eXtended Range 54M Wireless Router: TP-Link TL-WR542G Review

Today we are going to introduce to you an Entry level SOHO router priced at about $60. It also offers an Extended Range feature that allows working with the router’s wireless access point from a bigger distance than with ordinary 802.11g devices. Despite its relatively low price and entry-level positioning, this router may challenge some top models from renowned brands. Read more in our review!

by Platon Scheblykin
07/01/2007 | 08:35 AM

An entry-level router is going to be discussed in this review. It is entry-level within the SOHO sector even. After all, there are quite a lot of users who don’t have much money to spend on their home network or who just don’t want to pay for expensive routers’ extra features they won’t use anyway. The TL-WR542G router from TP-Link is targeted at such user audiences. The company’s name doesn’t tell much although they are currently working to improve this. After ten years of its activities, TP-Link claims to have up to 50% of the network equipment market of China. It is also China’s largest network equipment maker catering for the SOHO segment. This is a noble mission and hopefully TP-Link will gain proper standing on the world market as well. The quality of products should speak for the company, though. So, let’s hear what the TL-WR542G has got to tell us.

 

Again, the TL-WR542G is an entry-level SOHO router. Priced at about $60, it provides only basic functionality necessary to deploy a small local network with a port for a bigger network, e.g. the Internet. It would be wrong to say this router lacks any additional features, however. Its specification mentions an Extended Range feature that allows working with the router’s wireless access point from a bigger distance than with ordinary 802.11g devices.

In this review we’ll see if the TL-WR542G is worth the money you are asked for it (even though it is not a big sum) and if it can indeed be used to deploy a small local network.

Specification and Accessories

TP-Link offers three similar models: TL-541G, TL-WR542G and TL-WR543G. They are in fact one and the same router but with minor differences. Taking the first model as the basic one, the second model is the first one plus a removable antenna and a scheduled access feature, and the third model is the second model plus WDS support. So, the TL-542G is a medium model in the family. Moreover, each model comes in multiple versions that differ in the optimizations in their electronics. Ours is a version 4.1 device. Here is its brief specification:

Parameter

Characteristics

Wireless standard

IEEE 802.11b/g

Encoding standard

WEP, WPA, WPA2

Antenna

External dipole antenna
Internal IF (Inverted – F) antenna

Signal modulation

BPSK, QPSK, CCK and OFDM
(BPSK/QPSK/16-QAM/ 64-QAM)

Operating frequency

2.4 - 2.4835 GHz

Nominal data transfer rate

-802.11g: 6, 9, 12, 18, 24, 36, 48, 54Mbps
-802.11b: 1, 2, 5.5, 11Mbps

Transmit power

~17dBm (at normal temp. range)

Sensitivity

-74 ~ -75dBm@54Mbps
-87 ~ -88dBm@11Mbps
-95 ~ -97dBm@1Mbps
(at normal temp. range)

Operating channels

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

WAN

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

LAN

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

Other interfaces

none

Power

External power supply

Dimensions

174 x 111 x 30 mm

Additional features

Extended Range

The accessories are scanty, as you might have guessed. The box contains:

Exterior and Interior Design

The different flavors of the TL-WR542G differ not only in their internals, but also in their exterior design. The router depicted on the photo at the manufacturer’s website looks completely different from the one I’ve got although both have identical names. Anyway, I’ll be only talking about my variety of the router.

It is light and small. The box seems to be heavier than the device itself. The case of the TL-WR542G is designed alike to some models of Linksys routers. It is small and tall and has bulging side panels that transition into supports the router stands on. The front panel is painted and shaped differently as if indicating that it is a thing of its own. As opposed to Linksys’ equipment, the TL-WR542G provokes an impression of a high-tech toy rather than of a serious device. Well, this is just a subjective impression after all.

You can see some manufacturing flaws on closer inspection. There is a rugged seam on the side and there are quite large gaps between the front panel and the rest of the case. Such flaws are pardonable in a low-end model, yet they are somewhat annoying anyway.

 

There are grooves in the case for the router to be hung on a wall with its antenna upwards or downwards.

