Western Digital aims for high end of 802.11n router market (July 13th, 2012)
Product Manufacturer: Western Digital
- Fast Wi-Fi speeds
- 7 Gigabit Ethernet ports
- Simple setup wizard
- True dual-band operation
- Excellent QoS management
- No draft 802.11ac support
- Minimal remote-access features
The Western Digital brand typically conjures thoughts of hard drives or other storage devices, however the California-based company has continued to push its way into the home-networking market. The My Net N900 router exemplifies this new focus, bringing dual-band 802.11n connectivity and a slew of high-end features that attempt to balance raw performance with simple setup and superior traffic management. In our full review, we attempt to determine if the device is worth its hefty price.
As a piece of networking hardware, there isn't much to say about the N900's aesthetics. The router is slightly larger than many competitors, measuring 9.3 inches wide and 1.2 inches high. The plastic housing is vented on the bottom to dissipate heat, while the two-tone color scheme is unimpressive but disappears easily among other electronics.
We can't complain about the N900's relatively large size; the company has wisely utilized the additional space to accommodate a wide range of connectivity options. Users can connect wired hardware to seven Gigabit Ethernet ports. In contrast, even Netgear's top-end router, which shares the N900 name, only integrates four Gigabit Ethernet ports. Many of the cheaper models step down to the slower 100-megabit-per-second standard.
Users can also attach external storage or printers via USB. The blue color on one of the USB ports suggests USB 3.0 support, but both ports are actually USB 2.0. This is not a drawback, as 802.11n wireless speeds would serve as a bottleneck and prevent users from taking full advantage of USB 3.0 throughput.
Recent news stories have focused on the next iteration of the Wi-Fi standard, known as 802.11ac. It is important to note that the existing 802.11n specification is far from being considered "legacy," as the official 802.11ac standard is not expected to be truly finalized and approved until next year or later.
Products equipped with 802.11ac radios, complying with the "draft" specifications, are already on the market ahead of the specification's finalization. The next-generation standard is said to be capable of surpassing one gigabit per second of total throughput. Western Digital's N900 is claimed to reach simultaneous dual-band speeds of up to 450 megabits per second on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. All of these numbers, for 802.11ac and 802.11n, represent theoretical maximums that are unlikely to be reached outside of lab settings.
Dual-band routers are plentiful on the market, though the designs differ in several key areas. To maximize range and data transfer speeds, the router must employ effective antennas and efficiently manage traffic. WD highlights its FasTrack Plus quality-of-service (QoS) technology, which places higher priority on content such as streaming video, games or VoIP calls. QoS is a basic feature on any modern router, however WD has continued to develop the technology to further eliminated the need for users to manually dive into router settings for proper setup.
The N900 is compatible with Windows and Mac machines, and we found the setup process to be straightforward for both platforms. Mac users can simply plug in the router to a power outlet and navigate to a web-based setup page, while Windows users can follow the same process or connect the router via Ethernet and follow the guides in a setup wizard on the included CD.
Normally we avoid installing unnecessary software or downloading add-on utilities for this type of hardware, but the N900 is paired with a sensible package of companion apps: My Net View, a diagnostic tool; Printshare, for configuring networked printers; and Quick View, for monitoring connections. When setting up the router on Mac, we were a bit frustrated to find that Printshare and Quick View were only available on a 500MB ISO image—not provided with the CD in the packaging—rather than smaller independent downloads on the company's support site.
We give the company credit for making the basic setup experience easy enough for most users to quickly accomplish, while clearly differentiating the next level of common configuration settings from the truly advanced tweaks. Many other routers provide easy setup, but leave any additional settings buried deep in advanced menus that may be intimidating and confusing even for tech-savvy users.
The web-based interface presents a streamlined guide for dual-band configuration, with a sidy-by-side view that lists options for each band. The wizard provides options to enable/disable each band, set separate security settings, pick specific channels, or tweak the channel width. The UI also provides basic explanations of many features, without delving too far into technical specifics.
When using the N900 from a distance of approximately 20, communicating with a 15-inch MacBook Pro via 802.11n, we were able to transfer files at a maximum of 183 megabits per second on the 5 GHz band. Switching to the 2.4 GHz band, while maintaining the same distance, brought the speeds down to 68 megabits per second.
We were impressed with the N900's raw performance on both bands, though we suspect the router may not prove to be the absolute fastest when compared head-to-head with its direct competition from networking veterans Netgear and Linksys.
We tested the FasTrack Plus QoS management by overloading a 30-megabit-per-second Internet connection through a combination of streaming HD videos and several concurrent downloads. When initiating a video stream, the file download speeds were quickly throttled to maintain fluid video and minimize initial buffering times.
The system showed similar performance when viewing HD streams from two computers and running a Skype call from a smartphone. File download speeds were slashed even further to compensate, and the HD streams and VoIP call showed no noticeable performance degradation.
As some companies switch focus to 802.11ac, there is still room for other players to master 802.11n. Our experience with the N900 demonstrates that Western Digital has overcome some of the drawbacks to competing routers. QoS no longer requires hours of tweaking to work correctly, and the N900's true dual-band radios can outperform entry-level routers.
With a retail price of $180, the Western Digital N900 may not be the most sensible purchase for households or small businesses that have no use for advanced QoS management, ultra-fast wireless speeds, and more than a half dozen Gigabit Ethernet ports. Any potential buyers that require extended range, heavy usage across multiple devices, or a straightforward-yet-advanced setup wizard, however, may find the router to be worth every penny. The company also offers several other My Net routers, with pricing starting at $80 for the N600 variant.