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Buffalo AirStation 54Mbps Wireless Broadband Router Review

Introduction

The Buffalo AirStation 54Mbps Wireless Broadband Router is the first 802.11g device that ADSLguide has reviewed. It is a standalone router and therefore does not include an ADSL modem. The unit requires a separate ADSL modem with Ethernet output to work on an ADSL broadband service. The lack of a modem does however make the router ideal for use with other technologies such as cable or wireless.

The AirStation provides 802.11g wireless which is the new 54Mbps standard, as opposed to the more common 802.11b standard which runs at 11Mbps. The extra wireless speed makes little difference to broadband internet connections as the vast majority of UK broadband connections are still 0.5Mbps but it is useful for faster connectivity between computers on your local network (sharing files, etc.) One important point is that whilst 802.11g is backwardly compatible with 802.11b, if you run a mixed network with both 802.11g and 802.11b devices present, the 802.11g devices will not run at the full speed. In addition to the wireless connection you also get a four port 10/100Mbps Ethernet switch, and a NAT router that includes a packet filter firewall, UPnP and intrusion detection facilities.

What you get for your money

The router comes with the usual selection of extras as can be seen above. Missing from the picture is the Buffalo AirNavigator set-up CD that includes optional set-up software and a copy of the full manual for the device in Adobe Acrobat PDF format. Included are: a quick set-up guide leaflet, power cable, a diminutive power supply and a flat CAT 5 straight LAN cable. The power supply deserves a bit more of a mention it has to be the lightest and smallest unit we have received, weighing just 95g and measuring 4.5 width x 3 height x 7 depth (cm). The AirStation unit itself weights 370g and measures 7.8 width x 17 height x 15.5 depth (cm).

Looking closer at the router you can see it has a profusion of flashing lights. They are not common low intensity LEDs but are smaller and brighter than the average LED on a router. The front of the unit features the main status LEDs, letting you know that it is switched on, whether the wireless side is active and transferring traffic, and conversely whether the WAN side of the router has any traffic. The DIAG led should hopefully never come on except when resetting or first switching on the unit as it shows the router is in its diagnostic mode. The five LEDs on the side, simply indicate traffic on the four port switch at the rear of the router, with a duplicated diagnostics LED below.

The rear of the router contains various sockets:
  • Optional external antenna socket, designed for use with the AirStation Indoor High Gain Onmi Antenna to extend the range of the router. A plastic cover slides over the socket to protect it when not in use.
  • The recessed reset button, simply press and hold for a few seconds until the DIAG LED illuminates to reset the unit.
  • The four auto-sensing Ethernet ports supporting both 10Mbps and 100Mbps connections.
  • The auto-sensing Ethernet WAN port, this is where you plug the ADSL or Cable modem in.
  • The power input socket, which takes a 3.3V signal from the AC adaptor.

Basic configuration

The most common set-up with the router is in combination with an ADSL Ethernet modems like the X-Modem. In this situation the router will receive the full Internet IP address from the ISP on its WAN interface. This type of setup is almost identical to using the router with a cable modem service.

The router can be configured via wireless or Ethernet, and the use of the Buffalo Air Navigator CD is entirely optional, but it will allow you to run the client manager software that will display information on any attempted intrusion attempts so is recommended. This additional software can be added a later if you change your mind. This review will walk through setting the router up manually.

The default IP range used by the router is 192.168.11.x with the routers web configuration visible at http://192.168.11.1/ (it should be noted that the review model has been reconfigured to use a different range, i.e. 192.168.0.x). The router requires you to supply a username and password when initially connecting to its web interface. The default username is root with a blank password. We must stress that you should change the default password as soon as possible as anyone could change your configuration and device settings if they can guess it.

The initial set-up screen is displayed above. Setting up with the X-Modem or a similar device simply involves clicking the DSL button, which will then result in the following three options being displayed:

At this point you should select the "Automatic IP Assignment by ISP" option. This means that the WAN port will behave as a DHCP client, and ask for an IP address from whatever device is plugged into the WAN port. Note: Even if your ADSL IP address is a static IP address, the X-Modem will still require you to request this static IP address dynamically. The DHCP client also looks after gateway and DNS settings.

The next step is to decide whether you want your computers to use DHCP on the LAN side of the router. The choice of using DHCP or static IP addresses on the LAN side is independent of any settings you made to the WAN side of the router. The vast majority of people will simply want to leave the LAN side DHCP server running so click the 'Next' button to proceed to the connection check stage.

The presence of the 'AirStation has Successfully Connected to the Internet' image indicates that you have successfully configured the router, and it has managed to download that particular image over the Internet. You should now be able to use the Internet, if you cannot access web sites, then it is likely at this stage to be a setting on the computer.

