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Linksys by Cisco WRT160NL Wireless-N Broadband Router with Storage Link Reviewed

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Introduction

Linksys WRT160NL

At a Glance
Product Linksys Wireless-N Broadband Router with Storage Link (WRT160NL)
Summary Hackable Atheros-based draft 802.11n router running Linux OS with upgradeable external antennas and USB drive sharing.
Pros • Upgradeable antennas
• Linux-based for your hacking pleasure
Cons • No alternative firmware available yet
• Unstable downlink throughput

The demand for 802.11g routers will eventually die (or try to be killed off by the coming onslaught of single-stream 802.11n routers). But there will always be the crowd who think that alternative firmware is the only way to go for their wireless router. So to satisfy those who want both draft 11n and hackability, Cisco has released a draft 802.11n version of its beloved WRT54TGL—the WRT160NL. But if my testing is correct, Cisco has some work to do to improve wireless throughput stability.

The rear panel shown in Figure 1 reveals some features that Cisco has put into the 160NL that may extend its popularity beyond devotees of alternative firmware. As the name indicates, the Storage Link feature that allows you to turn an attached USB flash or hard drive into a NAS has been brought back and the feature set sweetened by the addition of UPnP AV media server (more later).

Note also the two RP-SMA antenna connectors, which enable upgrading the two included 2 dBi dipoles to higher gain alternatives. I have seen no appreciable loss of performance from the internal antennas that Cisco has switched to in its UFO / Stingray cased wireless routers. But there are those who swear that external antennas are the only way to go. And since the 160NL's main feature is its firmware hackability, Cisco wisely decided to also include antenna hackability.

WRT160NL back panel

Figure 1: WRT160NL rear panel

Internal Details

If you're thinkin' that the 160NL is just a tweaked version of the 160N with more RAM and flash, then you'd be wrong. The two 160N's are entirely different inside. Figure 2 shows the 160NL's board, which is based on Atheros' AR79130 400MHz Wireless Network Processing Unit joined with an AR9102 single-band 2x2 MIMO 802.11n Radio. A Realtek RTL8306SD provides the four 10/100 switch ports and single WAN port. 32 MB of RAM and 8 MB of flash finish up the design.

WRT160NL board
Click to enlarge image

Figure 2: WRT160NL board

In contrast, the 160N has used both Broadcom (original and V3) and Ralink (V2) based designs. The V3 is shown in Figure 3 and uses the Broadcom BCM4716 Intensi-fi XLR 802.11n 2.4 GHz Router System-on-Chip and BCM5325 10/100 switch. Under the shield are two SiGe 2528L 2.4 GHz power amps.

WRT160N V3 inside
Click to enlarge image

Figure 3: WRT160N V3 inside

Given the Atheros design, as near as I can tell, none of the alternative firmware distros yet support the 160NL. So if you're buying it for the main purpose of replacing the factory firmware, you might want to hold off.




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