oleg, whose works can be found at the wl500g.info site, released an alternative firmware version soon after the WL-500W had been released. Currently, the pre9 version is available on the website. It is free from the bugs found in the earlier versions and is downloadable from the address http://oleg.wl500g.info/500w/WL500W-1.9.2.7-8-pre9.trx. The main drawback of this firmware is that the router hangs up under a high and continuous load on the Wi-Fi interface. Oleg has promised to correct the problem as soon as posible using the source code of the latest official firmware from ASUS that comes with an updated Wi-Fi driver.

Such a large project as OpenWRT that provides support for many ASUS routers hasn’t yet released full-featured firmware for the WL-500W. The available Kamikaze version doesn’t support Draft N mode.

And finally, I found another version of alternative firmware at the Russian-language ASUS forum. It was assembled by Krey and can be downloaded from http://get.freesoft.ru/?id=4129. This firmware improves the router’s support of DHCP and packet masquerading and adds support for the ext3 file system on external HDDs. This firmware had been developed before Oleg’s firmware and its author seems to have given up developing new versions now.

The latest official firmware of the WL-500W as of the time of my writing this is version 1.9.8.5. I’ll discuss it in this section. So, it has an updated Wi-Fi driver and supports the Windows Connect Now feature. The official firmware cannot match Oleg’s version in functionality and its only advantage is the Download Manager, which is disabled in the alternative firmware.

The router’s web-interface for configuring its parameters is the same as the interface of the WL-500g Premium. Its window consists of three parts. The header of the page you see in your web-browser contains nothing interesting save for a drop-down menu for choosing the language. The rest of the window is divided into two parts. The left part shows the menu with all the router’s settings and the right part displays the currently selected page. Settings are shown on each page as a list with subcategories without links to hidden pages. This visual representation helps quickly find the option you are interested in. When you’ve changed something, you should confirm the changes by pressing the Apply button that is located at the bottom of each page. There are two more buttons here: Finish saves the settings in the router’s memory and Restore cancels your actions that have taken place before saving. At the top of each page there is a brief description of it. Most items on the page have a floating tip that explains it. This Help system is not exhaustive, yet it’s better than nothing.

The menu structure is crystal-clear because the groups and subgroups of settings are marked differently, with a folder and a page icon, respectively. The items of each group are also shifted a little rightward relative to its name. The router’s menu offers a total of 11 items, 8 of which have sub-items and three are individual pages. On your entering a correct login/password combination, you arrive at the Home page that provides quick links to basic setup pages.

Quick Setup

The first in the menu goes the Quick Setup page that allows to set the router’s basic parameters in a step-by-step manner.

The last page of the main menu is Logout. It is not exactly a page, but a link that ends the current setup session. The other main menu items lead to groups of settings.

Wireless

The first group is called Wireless and contains all the WLAN-related settings of the router. It opens on the Interface page where you can specify the router’s SSID, wireless standard, channel number, and the type of encryption.

The Bridge page allows setting the router up for WDS mode (Wireless Distribution System).

On the Access Control page you can enable a mode in which the router’s WLAN can only be accessed by devices with specific MAC addresses. The list of such addresses is filled in right on this page.

On the RADIUS Settings page you can set up the parameters of the RADIUS server (used for authentication of wireless connections) if the appropriate secure connection type has been selected.

The Advanced page is the last one in this group. It offers low-level wireless connection settings that should better be left at their defaults most of the time.

IP Config

The next group of settings is necessary to establish a stable connection within the router’s local network and to the external network. It is called IP Config. The first page of the group is WAN&LAN. Here you specify the router’s internal and external IP-address and the type of connection to the external network. The WL-500W is claimed to support all popular VPN connection types, but I couldn’t find the L2TP protocol in the connections list.

The router’s integrated DHCP, DNS and WINS servers can be set up on the DHCP page.

