Netgear 108Mbps Wireless Firewall Router

Thursday Dec 4th 2003 by Joseph Moran

This product might not live up to the triple-digit performance claims on the box, but it still provides a measurable and meaningful performance boost — but with a caveat toward interoperability.

If you bought your new 802.11g wireless local area network (WLAN) devices thinking that they would represent the pinnacle of performance for a while, it seems "a while" may have just ended. Enter the Netgear WGT-624 108 Mbps Wireless Firewall Router, the first product to claim triple-digit WLAN performance of 108 Megabits per second (Mbps) using 802.11g.

I automatically look askance at such "box performance" numbers since they rarely have any relation to actual real-world performance. However a product may not live up to its numerical performance claims and yet still provide a measurable and meaningful performance boost to users.

Such is the case with the $149 WGT-624 Wireless Firewall Router. It offers a very real performance improvement over prior 802.11g-based products — with some important caveats.

I won't spend too much time delving into the router-specific features of the WGT-624, because they are essentially unchanged from Netgear's previous 11g products. Suffice it to say that the compliment of features are comprehensive in the extreme, as the WGT-624 offers administrator-friendly capabilities such as content filtering, the ability to block outbound traffic, logging and e-mail alerts, and remote management, to name just a few.

The WGT-624 also has a Firmware Upgrade Assistant which can automatically check for, download, and install router firmware updates. A built-in link to the most current documentation for said firmware is a very nice touch.

The product's primary wireless performance enhancing feature is called channel bonding, a feature that combines the bandwidth of two radio channels into one communications link (54+54=108) between the access point and wireless stations. On the wireless side, the WGT-624 adds a 108Mbps performance mode (on top of the the typical 11g only, 11g/b, and 11b only modes).

Configured as a conventional 802.11g device, the throughput performance was commensurate with other such devices. At 10 feet for example, throughput measured 21.67 Mbps.

Similarly, mixed mode performance of the WGT-624 was also on a par with expectations. Forcing the WGT-624 into mixed mode by associating an 802.11b client yielded throughput of 14.38 Mbps. Adding that 11b client to the Chariot test lowered the aggregate throughput to 8.81 Mbps, divided 5.54 Mbps and 3.31 Mbps for the 11g and b clients, respectively.

But it was in 108Mbps mode where the WGT-624 performance truly stood out from ordinary 802.11g peers. Tested with a $89 Netgear WG511T 108Mbps CardBus PC card and with the channel-bonding enabled, throughput performance as measured by Chariot at 10 feet essentially doubled, to 40.49 Mbps.

The higher level of performance also held up nicely over distance. At 25 feet it dropped only slightly, to 40.06 Mbps. From 50 feet and beyond, throughput dropped more significantly, but still remained well above normal 802.11g levels to the extent that even at 125 feet, the WGT-624 produced more throughput than a normal 11g device does at only 10. Throughput of the WGT-624 measured 32.18, 33.11, 32.69, and 23.56 Mbps at 50, 75, 100, and 125 feet respectively.

Throughput with WPA encryption enabled dropped measurably, but not dramatically from the high — about 20 percent, to 32.13 Mbps.

As is so often the case, all of this enhanced performance comes with a catch, and that catch is compatibility and flexibility. In regular 11g-only mode compatibility is not an issue, as I had no trouble associating several ordinary g cards to the WGT-624. 108 Mbps mode is another story, at least for now.

For example, when in 108 Mbps mode the WGT-624 cannot communicate with non-Super G client stations. Moreover, even though all Super G products are based on the same underlying Atheros chipset technology, each vendor can perform its own tweaks. As a result, Netgear will not guarantee performance or compatibility with Super G cards other than the WG511T (though I was able to easily associate another vendor's Super G card to the WGT-624). To save yourself potential headaches, you may have to stick with a homogeneous network made of only Netgear's Super G client devices--the company also offers Super G-compatible PCI card and dual a/g Cardbus cards.

It's also worth noting that Netgear (and other vendors, as far as I can tell right now) offer the 108Mbps technology only in the form of a router, and not as a stand-alone access point.

The performance and compatibility characteristics of the WGT-624 may yet improve further, however. Netgear will be offering its own firmware upgrades for the WGT-624 in mid-November which it says will further improve the real-world throughput performance of the device. The upgrade will also add repeater support for WDS to increase range.

Super G is actually an umbrella term from Atheros encompassing a number of other performance enhancing features aside from channel bonding, and the firmware update is due to incorporate the other features. This includes "dynamic packet bursting" which transmits more packets between acknowledgements, and "fast frames" which add more data packets into each wireless frames. Also part of Super G is a feature which reduces the amount of data transmitted by performing hardware compression and decompression on each side of the connection.

Netgear suggests that these combined enhancements will yield throughput to the tune of 80 Mbps or more (in the case of highly compressible traffic). Atheros has claimed real-world numbers as high as 90Mbps.

Netgear also says this upcoming firmware update will also add a "dynamic 108" feature which will allow the WGT-624 to automatically accommodate garden-variety g and b clients while still allowing compatible clients to communicate in 108 Mbps mode. The performance ramifications of this remain to be seen, but it's a safe bet that it will likely blunt the performance of 108 Mbps clients when other clients are present.

Given these limitations, if you already happen to own an Atheros chipset-based 802.11g from Netgear you might be wondering if you'll be able to obtain the Super G features and performance via a firmware update. Unfortunately, you won't. Although it will do so for some of it's newer a/g products, Netgear will not offer Super G upgrades for previous g-only devices, as the company claims that it made modification to other router components including the radio components. So if you want Super G, you have to pay. This policy stands in stark contrast to D-Link, which is providing users of its existing Atheros-based hardware with Super G-compatible firmware updates at no charge.

Suffice it to say, you should consider each before choosing to purchase new (or upgrade existing) wireless equipment with an eye toward Super G.

Whether or not the aforementioned firmware upgrade delivers on Netgear's performance and compatibility promises, the WGT-624 does offer a compelling performance benefit for a slight price premium over conventional 802.11g hardware, provided you're willing to standardize on the Netgear equipment required to take advantage of it. The added bandwidth afforded by channel bonding can be used to either provide more throughput to a small number of clients, or increase the capacity of your network by having the added bandwidth available to accommodate more clients.

This increased wireless performance and/or capacity is contained within a very full-featured broadband router, so if you're in the market for new equipment with the highest possible wireless performance, the Netgear WGT-624 should serve your needs well.

Adapted from Wi-Fi

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