While there's no such thing as a pretty router, you've got to give the WRT54GX SRX Router points for at least looking different from the rest of the pack. That's as long as you accept "different" as meaning the same thing as "like a cheap Star Trek prop", that is. That's mainly due to the three antennae that protrude from the top of the router, which makes it look like it could come to life and start crawling towards you at any time. The router itself comes in a snazzy looking silver case, with a set of four ports down one side, although these are initially obscured when you get the router out of the box by a sticker telling you to run the installation CD before hooking up the router to anything.
Installation of the WRT54GX was an interesting experience. It's strongly tilted towards cable internet users, as the default software installation presumes you'll be directly connecting to a DHCP server on the ISP end. If, as we were, you're using an ADSL modem, you'll need to bypass the CD install, ignoring all the stickers telling you not to do that, and set up PPPoE authentication instead. We hit another interesting problem here, as the default MTU "auto" setting defaults to an MTU of 1500, rather than the more standard 1496. This problem is covered in the PDF manual, but it's in rather tiny type, and many users may struggle to find it. Linksys informs us they're working on making that clearer for future releases of this product.
Aside from regular 802.11b/g performance, the WRT54GX is equipped with the same Airgo MIMO chipset used in other MIMO routers such as the Belkin Wireless Pre-N Router. MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology uses multiple radio transmitters and receivers, preferably on both the sending and receiving end, to improve radio performance -- in this case wireless performance. Linksys' claims on the packaging suggest up to an 8x improvement in wireless data speed and 3x improvement in wireless signal distance.
It's worth noting that the WRT54GX is just a router, and that means if, like the majority of Australians on broadband connections, you're using ADSL, you'll still need a separate ADSL modem to actually manage your broadband connection. The upside of this is that if your ISP offers or is going to offer ADSL2/2+ services in the future, you can just update the modem and keep using the router. The downside is more cabling in what's meant to be a wireless world.
The WRT54GX's browser-based interface is suitably easy to configure, with options for specific Web site blocking as well as wireless security via MAC filtering, WEP and WPA. It is possible to configure it wirelessly, but it's much easier to do so via a cabled connection, as you won't constantly lose connectivity when rebooting after a change.
We tested the WRT54GX in a suburban home environment with both a supplied Linksys WPC54GX Wireless-G notebook adapter and a standard 802.11g card. With the 802.11g card, signal strength and reach did increase within our test home, but we still failed to get consistent signal outside the home. Switching over to the Linksys card saw a dramatic improvement in signal quality and strength, enabling easy Web surfing and file transfers out by the washing line. Obviously signal quality will vary depending on factors specific to your environment, but if you've already tried existing 802.11b/g gear and had problems, then a MIMO solution such as the WRT54GX could be a good solution.
We tested the WRT54GX over a number of weeks, and were well pleased with the unit's uptime, as it remained running solidly throughout that period, even when our ADSL connection itself flaked out.
One thought that did occur to us with the increased range of the WRT54GX is that home users are opening themselves up to an increased security risk, simply because the signal they're sending out is going that much further. If wireless security still baffles you, you may want to check out our guide to setting up a home wireless network.
Security worries aside, there's also a risk involved with picking up a technology that's not strictly standards-based such as the Airgo chipset in the WRT54GX, and that's to do with future compatibility. The same thing happened in the pre-802.11g era, with plenty of vendors offering proprietary 54MBps solutions that ended up being subtly different from the eventual standard. As such, it's a bit of a wary bet to invest heavily in something that may end up differing from the standard, but at the same time, there's little to contest the fact that the WRT54GX remains one of the most impressive solutions for increasing wireless range and speed that we've seen.