Airport Express Goes N, Still Not a Linksys

Today Apple announced an updated Airport Express base station supporting the 802.11n wireless standard (technically draft n, almost a standard) that every other Apple product to date currently supports. Like all Apple gadgetry it's sleek, somewhat overpriced and somewhat feature-lacking compared to other competitors in the arena. The ability to directly share a printer over USB or steam iTunes music to any set of speakers in your house is nice, but the Airport Express is far from a networking champ.

I used to have an Airport Express before my sister jacked it (that base station has since died - average life span of the last gen ones was about 18 months, after that power supply would pop and die). It was small, had an alluring green power LED and got me online wirelessly. In fact, many MacBook Air users travel with Airport Express base stations rather than being tethered to the USB Ethernet dongle in yet-to-be-WiFi'd hotel rooms.

Unfortunately, the Airport Express is not a Linksys router.

Linksys WRT54G Router

Linksys gained a cult-like following when they released their WRT54G series of routers. They may be flaunting the ugliest router design since SMC Networks' first Wi-Fi routers in the early 2000's but WRT54Gs are utterly cheap and utterly hackable. First off, there are some obvious differences between the WRT54G line and the Airport Express. The WRT54G is not an 802.11n wireless router (with the exception of the mediocre WRT54GX series).

I always hated Apple access points because they don't use an intranet configuration website. Instead, you must install their Airport Utility to configure settings. It makes installation a bit longer right out of the box and you can't adjust settings easily on every computer on the network without the software. Most non-Apple routers let you access an intranet site to quickly change settings. The WRT54G goes one step further and indirectly facilitates flashing the firmware with Linux-based firmware such as DD-WRT, Tomato, HyperWRT, OpenWRT and more.

DD-WRT, for example, lets you alter the signal transmission power (and even overclock), considerably boosting the wireless range, in addition to throttling bandwidth for specific applications/IPs and monitoring bandwidth. Those with larger houses that need dousing with Wi-Fi will appreciate that DD-WRT lets you setup additional access points as repeaters.

DD-WRT Admin Panel

Then there are hardware mods such as power over ethernet utilizing an unused pair of wires on the WAN line so the access point only uses one ethernet cable (or you can buy it). This makes it easy to mount in odd locations. Oh and let's not forget the endless antenna mods; the WRT54G has two easily replaceable antennas.

Networking Tip - Multiple APs, One SSID

If you want to cover a massive area with a single Wi-Fi network, get a few WRT54Gs, give them all the same SSID, same encryption and use non-overlapping channels. Computers on the network will be smart enough to switch to another channel when the signal on the current one dies from them going too far away from the current channel. Most people use channels 1, 6 and 11 for this as they are adequately spaced apart. You might have to assess your floor plan a bit and the range of each access point so the same channels don't overlap.

When would you want to do this over using a Wi-Fi repeater? Using a Wi-Fi repeater is okay for one access point but each router hop adds latency to the network transaction and each repeater adds more load on the original access point. Any setup of larger scale would benefit from using multiple APs. The only issue is you will need to spread out the WAN to each AP and that would require something like a managed switch.

Overall

If you don't need to stream music wirelessly to another set of speakers, don't need the smaller form factor of the Airport Express for traveling, are smart enough to use Ethernet for large file transfers (hence no real need for 802.11n), use Wi-Fi for general purposes, enjoy getting insane bang for your buck and indulge in a bit of hacking, then the Linksys WRT54G router is for you. It's the only router I recommend to friends and family, even if they won't be hacking it.

What router do you use at home? How has it been treating you? Chris and I have a WRT54G in our garage and it has been serving up signals to my room on the third floor with no problems for quite a while.

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"Airport Express Goes N, Still Not a Linksys" by @Stammy

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