The PCB is cooled passively by means of vent holes in the top and bottom panels of the case. This is more than enough for cooling. The top panel is always cold while the bottom is just barely warm at work.

The router’s indication is not designed quite well. There are no problems during the day: the active indicators and the labels on the front panel are contrasting and readable. But when the ambient lighting is dim, you can only guess the meaning of an indicator by its position – you have to learn them by heart. The manufacturer might have made some indicators (e.g. Power or WLAN) different in color from the others so that they served as points of reference. The good news is that there are actually few indicators on the front panel. Here they are (from left to right):

The router’s rear panel offers all its connectors together with a Reset button. These are (from left to right):

Having examined the exterior of the TL-WR542G I wanted then to take it apart and see what was inside it, as usual. It was not easy, though. The front panel is designed like an individual detail and fastened to the top and bottom of the case by means of fixing locks. The locks are deep in the case, so it’s very hard to put a screwdriver into the gap in the case and unlock them without damaging something. I had to apply some force and remove the top panel instead, hoping that the fasteners would remain undamaged. They did, although had a worn-out look after a couple of assembly/dismantling cycles.

After removing the top of the case I finally had a view of the router’s internals. There was a small system PCB at the back of a roomy case that was connected to a small card with indicators via a small piece of cable. The smaller card was secured on the back of the front panel with self-cutting screws.

This is not the best type of connection. The cable may get damaged if bent too often. And you have to unscrew the small card from the front panel or detach it together with the card in order to take the main PCB out of the case. This is inconvenient and unreliable. The manufacturer tried to avoid the former problem by applying a thick layer of glue to the spot where the cable is connected to the card. The second problem has not been addressed. Added to it, the manufacturer didn’t use a connector, but soldered the wire from the external antenna connector right to the PCB. The wire is also very short.

The connector proved to be firmly fastened to the case, so I got a garland out of the front panel, PCB, and bottom panel when I tired to take the PCB out.

The PCB itself looks much better:

It carries few components which are distributed freely on the available space. Everything is neat and tidy here.

The only unpleasant thing is the white patterns on the reverse side of the PCB. By the way, the PCB design resembles the reference PCB design for the AR2317 chip.

TP-Link’s engineers must have taken the latter as the basis for developing this router. None of the elements on the router’s PCB is screened.

The TL-WR542G being a low-end product, its electronic stuffing cannot be very advanced. The router is based on the AR2317 chip developed by Atheros specifically for inexpensive network equipment. This small chip incorporates a WLAN module and a network processor.

According to Atheros, the AR2317 brings about a 40% cost reduction in comparison with same-functionality network devices based on multiple chips. By the way, the router’s Extended Range feature is in fact a proprietary technology from Atheros. Here are the brief specs of the AR2317 taken from the Atheros website:

The AR2317 is connected to system memory and to flash memory that contains the router’s firmware. The system memory is an S6416AHTA chip from Elpida:

It is an 8MB SDRAM chip clocked at 133MHz and with a cycle latency of 3. The 25P16VFIG flash memory chip from Winbond has a capacity of 1MB.

Besides memory, the router’s processor is connected to a Fast Ethernet switch. It is an 88E6060-RCJ1 chip from Marvell. Coming from the Link Street family, this controller is intended for low-end products, too.

It offers five physical-level ports with automatic crossover detection and six MAC-level ports. The sixth port of the 88E6060 is connected to the AR2317 via a MII.

Besides those electronic chips I want to show you to one more thing. As mentioned in the router specification, it has two antennas. The second, internal, IF antenna is located on the left edge of the PCB. Here’s what it looks like:

Firmware and Web-Interface

As we have found out, the hardware section of the router is implemented in a rather non-standard way. Now let’s see what effect this has on the router’s firmware and setup options. The amount of flash memory determines the size of the firmware file which is about 1MB for this router. The TL-WR542G is not a popular device, and there is no alternative firmware for it. As for official firmware, there is a special revision for each version of the router. The latest firmware for the fourth version of the TL-WR542G was version 3.5.2 at the time of my tests so I replaced the router’s native firmware with it. The firmware update process is quite unusual for a home device. The new firmware file is downloaded via an FTP server, as in professional network equipment, rather than via the Web. The server program is in the same archive with the firmware. The update process is different in the new firmware version, however, and you can now download firmware updates via the Web.

