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The $120 Zyxel X-550NH is a purported step up from the Zyxel X-550N with the added high-end external antennas. Unfortunately, where we could only recommend the X-550N with some reservations, we can't recommend the X-550NH as a wireless router at all. Apart from its long range, the router had terrible wireless data throughput speeds and signal stability that was much worse than the X-550N. As a wired router, however, it offers VPN support and a Gigabit Ethernet connection, making it at least somewhat usable.
For the same amount of money or even much less, we can recommend many other wireless routers that offer much better wireless performance, stability, and more features. These include the DLink DIR-655, and the Linksys WRT320N .
Design and ease of use
Like the X-550N, the X-550NH Wireless Router's design is that of a typical wireless router, with three antennas and network ports on the back, and an array of LED indicator lights on the front. It's about 15 percent larger than a normal-size router of the same design, such as the Trendnet TEW-639GR or the D-Link DIR-655. The larger size suggests that the router works best when put on a surface, but nonetheless, it's also wall-mountable.
Apart from the stock antennas, the router comes with a set of three high-gain external antennas. These replace the stock, detachable ones, and you can't use the two sets at the same time. Each of the high-gain antennas is attached to the router via a 4-foot wire. You can place them in a location farther away from the router for the best signal, but it also means that you'll have a bunch of wires running all over the place. A better design would be if they were attached to the router with only a single wire that could be used together with the stock antennas.
All the routers' ports are Gigabit, meaning they can handle speeds up to 1,000Mbps, a plus if you want to do a lot of wired networking. All of the ports are on the back where the antenna connectors are. This is fine when you use the high-gain set, but when the stock antennas are used, they obstruct the ports. Also on the back you'll find the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button, which initiates a short window of time when a WPS-enabled client can enter the network. We would have liked to have this button located on the front of the router, as you might want to access it often.
The router comes with a setup application that includes detailed step-by-step instructions. The instructions are so clear in fact that we believe few would have a problem getting the router up and running. We were able to do so within 5 minutes, including the time it took to remove the router from the box.
Other than the application, which is based on Macromedia Flash and therefore doesn't require any installation, you can access and set up the router via its Web interface. To do this you only need to connect the router to a computer using a network cable, turn it on, and then, from the computer, point a Web browser to the router's default IP address, which is printed on its bottom.
Other than the Gigabit Ethernet and the high-gain antennas, the Zyxel X-550NH doesn't offer any other additional features found in high-end routers. There's no support for guest networking, which allows you to make separate wireless networks for guests. The router doesn't have support for the 5Ghz frequency, and it can't work as a print or network storage server, as it has no USB port.
The Zyxel X-550NH does offer a few useful networking features that can be managed via its very easy-to-use Web interface, though. The interface itself is organized into four categories: Network, Security, Management, and Maintenance. Each category contains items that lead directly to certain features or functions of the router. For example, in the Network category, you can change the settings of the wireless network, the Internet connection, the local network, and so on. We really liked the fact that the router shows the list of clients currently connected to it, and next to each of them is a "reserve" check box. When this box is checked, the current IP address will be used only for that particular client. This is a great feature when you want to set up special services, such as FTP server or remote desktop, to a computer in the network. Other routers, such as the Apple AirPort Base Station , require many steps to get this done.
Other features of the router, including Firewall, Content Filter, and VPN, are also easily accessible. The X-550NH has a built-in IPSec VPN with 2 IPSec VPN tunnels for secure data transfer between remote sites and the central sever. The Content Filter feature is rather simple. You can restrict Web features such as ActiveX, Java, cookies, and Web proxies, and you can block access to the Internet via URL keywords. For example, if you block the keyword "CN," then you won't be able to access sites with this keyword in their domain names, such as cnet.com or cnn.com.
For security, the router supports all existing wireless-encryption methods including WEP, WPA, and WPA2. As mentioned earlier, it also comes with Wi-Fi Protected Setup features that allow you to add a new client to the network at the press of a button, instead of having to type in the encryption key manually.
We tested the Zyxel X-550NH with a Linksys WUSB600N wireless adapter and the router performed terribly when it came to data transferring, both with the stock antennas and with the high-gain antennas.
In the Throughput test, where we test a router at its best settings with a wireless client that's only 15 feet away, the X-550NH scored 16Mbps, compared with the X-550N's 50.2Mbps. At this speed, the router would take more than 4 minutes to finish transmitting 500MB of data.
Performance didn't improve in the Range test, where the client is 100 feet away from the test router. In this test, the X-550NH registered only 7.2Mbps. In the Mixed mode test, where the router was set to work with both Wireless-N and legacy wireless-G and B clients, it scored merely 9.6Mbps.
These scores were by far the slowest we've seen in a wireless router. We suspected that the router came with some faulty firmware, but the Zyxel's support site doesn't offer any firmware updates, even though it did for the X-550N.
The router also failed our 24-hour stress test. In this test we transfer a large amount of data back and forth from different wireless clients to see if the test router can hold the connections continuously over an extended amount of time. The Zyxel X-550NH's signal reset after a very short time, and continued to do this every a few hours. We also lost the connection to the Internet from the wireless client at times, even when the local connection was live.
Despite the extremely long range--more than 340 feet away with the use of the high-gain antennas--we couldn't see how the X-550NH is useful as a viable wireless networking solution. Hopefully a firmware update can fix this.
Service and support
The Zyxel X-550NH comes with a two-year warranty, which is better than the one-year warranty that most routers come with. The support page on Zyxel's site offers nothing for the router except for a PDF of the router's spec sheet; there's no sign that there will be firmware update in the future. The company's toll-free technical support is available Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. till 7 p.m. PT, and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. till 2 p.m.