The Wireless Edge: Linksys WRT54G--Not What It Used to Be

The Cisco Linksys WRT54G is one of the most popular SOHO 802.11 b/g wireless routers available. However, because of a recent redesign, this product is nowhere near as reliable as it used to be. Worse yet, it's difficult to tell...

December 2, 2005

4 Min Read
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The Cisco Linksys WRT54G is one of the most popular SOHO 802.11 b/gwireless routers available. However, because of a recent redesign, this productis nowhere near as reliable as it used to be. Worse yet, it's difficult to tellwhether the version you are getting is the old version or the new version.

I stumbled across this a couple of weeks ago when I decided to update myhome small-office router, a Linksys BESFR41 v1. Though functional, I had toreset the product once or twice a week, and having had good success with aWRT54G (router, four-port Ethernet switch, 802.11b/g access point) atanother location, I decided to get one for my office. As part of my duediligence, I contacted my local ISP, which has well-informed technical support,and asked them about the WRT54G. They assured me it was "rock solid." Thatwas good enough for me.

After obtaining the product, a WRT54G v5, I installed it and instantly found myfirst problem: extremely slow Web admin screen updates that took five to 10seconds to update. I then looked at the firmware version: 1.00.0. That wasscary. Then I downloaded the latest version of the firmware, release 1.00.2,dated Nov. 1, 2005. This fixed the slow admin page updates, and I completedthe installation. It was then that the real problems began. The router ran finefor a while, then I lost wireless connectivity but still had wireline connectivity.I checked all the router wireless settings and found that the MAC addressaccess list I had enabled had disappeared. A one-time glitch, I thought, so Ireentered the information. Things continued to work for another several hours.Then I lost Internet connectivity again. I reset the router, which restoredoperation. However, from that point forward, I had to reset the router at leasta couple of times a day. Another problem occurred when I tried to changewireless security settings. I was unable to do so without first restoring therouter to its factory settings--not exactly convenient and anything but rocksolid.

I then started researching these problems on the Internet and found noshortage of complaints about the product, including stability and throughputissues. The comments were all consistent: people complained that theirWRT54G v5 products were unstable, whereas their WRT54G v4 products werehighly stable.

Further research into this issue revealed that Linksys changed the operatingsystem in v5 from Linux to VxWorks. Motivations for this change are notentirely clear, though the open-source license requirements for Linux (see Gnu General Public License) did require that Linksys publish thesource for the router. This resulted in people customizing software for therouter, thereby allowing the device to perform the functions of repeaters,bridges, VPN servers, VoIP gateways, etc. (There's an interesting story aboutthis at Wi-Fi Planet.) Linksysdoes not support any of these extensions, of course, but the platform didcreate a legion of devoted supporters and developers. It's likely that scrutinyof the source also helped debug the software and may be one reason theearlier versions are as stable as they are. By going to VxWorks, Linksys closesoff and retains full control of the platform.However, the two versions are almost indistinguishable--same model number,same case, same packaging and same screens. The only difference is that themodel number on the bottom of the unit indicates the version number; the serialnumbers for v4 begin with CDFA and the serial numbers of v5 begin with CDFB.Luckily, these are on the outside of the package. Since my local Wal-Martcarried the WRT54G v4, I eagerly replaced the router, and for the last 10 daysit has indeed been reliable, with not a single glitch of any kind.

I personally feel that Linksys has executed a "bait and switch" by notrevealing the change, keeping the model number the same and not even puttingthe version number on the package. I contacted Linksys a week prior to writingthis column to offer the company a chance to comment but received no reply. Iwould like to hope that Linksys will have the commitment to bring the v5quality level to that of v4, but having no assurance of this, I went back toWal-Mart and bought a spare v4 router. It was only $50. Maybe that wasLinksys' plan all along--to get paranoid owners to double up on their routerpurchases!

Peter Rysavy is the president of Rysavy Research,a consulting firm that specializes in wireless technology assessmentand integration.

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