Netgear's WGU624 (Double 108 Mbit/s Wireless Firewall Router) is a dual-band 802.11a/g wireless router that's a major step up from single-frequency gear. By taking advantage of the 802.11a network (which operators at 5GHz, separate from 802.11b/g's 2.4GHz), you can opt to connect devices over a less-congested frequency.

The "double 108" pitch involves using two separate devices and networks to connect to the same access point. But don't think you'll get 216 Mbit/s of speed - you'll only get "108" performance on two distinct networks.

To get a claimed 108 Mbit/s on either network NetGear uses proprietary technology to improve performance over the 54 Mbit/s that plain 802.11g or 802.11a offer. The data rate appears to be the result of data compression, packet bursting and large frame support, rather than an actual speed increase. By using larger packet sizes, more data is stuffed into each packet; compressing these larger packets provides a higher throughput rate on the network.

We were frustrated with several configuration settings, and interoperability with non-Netgear devices was so poor we don't recommend this for non-Netgear homes/offices. In order to use security settings, all connecting devices must be Netgear devices, and are controlled through the Netgear Smart Wizard.

802.11a is admirable
Netgear recommends reserving the 802.11a network for high-bandwidth applications such as gaming and multimedia. The "HOV lane" is used when the otherwise crowded 2.4GHz range limits bandwidth resources. The concept is admirable, but without the ability to pool the bandwidth from both frequencies, you must configure specific devices for each network individually and use them independently. If you have only a few devices on the network, we recommend configuring everything on 802.11a. But if you have a more complex environment, reserve 802.11a for those higher-bandwidth applications.

By isolating the devices that require more bandwidth on a separate network, you allow them more throughput. Additional devices on the same frequency also can add noise or signal interruption, which will affect wireless performance in speed and range of the wireless signal.

Some wireless telephones operating at 2.4 GHz and microwave ovens affect the 802.11b/g wireless frequency, giving 802.11a an initial edge in providing a clearer signal over 802.11b/g networks.

A limitation of the 108 Mbit/s speed on the 802.11b/g network is that it must use Channel 6, the default (and thus most crowded) channel for most 2.4-GHz gear. However, you can choose which channel you use on the 802.11a network, further ensuring less data congestion.

Client configuration required
Specific speed support (such as the 108 Mbit/s rate) must be configured on client devices and the router. If the router or client doesn't force the connection you're attempting, it will fail or connect at a lower speed. For example, 108 Mbit/s support must be configured on all network devices to achieve that rate. Although Netgear includes the ability to auto-detect compatibility for the 108 Mbit/s speed, in our testing it didn't work as documented.

In addition, only Netgear adapters worked with any of the security settings enabled. When we added non-Netgear ones, we couldn't obtain an IP address on what appeared to be an excellent connection to the access point (even with a static IP address).

Extended range does work
We were impressed with Netgear's Extended Range technology, which extended the range of both the 802.11a and b/g connections by roughly 40 feet in our tests.

The technology aims to maintain wireless connections even with a weak signal, which reduces the number of dropped connections when working at the outermost edges of the network.

What's the real throughput?
Our standard bandwidth monitors couldn't pick up the 108 Mbit/s datastream, but with a few advanced system tools and some rudimentary monitoring, we could see a speed improvement with the 108 Mbit/s network compared with the 54 Mbit/s settings. On average, we saw data rates of 9 to 18 Mbit/s, with bursts up to 31 Mbit/s on the 802.11b/g/a networks when using the WG111U (USB) or WG511U (PC Card) adapters.

When connected at 108M bit/sec, we saw an average transfer rate between 12 and 24 Mbit/s, with bursts up to 32 Mbit/s. Most of the packet frames utilized the 54 Mbit/s packet size, but the actual data rate was lower.

The basic features of the WGU624 are very strong. Site blocking is exceptional, blocking by time of day, specific domains, keywords, IP restrictions and exceptions, plus e-mail notification when rules are broken. The router also lets you map ports to IP addresses to better track network usage. The documentation and Web-based configuration tools were also outstanding.

OUR VERDICT

A good speed boost if you already use Netgear, and don't use other brands of kit in your home or office. Most business users may not therefore be able to use this.