While this review is primarily about the quality of Netgear wireless networking products, I am also going to spend a decent amount of time touching on wireless networking as a whole. Note that for a more detailed overview of wireless networking (including the various types and security protocols) you’ll want to review nickspohn’s guide in our forums.
First of all, there is a very good reason Best Buy charges you $160 to set up a wireless network in your home, but there are also two very good reasons why the wireless networking section of any local electronics store is rife with open box and returned items:
1. Setting up a wireless network is hard. Ungodly, stupidly, moronically hard. While many wireless routers have easy-to-use wizards (though I question the ease of use of Netgear’s), the desktop adaptors don’t. Ignoring that for a desktop, you usually (not always) have the open the case to install a wireless adaptor. Notebook users have it easy this way. Sort of. But when you take into account all the configuration you have to do, this instantly goes way beyond Joe Average Consumer.
Number two is the big one, though:
2. Wireless hardware has a nasty habit of just plain not working properly. While my skillset with wireless hardware is admittedly only a couple steps above “survival,” I know enough of my way around a computer to know that if I use the same settings on one router and they work fine on that one, that they should work the same way on the other.
No. Wrong. I’m an idiot.
I work in the information services department of my county health department, and I had the privilege of picking the brain of a coworker and technician about wireless networking, and we pretty much arrived at the same conclusion: that sometimes, even though something should work, it just plain doesn’t.
So assuming Joe Average Consumer has gone through the hell of actually installing all of his hardware, and assuming that he was actually successful in configuring it all properly, it still may not work.
You see why this can be problematic. It becomes unnervingly easy to anthropomorphize computer equipment and think that it does not like you and doesn’t want to work for you. You, specifically.
If you’re afraid of wireless networking, good. You have a right to be. For some people it goes swimmingly. For the rest of us, it’s a terrifying journey into the heart of darkness.
Mercifully, there are the forums here and on various other sites that can guide you in the right direction, and we have guides here that’ll get you going. The benefits to wireless networking can make the whole ordeal worthwhile, too. Those of you who use your notebooks as your primary computers like I do know the joy of having one less cord to plug in.
And what’s worth mentioning is that if you buy the right brand and the right parts, you can save yourself a world of grief.
Your Notebook’s Built-In Wireless Card
…is generally going to be perfectly fine. I’ve used my share of integrated wireless notebook cards and for some odd reason (I’m going to assume because none of them are Netgear or D-Link) they all seemed to work just fine.
My notebook is using a Broadcom adaptor; my old Sony TR2A had an Intel card; the Fujitsu I reviewed last year was running an Atheros. None of these had any problems connecting to my home network.
Due to a negative experience with a Linksys product (an isolated experience to be sure), when it came time to set up a wireless network in my apartment, we tried Netgear on for size. Later, when called upon to set up a wireless network for a friend, I used Netgear products.
This was my mistake.
NETGEAR WIRELESS ROUTERS
WGT624 108 Mbps Wireless Firewall Router
We’re currently on our second one of these in our household. The first one lasted a good year, maybe a couple months more before it started randomly dropping connections and for what it’s worth, configuration is easy enough. The menu system Netgear provides is logical and if you have some idea of what you’re doing, it’s fairly easy to work with.
Connection remains constant and drops once in a blue moon. If you aren’t a gamer or if you’re a light gamer, this would probably be a good fit for you. It’s my understanding that the newer ones offer fairly simple to use wizards (if they’re anything like the 54 Mbps Netgear routers).
But there’s one major problem with this router: it really, really doesn’t like World of Warcraft. My connection to World of Warcraft has seen better days. Sometimes I can game for a good two or three hours, but sometimes it doesn’t just drop the connection to the game. It drops the router’s entire connection to the internet, at which point the router must be reset. Apparently this isn’t an uncommon problem and according to Netgear forums, the problem isn’t isolated to World of Warcraft. Buyer beware if you game. Note that the router performs perfectly fine for network gaming; it’s internet gaming that becomes problematic.
However, if you don’t do internet gaming, like I said, this one can be a good choice.
As far as range goes, the range of the router is actually pretty decent but nothing exceptional. One of the computers in our household is about twenty feet from the router with no obstructions between them, and it only sometimes gets the full 108 Mbps; usually it gets around 48 or 54. Farther away, about forty feet, I average about 36. Of course, none of that really matters much unless you’re transferring data between computers; your broadband connection can’t use anywhere near that much bandwidth.
I waffle on this router. It basically works, but our last one only lasted a little over a year, and internet gaming is really hit and miss with this unit. Additionally, it’s rare you get the full 108 Mbps advertised, so if you’re looking to do substantial file transfers over wireless, that’s something to keep in mind. For what it’s worth, these 108 Mbps routers usually aren’t worth the premium.
WGR614 54 Mbps Wireless Router
Avoid at all costs. While the wizard to set up this router is helpful, one look at Netgear’s forums will tell you this router aggressively drops connections. I’d made the mistake of recommending this unit to a friend whom I was setting up a wireless network for, and invariably, not long after I left, it’d start dropping the connections on its network.
This unit has a horrible reputation on Netgear’s own forums. A good alternative to it would be a router from the Linksys WRT54G line.
NETGEAR DESKTOP ADAPTERS
Understanding this article is largely being read by notebook users, I feel it’s still relevant to review the other Netgear hardware I’ve been able to use. If you’re setting up a wireless network in your home, you may very well need to bring your desktop up as well if you have one.
PCI adapters are pretty easy to install, truthfully, if you have a general idea what you’re doing, and there are guides online that helpfully explain how to do it.
WG311T 108 Mbps Wireless PCI Adapter
We’ve had two of these in our apartment. The first was brand new, the second refurbished. The first one is still kicking after a year and a half, the second was virtually DOA. The refurbished one dropped the connection constantly. CONSTANTLY.
There isn’t a whole lot to say when something either works or does not, but Netgear’s software is frigging annoying. First, you can’t just install the driver, at least not easily. Second, according to Netgear you have to install the driver BEFORE you physically install the card. This is partially true, as things can get tricky if you install the driver with the card already in your system. You’ll notice almost no other hardware in our day and age still acts like this.
Probably the most egregious offense, though, is that you absolutely have to use Netgear’s miserable wireless networking management software. Software that’s kludgier than Windows XP SP2’s wireless networking management tools and worse, just plain doesn’t coexist well with Windows XP’s tools at all. The problem is that it leaves XP’s wireless icon in the system tray, and heaven help you if you ever accidentally click it.
To say I have a low opinion of the software Netgear forces on the consumer would be understatement of the year, and it single-handedly makes me want to dissuade anyone from buying a Netgear wireless adapter, PCI or otherwise.
WG311 54 Mbps Wireless PCI Adapter
This one has pretty much all the same problems the WG311T has and then some. Even after switching from the two miserable routers (WGR614) to the one that worked (WGR624) for the friend I set up the network for, the two computers on that network still kept dropping connections.
I know what you’re thinking: wouldn’t it be possible that the WGR614 actually worked fine and it was really the desktop adapters the entire time? While it’s certainly possible, the remarkable stream of vitriol on Netgear’s forums towards the WGR614 leads me to conclude that it’s entirely possible that these were three terrible pieces of hardware.
These cards drop connection aggressively in addition to having the awful Netgear software. We replaced them with a pair of Linksys WMP54G adapters. They both work perfectly, use Windows XP’s wireless networking tools, and maintain constant, solid connections. They also have massive antennae, so for those of you in my readership that are slightly insecure in your masculinity, well, these are pretty butch.
Fry’s Electronics also carries a small, next-to-no-name brand called AirLink. For $15 I picked up a 54 Mbps wireless PCI adapter that worked flawlessly out of the box. This was a year ago and it’s my understanding that the adapter is still going strong, so that’s a good recommendation too.
Ultimately I have to advise against buying any Netgear networking products. I’ve found them to be unstable and unreliable, and worse, they tend to be one of the more expensive brands. Additionally, my brief dalliance with a D-Link wireless router left me with a bad taste in my mouth when it would connect our desktop but not my laptop.
I have to grant a hearty recommendation to Linksys, a brand which is spoken of quite highly in the county department I work in, and was used in the Geek Squad department I worked in at Best Buy. Linksys also solved my networking problems with my friend’s wireless network.
I also tentatively recommend AirLink. Despite being substantially less expensive than any of the competition, the adapter I used worked and worked well. If you’re the adventurous type, this might be a good choice for you, and maybe you can report back on our forums about the reliability of this brand. I’ll actually likely be picking up one of their routers in the near future, so I may report back as well.
Ultimately, setting the wireless network up is going to be difficult, but it helps when you can eliminate the potential errors on the hardware end. Random problems with your hardware can be frustrating, but if you’re able to depend on the hardware, your life becomes a lot easier, and all of those guides on the internet suddenly make a lot more sense.
As always, further questions should be directed to the very knowledgable and friendly members of our forums. I don’t pretend to be a wireless networking guru – the people on our forums are going to be more knowledgable than I am – but I am a fairly well-informed consumer, and if I’m having problems with some of this hardware, a neophyte is going to go through hell. Likewise, if I can get the hardware to work with minimal fuss, chances are you’ll get them going with minimal difficulty.