The set-up for getting you online and running is very simple. The Security and Applications tabs allow you to set some pre-defined security levels and quickly configure port forwarding and application support whilst the more complex port filters, wireless settings and WEP encryption can be accessed via the Advanced button.

Wireless Set-up and Security

The main reason most people will purchase this router is for its 54Mbps 802.11g capabilities. Compared to some of the all-in-one 802.11b devices the AirStation has an abundance of options. The router can be set to run in three basic wireless modes, supporting 802.11g devices only, a mixed network of 802.11b and 802.11g clients, and finally just 802.11b based clients. The wireless options screen which appears somewhat confusing is shown below. The Wireless Channel and Data Encryption are the key options that need to be attended to ensure your wireless network is secure. The AirStation is very flexible allowing you to supply a list of trusted MAC addresses and also bridge with other AirStation routers.

The configuration screen only differs from the default set-up in that it shows WEP encryption enabled. When setting up any wireless network it is best to ensure that all the devices are working prior to switching on WEP encryption since it is all too easy to get the WEP keys wrong and spend hours attempting to fix them. A number of useful options, including the ability to turn off the wireless network and control the output power (to make sure any external antenna does not exceed the legal requirements) are also available.

Configuring a wireless network card on a computer is fairly simple and most cards come with a basic set-up guide. The 802.11g card used for this review was the Buffalo WLI-CB-G54 802.11g Cardbus device but the AirStation should work with any other 802.11g or 802.11b compatible wireless network card.

The set-up CD contains the drivers for the card and a quick set-up guide provides installations instructions. Once the card is installed and running on the computer, (an XP based laptop in this case) you will need to configure the wireless settings. The Buffalo card comes with its own Client Manager software can also be used to configure the wireless network settings instead of using the operating system's own dialogs. If you want to use the Client Manager you need to ensure that the Wireless Network Connection properties has relinquished configuration control. In XP this means ensuring the 'Use Windows to configure my wireless network settings' box is not checked as shown below.

Configuring the network card via the Client is straight forward. The main window where the settings are entered is very simple and you only need to select the Wireless network and then set the properties of the card. The example below shows the configuration for connecting to an AirStation that has 128bit WEP encryption turned on with a key of 'airstationcom'

 The same set-up using Windows XP will look like:

If you are not using WEP encryption, then simply uncheck the Data Encryption box. It is recommended that you run WEP encryption, since it adds a level of security that should keep a home network safe from prying eyes. Many people do not use WEP encryption because of the confusion over what the keys should be but we cannot stress the importance of doing so. Buffalo has been kind enough to give some examples in its online help:

Obviously there is little point in using the example keys since every hacker will try them out to break into your network. The use of the example keys will allow you to get used to the use of the keys so that you can create your own unique key.

Configuration of Port Forwarding

Port forwarding is one of the most asked about topics on various routers, mainly as people struggle to get applications working that require both inbound and outbound connections, e.g. running your own web server or applications such as Netmeeting. The Buffalo offers both a very simple and a more complex screen to set up port forwarding to cope with various scenarios.

The easy-to-use port forwarding screen is hidden away under a section called 'Configuring Internet-based Games'. This allows you to specify either a single port or a range of ports as shown in the example above along with the LAN (internal) IP address of the computer than is running the service or game. To add the rule to the list of active rules, click the Set button. As with other parts of the interface the layout can be a bit quirky, though the small help icons provide a few lines of help on each section.

The above screenshot shows the myriad of options available when you add a NAT table rule via the Advanced set-up system. The example shows how you would forward TCP Port 110 to a computer at 192.168.0.44, i.e. If you wanted a POP3 mail server on your LAN to be accessible to people on the Internet. Once added, the rules are shown on the Address Translation Setup page.

Security

The AirStation has three types of security control built into the device above and beyond the dropping of unsolicited incoming packets that effectively comes free with any NAT router. The three areas are 'Basic Rules', 'Packet Filter' and 'Intrusion detection'. To access these components you need to use the Advanced configuration option and the Network setting menu.

The basic rules cover a few simple items shown above. The final two are turned off by default and users of IRC applications may want to allow the IDENT request. The second to last rule 'Prohibit NBT and Microsoft-DS routing' block the troublesome ports 137 to 139 which are used by Microsoft File and Print Sharing which we recommend you always have disabled on your Internet interface unless you have good reason to use them and are certain you are using secure passwords. The first three rules control who can gain access to the configuration of the router. Denying access from the wireless LAN is sensible (assuming you have one computer with a network card to configure the router), since it prevents anyone from breaking the wireless options accidentally cutting themselves off.