When talking about the capabilities provided by the firmware of a particular router, I always tell you how the router supports different VPN tunnels. The TL-WR542G supports all the three most popular types of VPN connections: PPPoE, PPTP and L2TP. The PPTP connection is the most capricious one as concerns its support on the router side. To check it out, I tried to connect to a PPTP server residing on a different network (this is the most difficult case). This did not work if the server name was specified in characters, but all was well when I typed in the IP address. I was only disappointed when I tried to work with the network the VPN server was located on while the tunnel was active. The router just did not let the traffic bypass the tunnel. This is a disappointment, yet it’s good anyway that the VPN connection is established in the most difficult case. Not all routers, even expensive ones, allow doing that.

The interface for setting up router’s parameters looks just like on any other SOHO-class router:

The interface window you see in your browser is divided into four parts. The top part shows a header reminding you what router you are setting up right now. The left frame shows a tree-like list of all the settings pages. There are three levels in this list, including the root level. All settings are classified into four groups and marked with white text separators. Each group contains a few subgroups which in their turn contain a few pages with settings or are indivdual pages themselves. Subgroups are marked with the + or – sign, depending on whether the subgroup is open or closed, and the individual pages are marked with dots. The pages are classified and divided into the groups logically. All the names are succinct but informative. To cut it short, this is an example of an intuitive interface. The only disadvantage of this implementation is that you cannot open more than one subgroup of settings at a time, which may be inconvenient.

If the meaning of a page or option is unclear, the left part of the interface window shows a description of it. This help system is very detailed and helpful indeed.

The current page with settings can be seen in the middle of the interface window. Its options are shown as a simple list with fields for entering data, checkboxes, and buttons. Pages aren’t overcrowded and contain only related setup options. There is only one problem in this interface that I can criticize a little: some pages (e.g. Status) are being constantly updated, so if you are scrolling through such a page, you are being constantly brought back to its beginning.

Below follows a short description of the available setup option. I’ll discuss them in their menu order as shown in the next picture:

Status and Quick Setup Sections

The list begins with the Status page that shows brief information for each of the router’s key sections: LAN, WAN, WLAN.

Next goes the Quick Setup page you can use to set up the router’s main parameters in a step by step manner. I found one flaw here: the appropriate step offers only three out of eight possible WAN connection variants.

The router’s local address and its subnet mask are specified on the LAN page.

The WAN page is where you set up your WAN connection parameters. You should first select the necessary connection method from the list and then specify the required parameters.

A MAC address may be specified on the MAC Clone page the router will be visible from the external network by. It may be useful if the ISP strictly binds the IP address to the client’s MAC address.

Key parameters of the wireless connection like SSID, channel number, connection standard, encryption method, etc. are set up on the Wireless Settings page.

On the MAC Filtering page you can create a list of MAC addresses that are prohibited/allowed to access the router.

Incoming and outgoing traffic for client devices is shown on the Wireless Statistics page.

Parameters of the integrated DHCP server and local DNS server addresses are specified on the DHCP Settings page.

A list of all addresses assigned by the router is shown in the DHCP Clients List.

Using the options available on the Address Reservation page you can reserve certain addresses for your machines.

On the Virtual Server page you can specify machines on the local network that will be accessible for incoming requests via certain protocols.

The Port Triggering page is needed to dynamically open ports for specific connections.

On the DMZ page you can specify a LAN address all incoming requests will be forwarded to.

All the clients connected to the router via UPnP are shown on the UPnP page.

The Firewall page is where you apply filtering rules to incoming packets.

The IP Address Filtering, Domain Filtering and MAC Filtering pages are related to the previous page. You can specify filtering rules depending on the type of address here.

The Remote Management page allows to specify the address and port of a machine on the local network you will be able to set the router up from.

The Advanced Security page provides you with options to protect the router against flood attacks of various kinds.

Static Routing Section

The Static Routing page contains an editable table of routes. Only static routing is supported.

The binding of IP addresses to specific MAC addresses is set up and viewed on the Binding Setting and the ARP List pages, respectively.