The WL-500W’s routing table is edited on the Route page. The table of routes entered manually is displayed here as well. The WL-500W supports routing over its internal network as well as into the external network.

The last page of the group, Miscellaneous, contains settings that wouldn’t be appropriate in the previous pages yet are related to the group’s topic. For example, you can configure the router for working with DDNS services, enable the integrated UPnP server, and set up a correction of the router’s system time.

NAT Setting

The NAT Setting group contains NAT-related settings. On the Port Trigger page you can enable the port triggering feature.

On the Virtual Server page you can write down the addresses of servers on the local network that will be visible from the external network via certain protocols.

And on the DMZ Server page you can specify the address of a machine that is going to be available from the outside.

Internet Firewall

The options of the Internet Firewall group are for configuring the filtering of WAN connection packets. The firewall is enabled on the Basic Config page. Also on this page you can permit/allow the access to the router’s settings from the outside, to ping the router from the external network, etc.

The WAN&LAN Filtering page is for specifying the parameters of packet filtering between the external and internal networks. You can not only set up filtering in both directions but also specify a schedule for it. The schedule is configured individually for each direction.

Packet filtering by resource name and MAC address is configured on the URL Filter and MAC Filter page, respectively.

USB Application

The USB Application group offers setup options of the integrated USB ports. It opens with the Basic Config page. Here you can enable/disable such services as Download Master, Download Share, and Media Server. You can specify the time interval for transferring files via Bit Torrent and type in the range of Download Share ports.

The Share Nodes page is for defining which folders on the external HDD should be accessible over the network and for specifying the parameters of the integrated FTP-server.

The User List page contains a list of user accounts which can access the router’s disk resources. The list can be edited right here. The access is permitted for all by default.

On the Web Camera page you can configure the web-camera connected via USB.

Bandwidth Management

The Bandwidth Management group is nothing else but QoS settings. It contains two pages. The Basic Config page offers visual settings of home traffic priorities: media content, streamed traffic, gaming traffic and Web traffic.

The User Specify Services page allows assigning priorities to various traffic types.

System Setup

The last group with settings is System Setup that contains options pertaining to the router proper. On the Operation Mode page, the first one in the group, you can select the router’s operation profile: a home gateway connected to the WAN, a router on a large LAN, a wireless access point.

The Change Password page is for changing the password used to access the router’s settings.

On the Firmware Upgrade page the current firmware version is displayed. You can replace it with a newer (or older) one here as well.

On the Setting Management page you can load/unload all the router’s settings in a single file. The Factory Default page allows resetting the router’s settings to their defaults.

Status

The last group in the main menu is called Status. It offers information about the operation of different services and of the router at large. You can perform such actions here as start a connection to your ISP, halt and unmount the USB disk, etc.

So, this web-interface is quite functional if you don’t compare it with the alternative firmware. The only downside is the lack of port forwarding and scanty setup options of the integrated FTP-server. The time correction parameters would be more appropriate in the System Setup group. Otherwise, I have no complaints about the router’s interface.

Performance

The test of the Wi-Fi connection is going to be the most exciting one in this section. Of course, we won’t be able to see the full potential of the Broadcom chipset due to the Fast Ethernet bottleneck, yet this implementation of the Draft N standard is interesting anyway. Another problem is that I didn’t have a Wi-Fi adapter based on the Intensi-fi chipset and had to use the Linksys WPC300N v2 card based on Atheros’ XSPAN chipset. The results of the WL-500W in the Wi-Fi test will be compared with those of the Linksys WRT300N v2 router (based on the XSPAN chipset).

Later in this section you’ll see the results of the tests of the router’s LAN and WAN interfaces, the speed of file downloads from the integrated FTP-server, the number of simultaneous connections in a single session, and Wi-Fi connection tests.

Here is a list of equipment and software we used for the tests:

The router’s speed on the local network is indicative of its peak bandwidth.