The Packet Filter allows you to ignore (drop), reject or accept packets of data from a single IP address or whole subnet ranges. The traffic can be blocked for either incoming and/or outgoing. The default set-up is with no IP filter rules defined. The picture above shows a rule that denies all attempts to access port TCP 25 (SMTP mail server). Clicking the IP filter button results in the following pop-up, where for the rule shown above the destination and source IP fields were left blank to denote all IP addresses, and the TCP Port Number was simply specified as 25.

The AirStation allows you to create complex rule sets by specifying the order in which rules are applied. For example you can create a rule set where all traffic is denied from the LAN side, and then add rules to allow limited traffic outbound of certain protocols and ports.

The final security component is Intrusion Detection which allows you to log attempts to access your local network or the Internet when such attempts matches one of your packet filter rules. It also blocks IP spoofing. The logs can either be emailed via a mail server you provide, or displayed interactively on in the Buffalo Client Manager which acts as a pop-up for security alerts, runs as a Windows application that allows you to monitor the AirStation and allows you to backup or restore your configuration.

Buffalo AirStation and X-Modem bundle

As mentioned earlier, the Buffalo AirStation will not connect directly to an ADSL line and therefore requires an ADSL modem connected to its WAN Ethernet interface. The X-Modem does this task superbly, apart from a few days when the AirStation has been used with other ADSL devices, the two months of the review have being carried out with a X-Modem terminating the ADSL line and handing the ISP assigned IP address via DHCP to the AirStation.

The configuration of the bundle may seem daunting at first but the simplest way is to set-up the Buffalo AirStation first and ensure the computers connected to it via wireless or Ethernet can see the AirStation and each other. The next step is to connect the X-Modem to the WAN port of the AirStation and configure the X-Modem via the Buffalo. In our example above you will be able to access the X-Modem via its standard http://10.0.0.2/ web page. The configuration of the X-Modem itself follows its normal procedure there are no special settings needed.

The AirStation provides a great deal of flexibility and you can use it as a simple wireless access point if you wish. This means rather than plugging any Internet connection into the WAN port, you plug it into one of the four LAN ports, disable the DHCP server in the AirStation and ensure the IP range of the AirStation does not clash with any other devices. This type of wireless access point set-up is ideal if you already own a combined ADSL modem/router and only want to add wireless capability to your network. However, at the end of the day a dedicated wireless access point would be the more sensible solution.

Performance

The AirStation has undergone a lengthy review, certainly longer than most devices we see, simply because it has involved two devices. This means we can be more certain over its stability and performance in the long term. For the first few weeks of the review we were having to restart the AirStation as it was losing its connection. This problem did disappear and we suspect it was related to work carried out on the ISP used for the test. After this period the router has been perfectly stable and reliable.

The review network comprised of four to five PCs with a mixture of wired and wireless connections. The AirStation is happy with all computers connected via wireless, a mixture of wireless and wired or even with the wireless side turned off. Performance-wise there was nothing to distinguish between the wired and wireless side except when transferring large files. Whilst the 802.11g standard is five times faster than 802.11b, it is still not as fast as a 100Mbps wired connection, something that is noticeable when moving large files between systems.

Online gaming tests were carried out both with wireless and wired connections. In terms of latency there is nothing to tell the two types of connection apart, not even telling the 802.11b connection apart from 802.11g. The router coped well with a full refresh of the Counter-Strike game server list and. Additionally it has been running a mail and web server throughout the review and PPTP VPN connections for many hours without any issues.

If you wish to use Microsoft NetMeeting, then you simply provide the internal IP address of the machine it is running on and the router will ensure the software functions through NAT:

The AirStation has support for UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) which seemed to work with XP, although with the release of MSN Messenger version 6 that functions behind NAT routers without UPnP, this is not as significant. One annoying factor with the AirStation and X-Modem bundle is that while the short lease times of the X-Modem are handled smoothly by the AirStation, the UPnP subsystem sees the renewal even when the IP address has remained the same and pops-up the Internet Connected window in XP every couple of minutes, so most people will probably want to run with UPnP disabled which fortunately is an option.

The AirStation scores highly at 17 out of 20 in our standard wireless testing. This is higher than the D-Link 604+ because in 802.11g mode you are getting higher speeds at 150m in the open. We have scored it under the Vigor 2600We as we have found the faster 802.11g speeds to be more variable, including sometimes dropping to 11Mbps even though the location susually provide 54Mbps connections without any problems.  

