Linksys Wireless-N Gigabit Router with Storage Link WRT350N Review

In Brief

When we looked at Linksys first draft-802.11n router last year, the WRT300N, we found it to be more like a beta product -- not ready for prime-time. To be fair, we had the same impression of the other early draft-n routers, and recommended waiting for more stable and interoperable products. That time has finally arrived, and along with it, a second generation of hardware with several key advantages over the first.

The new crop of routers, including the Linksys WRT350N reviewed here, includes gigabit Ethernet switches, QoS support for smooth media streaming, and vastly improved interoperability -- which means that various vendors 802.11n gear will work together at true n speeds. In addition, the Wi-Fi Alliance has just started to certify 802.11n equipment that meets Draft 2.0 requirements, a powerful guarantee of compatibility and reliability. The WRT350N is not yet certified, but a firmware upgrade should deal with that fairly soon. In the meantime, we have run it through the same paces as other late-model draft-n routers like the Apple AirPort Extreme, the Buffalo Nfiniti Dual Band Gigabit Router, the D-Link Extreme N Gigabit Router DIR-655, and the Netgear RangeMax Next Gigabit Edition.

While it doesn`t have dual-band support like the Apple and Buffalo routers, the Linksys WRT350N is still our favorite draft-n router thus far. It combines excellent performance and compatibility with a mature Web interface and most-useful features like a USB storage port, UPnP and QoS support, and DHCP reservation. More on these below, but suffice it to say they enhance and enable popular applications like media streaming, VoIP, and Internet gaming.

In Depth

Setting up the WRT350N was easy (it connected as soon as we plugged it in actually), but we would have preferred more printed documentation. You are pretty much forced to use the CD setup utility, even though we prefer to go straight to Web setup since we always need to change a few things not included in the guided setup anyway. The CD setup software is Windows-only, so Mac users must find the PDF manual on the CD to figure out how to access Web setup.

We only had to change a few settings from the defaults: the router password, the SSID, and wireless encryption type (we performed all testing with WPA2). Other key settings, such as wide/standard channels and channel selection, were set to automatic by default, and we kept them there. We also kept the network mode at the default of \"Mixed,\" which supports 802.11b, g and n devices. Other options were b/g only, n-only, g-only and b-only. The mode we would have liked to use, g/n-only, was not available, as on some other draft-n routers. Keeping out old and slow 802.11b devices is the most important thing you can do to ensure your draft-n router runs at top speed. These devices also generally do not support WPA2 encryption, which 802.11n is optimized for, and which is the most secure.

The other key thing is to locate the router away from neighboring Wi-Fi nets, so that it does not drop down from double-wide channels to standard channels, which halves potential throughput. Draft-n routers are designed to drop out of channel-bonding mode in the presence of legacy devices in order to act as good neighbors. Otherwise they would cripple the other networks by hogging almost the entire Wi-Fi frequency range.

The USB 2.0 Storage Link port on the back of the router works in the same manner as Linksys separate Storage Link adapter. You can attach hard drives or flash drives, and create \"shares\" for users on your network. Users have their own passwords, and can be given read and/or write access to specific shares. You can also create groups of users with similar privileges. It is a basic NAS setup that takes inexpensive off-the-shelf drives. We found it easy to create and use shares on both PCs and Macs, and wired performance was an order of magnitude better than with the

AirPort Extreme.
After connecting our Maxtor USB drive and setting up shares, we went to work testing the routers throughput from various locations in the house. Near and mid-range speed was excellent, beating all but the D-Link DIR-655. Long-range throughput was also very good, but only when using the matching Linksys Wireless-N PC Card. Using the built-in 802.11g adapters in our Windows and Mac laptops, we could not connect at the farthest corners of the house. (To be fair, the same is true of most other 802.11n routers we`ve tested.) Our long-range champ continues to be the three-year-old Belkin Pre-N router, which uses non-standard technology.

Other key features in the WRT350N include UPnP and QoS support, and DHCP reservation. The UPnP support allows products like media servers, Slingboxes, game consoles and other devices to open needed ports automatically, greatly easing setup, and DHCP reservations allow you to allocate specific permanent local IP addresses to network devices like printers and media servers, making them much easier to locate. It can also ease Windows or Mac file sharing over your local network, since you can make sure your computers are always at the same address. While the added speed of 802.11n and gigabit Ethernet go a long way toward ensuring smooth media streaming, QoS support (which must be turned on in the Web utility), works with QoS-enabled devices to prioritize network traffic like VoIP phone calls and streaming video, preventing dropouts caused by competing packets. We used the WRT350N for a week with our Slingbox Pro to watch full-screen video at about 3Mbps over our local net, and had no noticeable glitches.

Overall, the Linksys WRT350N is our favorite draft-n router to date, thanks to its combination of speedy wireless performance, gigabit wired Ethernet, ease of setup, and handy USB storage port. If the USB port also supported printers, we`d be in router heaven.