Linksys (by Cisco) has a reasonable product in the form of the WRT160NL. It offers most of the facilities that a user would expect from a wireless router today, and keeps the fancy stuff out at a mid-range price point of around Rs. 5,000. It supports the WiFi-N (802.11n) standard, has 4 Ethernet LAN ports and one Ethernet uplink WAN port, a USB port to connect external storage and two detachable external antennae, a feature set that is just about acceptable today. The box claims this router is distinguishable on the basis that it is a "Linux Router", read on for details of what we found in this regard.
As is expected with every Wireless-N router, it is backwards compatible with older WiFi devices (802.11g , 802.11b).
Colored shiny black, being as slim and compact as the other recent Linkysys routers (WRT610N, WRT320N), and wall-mountable, the Linksys WRT160NL Wireless-N Broadband Router with Storage Link does quite well in the looks department. Since you can see a detailed list of features on the "Specifications" tab of this review and the product's homepage, we shall get into our observations and the real-world user experience right away.
As is expected with every Wireless-N router, it is backwards compatible with older WiFi devices as well (802.11g , 802.11b). The router operates only over the 2.4 GHz radio spectrum, since only the premium ones support operation in the 5GHz band. In normal Linksys style, there are clear LED indicators for all the important details, and a WPS (Wireless Protected Setup) button for easily connecting over wireless. Both of the detachable antennae are located at the back, and can be inter-changed with higher signal strength antennae. They are very flexible as well and you can stay confident – unlike the relatively flimsy antennae on the Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH which kept threatening to break. The power input, five RJ-45 ports, and USB 2.0 port are all located at the back with little space between them, which is good for aesthetics. But this layout isn’t the easiest to use, for trouble-shooting, making changes, or plugging in a fairly thick USB pendrive, when all ports are full and occupied.
Control is through a browser as usual and all of the normal settings and security you would expect are present, configuration of the router was not difficult at all. The WRT160NL router’s USB port is meant for storage, so you can connect any storage device (external hard disk, pen drive) and share it over the network, accessible in read/write mode or through the DLNA protocol. Strangely, unlike most routers with a USB port, the WRT160NL did not have a facility of a torrent downloader built into the default firmware’s web interface. Nor did it offer wireless repeater functionality, by default.
The router’s box said "Powered by Linux", but then that description would apply to just about every router today. The difference then, was that it is made to be capable of using third party firmware, in a fairly full-fledged form. So when we saw that the DD-WRT project (Linux OS for routers) supported this model without compatibility issues, we jumped for it with glee. It did work, giving us some more features and customizability than the original firmware that Linksys had shipped it with. Note that this might void your warranty or spoil your router, and reverting to the original firmware might not be easy.
With DD-WRT it is possible to add more features, for example support for USB printers, 3G modem/dongle for internet access, or a torrent client for bit-torrent download onto USB hard disk. An entire website has sprung up around providing information for adding features to the Linksys WRT160NL wireless router at wrt160nl.org. So what is the main difference between this router (WRT160NL) and the Linksys WRT160N which isn’t marketed with a “Powered by Linux” tag? Both look almost identical, but use an Atheros and Broadcom processor respectively. The WRT160N does not have a USB port (Storage Link) and has even lesser flash memory than the WRT160NL, so running a full-fledged DD-WRT version is rendered difficult.
The image thumbnails above show the firmware used on the router. In clockwise direction from the top left, are screenshots of the Linksys WRT160NL's original firmware web configuration interface, status screen of DD-WRT, WiViz application of DD-WRT and the bandwidth monitor of DD-WRT. Click on the thumbnails to view a full-scale image of the respective screenshots.
The terminology used by DD-WRT may not be the most user-friendly, but the added features are both user-friendly and worth using. For that matter, the original firmware's Help was not much more detailed either – Linksys gave a description of each question, but no explanation of the choices offered. However the WRT160NL does not boast of very much flash memory or RAM, which is possibly intentional (else you might get all the functionality you need on that router alone and not need to buy higher end Linksys routers offering more features).
During tests, the Linksys WRT160NL Wireless Router turned in a fairly good performance. Its range could reach across two floors of a home, and still have a bit of range left over. This would seem to be related to the signal, since the test area and obstructions that were placed (wall, ceiling, etc) were our standard set used across all other routers we tested. On flat open ground/surface with no objects to interfere in between and no walls, just a green field – we saw a maximum range of 24m for the wireless signal when no other devices were interfering. This is quite good, the area (range) it did cover could see acceptable speeds, never going below 70 per cent signal strength (three bars out of five). What we have in the performance tab is the consistent performance averaged over a period of time. The speeds seen are all from real world testing, and include walls and floors (of a multi-storey building) placed in-between the wireless router and client.
Of course, we performed tests while the router ran the default firmware that Linksys sent it with. After installing DD-WRT you can tweak quite a few settings, each of which are relevant in certain cases. So while we did test after the firmware change too, giving the performance results of third party firmware is a highly variable exercise. Suffice to say that you might see huge swings upwards or downwards in performance if you don’t use the official firmware provided by Linksys (which itself seemed to be based on one of the WRT distributions). This router comes with a one-year warranty.
On the whole, the Linksys WRT160NL Wireless Router is a good product with Wireless-N, detachable antennae, USB and third-party firmware support. The lack of Gigabit LAN ports may not make a practical difference for a lot of laptop users, yet this relatively slower speed of the wired switch will remain a sore point with desktop PC users. Although the limitations of wireless technology may not actually provide a throughput as high as the number suggests, the support of 300 Mbps WiFi-N and 100 Mbps wired connection which leads to wireless being faster at least in theory, does strike one as being quite bizarre in the year 2010. Plain Wireless-G plus 100 Mbps router models can be found at nearly a quarter of the price of the Linksys WRT160NL, but those won’t give you the extras provided by this Linux-based router, so you’d have to weigh your requirements before deciding to buy this one. All of our Top 5 wireless routers support Gigabit LAN ports (i.e. ten times faster at 1000 Mbps), including the well-featured Asus RT-N16 router which costs just one-third more, and the Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH which is priced similarly at Rs. 4,900 yet offers more.