Hardware Used Score out of 20
ELSA Lancom wireless access point, PCMCIA card 10
Asus 6030VI modem/router 13
Linksys WAP11 access point 15
Linksys WET11 access point 16
Solwise SAR-715PVW, PCMCIA card antenna 12
Netgear DG824M 16
BT Home Network 1200 17
BT Voyager 2000 13
Vigor 2600We 18
D-Link 604+ 16
Buffalo AirStation G54 Router 17

A second more extensive test was completed showing a true comparison of speeds with the wireless devices placed in the same position for each test. This should over time provide a better indication of performance rather than a simple score.

Hardware Used 1m 5m + 2walls 8m+4walls 8m+4walls and floor 75m outside 100m outside 150m outside
D-Link 604+ 11 11 11 1-2 6 11 1
Buffalo AirStation with 54G 54 54 36 11 36 48 1-5.5
Buffalo AirStation in 802.11b mode 11 11 4 1 2-11 11 1

The common drop at 75m outside for all devices is likely due to the angle at that location since its not possible to keep the laptop at a level height throughout all distances. The walls are of a double brick construction with plaster and the floor is a concrete slab around nine to twelve inches thick. The AirStation manages an amazing 48Mbps connection out at 100m, but does appear to drop off quite rapidly after that. For a device with no external antenna this is very good. Buffalo do sell a range of antennae that will connect to the AirStation for those who want to boost the range.

Wireless Performance Measurements

Device

Time for 198MB file copy (seconds)

Average transfer rate (Mbps)

Minimum Ping (ms)

Maximum Ping (ms)

Average Ping (ms)

1

352

4.733

2

6

2

2

90

17.6

1

11

1

3

85

18.63

1

1

1

4

565

2.80

1

2

3

5

330

4.8

1

2

3

Comparison of AirStation 802.11g throughput with the 802.11b of a BT Voyager 2000

Devices:

  1. Orinoco internal mini-PCI 802.11b card with BT Voyager 2000 WEP disabled
  2. Buffalo WLI-CB-G54 802.11g with Buffalo AirStation WEP enabled
  3. Buffalo WLI-CB-G54 802.11g with Buffalo AirStation WEP disabled
  4. Orinoco internal mini-PCI 802.11b card with Buffalo AirStation WEP enabled
  5. Orinoco internal mini-PCI 802.11b card with Buffalo AirStation WEP disabled

In terms of 802.11b performance, the AirStation wins by a small throughput margin but once you enter 802.11g mode the speed improves by around a factor of four. Interestingly the effect of WEP is much less noticeable in 802.11g mode. Any 802.11g based device should exceed 802.11b speeds so the comparisons with other 802.11g based routers will make for a more informative table. While 18.63Mbps will seem low it is comparable to what other 802.11g devices manage.

Verdict

The Buffalo AirStation is a slightly quirky device but with a fairly straight forward setup and at the £100 price point (October 2003) it is not the cheapest 54G router. It does however have a lot of flexibility making it quite desirable. The main problem is configuring areas on the web interface such as the packet filters which could be improved. In other words, whilst the router can do many things, the documentation and web interface lack good examples to guide the user.

Overall, the performance boost of an 802.11g device over an 802.11b device is useful, but only if you are regularly copy a lot of data across your local network. Although the price differential is not very great between 802.11b and 801.11g devices, it does become significant once you add the cost of 802.11g network cards to the mix.

ADSL users who already have an Ethernet modem and router will not find the AirStation to be the right device and they would generally be better off buying a wireless access point which can save £10-20. Currently (October 2003) a combination of the X-Modem and AirStation will set you back around £170 to £200, around £50-£100 above the cost of an all in one 802.11b unit, but it is a package that is in stock now and users who may move to a cable modem connection at a later date will find this particularly useful.

So what are the failings overall? Well, the router is let down by the quality of the translation of the documentation and in particular any lack of configuration examples. The web interface does not feel as slick and graphically polished as some of the other devices on the market, but it does what it says on the box. Technical and hobby-type users will be happy with what it can do and how it does it, but without some clearer examples of how to accomplish various tasks it is not for the 'my first router' market.

The cardbus WLI-CB-G54 is now obsolete and has been replaced by the WLI-CB-G54A, the main change is that the newer card has support for an external antenna.


Prices: £79.99 – AirStation G-54 Wireless Broadband Router
 
  £169.99 – AirStation Bundle - including X-Modem , AirStation G-54 Wireless Broadband Router, AirStation Cardbus 54g card and two microfilters
Prices listed above are excluding postage and VAT.
 
Links: http://www.adslnation.com/phpapps/catalog/
 
Where to Buy: See our DSL Hardware FAQ

Andrew Ferguson
andrew@thinkbroadband.com

The contents of this review should not be relied upon in making a purchasing decision - You should always discuss your requirements with your service provider and hardware supplier.