Buffalo's WLI-USB-G54 wireless USB adapter is designed to perform. It delivers better throughput at greater distances than any adapter we've tested to date. Unfortunately, its user documentation is incomplete, so for those new to networking, it could be challenging to set up. The WLI-USB-G54 is also a tad bulky for an adapter--compact USB adapters such as the Linksys WUSB12 may be a better solution for frequent flyers or those with little space for accessories. However, if you want to put a stationary PC on the air with the fastest connection speeds possible, the WLI-USB-G54 is currently one of the best ways to do it.
It takes only a few minutes to install Buffalo's USB adapter, and a printed quick-setup guide walks you through the steps. The process varies slightly depending on the version of Windows you're using (Windows 98 SE or later), but in all cases you merely plug the adapter into an available USB port, insert the accompanying CD, and click through the ensuing onscreen prompts. Unfortunately, this card doesn't support Macs.
The installation routine also loads Buffalo's Client Manager, which you'll need in order to configure security and other variables for the adapter. If you're running XP, you can use either Buffalo's Client Manager or the Zero Configuration Utility built into the operating system. The Buffalo and XP tools offer essentially the same features, so deciding between them is more a matter of style than utility. We were disappointed to discover that the WLI-USB-G54 includes no documentation for the Client Manager, which could be a stumbling block if you're unfamiliar with 802.11 networking.
A white cap on the back of the unit conceals a female MC antenna connector.
A connector for an external antenna--a feature you won't find on many other adapters--graces the back of the WLI-USB-G54. The connector comes in handy when you're trying to increase the range of your network, and Buffalo sells an antenna designed to mate with the connector on the company's AirStation line of products. Unfortunately, this adds to the total cost and bulk of the adapter.
The AirStation antenna can boost the range of the WLI-USB-G54.
The Client Manager for the WLI-USB-G54 supports WEP but lacks support for WPA, a more secure encryption scheme that is gradually becoming the new standard. Buffalo is working on an upgrade to its Client Manager that will be freely available on its Web site in the next few weeks and will add support for WPA.
Not surprisingly, the WLI-USB-G54 runs circles around competing 802.11b adapters. But this holds true only if you're connecting it to your computer via a USB 2.0 port. USB 1.0 has a much lower practical throughput than USB 2.0 and can't keep up with the fastest data rates of an 802.11g-enabled device. Connecting the WLI-USB-G54 to a USB 1.0 port would slow the connection to 802.11b speeds. On the other hand, connect Buffalo's USB adapter to a USB 2.0 port, and you will see a fivefold speed increase over the rate of standard 802.11b adapters. That can make a big difference if you transfer large files across your local network. It won't, however, speed up your ability to surf the Internet or download files from a remote server. Broadband connection speeds typically max out well below standard 802.11b rates, so a less expensive and more compact 802.11b adapter, such as the Linksys WUSB12, would be a more economical choice for most Internet-related tasks.
CNET Labs maximum throughput tests (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Buffalo has a respectable two-year warranty for its products, which is longer than Linksys offers on its WUSB12 but shorter than the three years that Netgear gives with its MA111. In addition, Buffalo includes 24/7, toll-free phone support, which is good for the life of the product. The Buffalo Web site contains driver updates and documentation downloads for many of its products but lacks info for the WLI-USB-G54. Buffalo is currently working on a product manual for the WLI-USB-G54 and plans to host it on its support site soon. The Web site also lacks self-help options, such as extensive, thorough, and product-specific FAQs and a searchable knowledge base.