Linksys WRT160N: a wireless router with terrific PC-based setup

We remember the days when routers looked like network gear – boring boxes with a few blinking lights and some ports for connecting devices. The Linksys WRT160N dispels those stereotypes with a space-age look that makes it look more like a model sports car than a router.

Installation and set up has been designed with home users rather than network gurus in mind. The ports on the back are coloured and the user manual provided on the installation CD was easy to read. There was little network jargon and where it was used there were clear plain-English explanations provided. Wireless protection options are labelled as best good and none (WPA WPA and none respectively) and once configuration is complete the settings are saved as a text file that can be printed out for later reference.

Out of the box all the ports on the WRT160N were covered with a “Run CD first” sticker. We did that and rather than the usual web browser installation process Linksys provides a great tool called the Linksys EasyLink Advisor or LELA. LELA is a graphical application that gives you a picture of all the devices connected to your network. This sort of software has typically been in the domain of professional network managers. However if you’ve become the accidental manager of a small network at home or in the office then LELA is a Godsend. It’s currently Windows only but we’re told that a Mac version will be coming later this year.

Other than the funky casing the WRT160N is a fairly standard router. There are four 10/100 ethernet ports 802.11n  on the 2.4GHz frequency and a port for connecting your WAN (usually a modem in bridge mode). We spoke to Graeme Reardon the Regional Director for Linksys and asked him why gigabit ethernet hasn’t been included. He said the simple explanation was that the cost of gigabit router hardware still hasn’t been commoditised to a point where it can be provided at the current pricing. That will change in the next 12-18 months.

Network performance was impressive. Wireless range tested with a Toshiba Portege R500 and Apple MacBook Pro was excellent. Within our office the signal strength remained at its maximum. Taking our laptops for a walk the signal didn’t drop to the “Poor” level until we’d put about 25 meters and a couple of brick walls between the laptops and the router.

What really grabbed us was LELA. When we attempted to connect to another wireless LAN LELA stepped in to guide us through the process. When someone tried to connect to our LAN LELA provided an alert. If the Internet connection was down LELA provided a visual cue as to where the problem was and ran through a wizard to repair the issue. The repair wizard was able to solve basic issues but struggled with a complex IP address routing issue which to be fair would probably not occur in a real world situation (we had the WRT160N connected to a router that was in turn connected to another router.)

What was missing from the WRT160N? We’d have liked to see gigabit ethernet and given other routers on the market are including it at affordable pricing levels we wonder how much cost it would really have added to the device. Also the support for 802.11b g and n will be adequate for many but the lack of support for 802.11a and 802.11g on the 5GHz frequency is a deficiency (5GHz is significantly better than the crowded 2.4GHz band which is shared with cordless phones microwaves and the many 802.11g networks now found in most neighbourhoods). There’s no USB port for sharing a printer or storage device either.

Overall the Linksys WRT160N is a competent router that’s accompanied by some excellent software. LELA is an excellent value-add. If a later version of the hardware includes gigabit and dual-band wireless it’ll be a killer home or small office router.