Dynamic DNS Section

The Dynamic DNS page is for specifying your account on a DDNS server.

The Time page contains parameters related to the router’s system time.

The Firmware page shows the current firmware version and allows to update it.

The Factory Defaults page allows to load up the default factory settings.

The Backup and Restore page is for making a backup copy of all the settings.

The Reboot page offers a button for a software reboot of the router.

The login and password for accessing the router’s settings can be changed on the Password page.

The Log page shows a detailed log of events that have occurred on the router:

And finally, the Statistics page provides statistics on all data packets that have passed through the router. You can apply sorting rules to the displayed information.

So, what about the available settings? The router’s got more than enough of them for its class. Of course, it lacks some fine-tuning options but such aren’t actually necessary for a low-end device. They would only make it more expensive.

Performance

You’ve had a chance to see in the previous section of this article that the TL-WR542G offers flexible setup opportunities even though it belongs with low-end models. So, I am now very interested to see what speed it provides. It cannot be too high, but I expect average results at least. As for the wireless interface, the TL-WR542G is touted as a router with an extended WLAN coverage area, so I do hope its wireless signal does not lose its intensity quickly at long distances.

I will offer you the results of the ASUS WL-500g Premium router for the sake of comparison. This will be a contrasting comparison since the latter router belongs with the top segment of the SOHO market. This will help us see if the TL-WR542G delivers an optimal price/quality ratio.

Here is a list of equipment and software I used in my tests:

First, I tested the bandwidth of a LAN segment.

LAN-LAN (TP-Link TL-WR542G):


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LAN-LAN (ASUS WL-500g Premium):


Click to enlarge

LAN-WAN (TP-Link TL-WR542G):


Click to enlarge

LAN-WAN (ASUS WL-500g Premium):


Click to enlarge

I used WPA-PSK encryption with the TKIP algorithm to test the WLAN interface in IEEE802.11g mode. The air was clear, meaning that there were no other access points active in the neighborhood.

LAN-WLAN (TP-Link TL-WR542G):


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LAN-WLAN (ASUS WL-500g Premium):


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WLAN-LAN (TP-Link TL-WR542G):


Click to enlarge

WLAN-LAN (ASUS WL-500g Premium):


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And finally I tested the router’s Wi-Fi interface bandwidth at different distances and with difference obstacles. I measured the signal level in five points:

Point 1: Near the WRT300N
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

The results are not only up to my expectations, but go beyond them in some tests. I am particularly pleased with the speed of the wireless connection, for example. As for the low speed of the WAN interface, it is easily explained: the network processor integrated into the AR2317 chip has low performance as is indicated by the relatively low peak data-transfer rate as well as by the slumps in the graph. This is the typical behavior of a low-end solution. It won’t be a problem for everyday Web surfing, but the 30% difference in speed between the LAN and WAN interfaces is going to show up when the router is used by bandwidth-sensitive applications or on a large LAN. As for the WLAN coverage, the two graphs are similar and have a slump in the last point. This means that both routers behave poorly at long distances with obstacles. Extended Range technology may do something with light obstacles but obviously cannot cope with difficult ones. The speed of 7Mbps is small even for a device without any extensions (although the WL-500g Premium has an even lower speed).

Conclusion

Summarizing my tests of the TL-WR542G router I can say that an inexpensive device is not necessarily a bad device. Despite its low price the TL-WR542G may challenge some top models from renowned brands. This router is not ideal in its hardware and firmware, yet it is a well-made product overall. The main problems are that the router’s WAN interface has a low speed and that its wireless signal is feeble at a long distance with obstacles. That’s why I can’t commend the TL-WR542G for its speed characteristics. The router’s inability to transfer data bypassing the active VPN connection is somewhat disappointing, too. The good news is that the router’s other interfaces are fast and that it supports VPN connections normally (particularly, PPTP). With all its drawbacks, I guess the TL-WR542G is worth its price.

This router can be recommended for a simple home network. It is going to be an optimal and good choice for this application. But if you want to get more for your money, you’ll have to look for a more advanced device. Overall, the TL-WR542G has more good than bad points. It can be best characterized with the words “simple” and “reliable”.

Highs:

Lows: