About a month ago, I upgraded my home broadband connection. I called my cable company, Comcast, and asked to sign up for its highest level of service: 8Mbps downstream and 768Kbps upstream. I intended to replace my AT&T DSL service, from which I have never been able to get more than about 1.25Mbps downstream (and much less up).
Replacing the DSL connection also meant replacing the 2Wire DSL modem/access point that came with it. Comcast doesn't offer a similar combined unit right now, just a one-port cable modem. At chez Needleman, we need a bit more connectivity than that. So I ordered what's probably the biggest-selling router/Wi-Fi access point made, the Linksys WRT54G. We first reviewed the product back in February 2003.
Why this model? Aside from popularity, it is very inexpensive ($40 after rebate on NewEgg; I paid a bit more on Amazon). The latest version of the device, version 5, is unpopular with the übergeek crowd, though. Previous versions were based on a Linux operating system and were marvelously hackable; version 5 is based on the closed VxWorks operating system and is not open to tinkering. There were also some rumblings about the latest version being unreliable. But I had no plans to hack my access point, and with so many sold, and at such a low price, I decided to take my chances.
The pain starts here
Hooking up my WRT54G was straightforward and easy. The included PC-based software configured it to work with the Comcast cable modem in no time. I patched in the Linksys to my network, and everything looked good. And the speed! It was just like being at work. Not only did I get close to the 8Mbps I was paying for, but the network latency on one of the multiplayer games I favor was a mere 15ms; 60ms was the best I could get on a good day with DSL.
All was fine and wonderful for about an hour. Then I powered up my work laptop, and it wouldn't connect. Eventually I discovered the WRT was assigning it the same IP address as my desktop. Bad Linksys, no doughnut! I rebooted the router, and things worked again. Then I tried to connect the laptop to the CNET internal network via our VPN--that didn't work at all. I tried our alternate VPN method, and that flopped too. And don't get me started on the problems I had connecting to the WRT over Wi-Fi. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. Usually, power-cycling the device fixed things. But I had no intention of living with a router that needs periodic reboots.
In short, the version 5 release of the WRT54G is a bad product. I wanted to learn why.
It's the money, honey
I contacted a PR person at Linksys, and he put me in touch with Eric Deming, a senior product marketing manager. We had a very awkward discussion. Nobody with a volume product like this wants to admit that it has major problems. Eric almost walked into the trap of blaming Comcast, but to his credit did not. He said the product works brilliantly for most people, but added, "I'm not going say we're done developing it, but it was highly tested. It's impossible to get 100 percent of the bugs." Like not connecting to Wi-Fi without a reboot? Eric said, "We've seen issues there."
So what happened? Cost cutting. The margins on Wi-Fi gear are so slim, manufacturers will do anything they can to save pennies; it's the only way they can make money on commodity products. Linksys cut its costs by moving its product to an operating system with a smaller memory footprint than the old version's. VxWorks takes half the memory of Linux and can work on a less-expensive Broadcom chipset than the previous model. Linksys "passes the cost savings on to users," Eric says.
Indeed. It is a cheap product.
Old and open: good. New and closed: bad
Version 4 of the WRT54G was lauded as stable and reliable--as well as hackable--by people who know. But how does one get an out-of-production version of a product? On eBay? In the bargain bin at Costco?
As it turns out, Linksys sells the WRT54GL, a "Linux-compatible" version of the WRT54G. It is, essentially, the WRT54G Classic--the version 4, Linux-based product with an L stuck on the name. It costs about $15 more than the version 5 product, and it's not marketed to consumers, nor is it available in brick-and-mortar retail. Linksys says it still sells it to keep happy the small proportion of people who want to tinker with their access point firmware (to run the Fon network, or to experiment with settings using replacement firmware, such as DD-WRT).
Whatever. The GL version is the router to get. I sent back my 54G and replaced it with a 54GL. It works great. It's stable, it's fast, and it was just as easy to set up as the version 5 model. VPN connections work reliably, its Wi-Fi radio is strong, and I haven't had a dropped connection yet. It is, in other words, just what you'd expect from a modern access point.
Linksys isn't going to stop selling the lousy VxWorks-based version of its router. One or two firmware upgrades from now and it should even be reliable. But if you're in the market for an access point, don't be tempted by the new low-cost version of this product. Paradoxically, Linksys's best value in a broadband router is a product it's practically hiding.
Have you experienced a new-and-improved version of a product that was a step backward from a previous release?