LAN-LAN:


Click to enlarge

The WAN port was tested next. I’ll show you the speed of data transfers into either side. This test was performed with enabled and disabled NAT and firewall. I got almost identical results, so I only publish diagrams with the mentioned features enabled.

LAN-WAN:


Click to enlarge

WAN-LAN:


Click to enlarge

As you can see, the speed is almost the same on both network sections, which indicates good speed characteristics of the router’s WAN port.

I also performed a test of the maximum number of simultaneous connections using the Throughput scenario with the file size increased tenfold. I was steadily increasing the number of connections by replicating the address pair until there were errors in the test, which was performed for 5 minutes. Then I ran the test once again for 20 minutes to verify the result. Thus I found that the router could maintain 193 simultaneous connections, which is a huge number for a home router. That’s going to be useful for working with P2P networks.

The final test for the router’s wired section was the downloading of various files from the integrated FTP-server. I first wanted to use a 2.5” HDD in a USB enclosure as usual, but the router’s USB port didn’t have enough current to power the HDD, so I had to use a flash drive formatted in FAT32 instead. I downloaded files of different types using FlashFXP and then wrote down the average download speed reported by the program in its connection log. The following file types were used: a 700M DivX movie (L), a 200MB folder with MP3 files (M), and a 200MB folder with photographs (S). The results are listed in the following table:

File type

Performance, MB/s

L

2.710

M

2.743

S

2.791

These are average results, typical for an integrated FTP-server.

Next I tested the router’s wireless interface. I selected the standard combination of WPA-PSK2 and AES for this test.

LAN-WLAN:


Click to enlarge

WLAN-LAN:


Click to enlarge 

As you see, the maximum data-transfer speed is close to the peak bandwidth of the Fast Ethernet interface. The connection is rather unstable, with deep slumps, which may result from some incompatibility between the two chipsets. That’s why the WL-500W is inferior to the Linksys router in terms of average speed as is clear from the diagram.

Finally I tested the router’s coverage at different distances and with different obstacles. I measured the signal level in five points:

Point 1: Near the router
Point 2: At a distance of 4 meters without obstacles
Point 3: At a distance of 5 meters + two thin gypsum wallboards
Point 4: At a distance of 6 meters + one brick wall, about 30cm thick
Point 5: At a distance of 17 meters + one thin gypsum wallboard and one 50cm brick wall

Here are the results:

As you may have expected, the Linksys WRT300N is the winner again although the WL-500W is ahead at one point of the graph. The graph of the WL-500W is smooth except for the slump at the very end, yet its speed is as high as 802.11g even at the end point.

So, the WL-500W had excellent results in all of my tests, except the Wi-Fi ones, yet its peak speed was quite high even in the Wi-Fi tests, which indicates a high potential. I can’t give you a final verdict since I tested the router’s Wi-Fi module together with a chipset from another manufacturer and there can still be some compatibility issues. When I get a Wi-Fi card with the Broadcom chipset, I will run the tests once again and publish the results in one of our future reviews.

Conclusion

The WL-500W proved to be nothing else but the WL-500g Premium with the addition of Draft N. The firmware for each router is about the same quality. The functionality and hardware platform are the same, too. Yes, the WL-500W is good but it lacks new features. You do expect something more – a new exterior design at least – from a router that supports a new Wi-Fi standard. This can be explained by ASUS’ desire to minimize the cost of development of the new device, which should affect its pricing positively. The average price of the WL-500W is indeed about $125 – quite appealing for such a router. For example, the WRT300N costs about the same money, but is far inferior to the ASUS router in terms of functionality.

Talking about specific features of the WL-500W, it performs well in tests and offers full-featured USB ports for more functionality – you don’t often find them in a home router. I haven’t had a chance to test the router with a Wi-Fi card based on the Intensi-fi chipset, but I do think its performance is going to be even higher with it. So, if you have been planning to buy a WL-500g Premium, the WL-500W should be an even better choice. Another point in favor of this router is the availability of good alternative firmware.

Highs:

Lows: