Date: April 24, 2007
Author(s): Rob Williams
There have been many feature-packed routers to come out of the ASUS shops in the past year, but the WL-700gE takes the cake thanks to its pre-installed 160GB hard drive. Is this NAS/Router hybrid worth your $200?
Routers play an essential, yet simple role in our computing lives. As the name suggests, it sits there routing internet traffic to each one of our computers. Router buying used to be an easy process. More often than not, high-quality routers were easy to spot, and quality often depended on its cost. Not always, but there was a reason Linksys routers cost so much back in the day.
In recent years though, manufacturers have invented new ways to grab your attention to their product. Wireless performance has pretty much been tackled time and time again, but it was time to offer people a lot more for their $100+, not just traffic routing. ASUS was the first company to release a router that was fully capable of downloading while your main PC is turned off. This caught a lot of attention, for good reason. Although others have followed suit, ASUS still remains the only company to develop routers that support BitTorrent downloading.
We have taken a look at their WL-500g and WL-500w SuperSpeed N in the past and have been pleased overall. They each had a few questionable areas, but overall they were both stable products.
The WL-700gE we are looking at today really deserves it’s “multi-function” status. It offers so much to the consumer, that it won the Innovations 2007 award for Home Networking at this years CES. Needless to say, I was excited to tear the box open and see what it was made of.
Before we discuss the slew of features that the WL-700gE offers, let’s first see what you will receive upon a purchase. Like the other two routers we’ve taken a look at, this one arrives in a clean looking box that’s literally jam packed with product information.
Besides the router itself, you will have the antenna, power cord, network cable (for connecting to your DSL/cable box), the manual and CD-Rom which includes the software for getting up and running. The included manual is by far one of the best I’ve seen included with any product I’ve evaluated before. The information inside is straight-forward and not confusing in the least and it’s also full color so you know exactly what screen you should be looking at.
The router itself looks quite similar to the ones we’ve already taken a look at. Clean white chassis with gray trim. Both the top and bottom have plenty of airholes, although like most routers, it will still get very warm.
The front showcases a variety of LEDs and also the power button. You’ll notice a “Copy” button as well, which will copy everything off an inserted thumb drive.
There are two more USB 2.0 ports on the back in addition to a reset, EZ Setup, LAN/WAN ports, power and of course the antenna.
Because of the beastly stature of the WL-700gE (it is not light), a stand is included. It almost looks like a soap holder for your bathroom and I think it would work well in that situation. The base is heavy, so it wouldn’t slide all over the place.
Here is the full product as you will see it when set up. You can lay it down if you wish, but I think for the sake of good airflow, you’ll want to use it like this.
ASUS makes it quite easy to clean out the inside of the router. On the back, there are two latches that you push so you can lift the top off. Then with your air blower, you can clean out all the crevices. After removing a small metal guard, the hard drive is revealed. It’s a Hitachi Deskstar at 160GB. You can also pick up a 250GB model of the router if you prefer.
With that out of the way, let’s see what features are packed into the WL-700gE.
The humble router no longer has to be boring, and ASUS is trying to make sure that consumers know this. Their WL-700gE is feature-packed, so much so that I will not be taking a look at every aspect. It would surely span a ten-page review! I will highlight here all of the important features and experiment with a few of the more interesting ones. Here is a list of notable features that I’ve thrown together, with the help of the back of the box.
Needless to say, this is essentially a NAS and a router merged into one. It can act as a server for whatever you need. You could run your basic website off of it, or message boards. After some configuration, you could point your web domain to your IP address and the router would pick it up. That said, web pages you host on the router would all have to be database driven with text files, if you require a DB at all. The router is not a computer, so installing MySQL and PHP is out of the question.
When I saw this router at CES, I was immediately drawn to the admin system. On the previous ASUS routers we’ve reviewed, the admin has done the job it was set out to do, but it was generally ugly. Even the graphics were dithered… not a pretty site at all. The WL-700gE however, has a much far more intuitive admin system and should be easier to navigate and look at.
The Windows installation program was another I had a problem with on previous models, because it was clunky and would only work as it should 70% of the time. One issue I had with the previous model specifically, the WL-500W, was that I -had- to install the Windows program in order to get the wireless internet working properly. This was a problem with me, since I use Linux primarily. I’m happy to report that this was not the case with the WL-700gE at all. I set the security to WPA-PSK/TKIP and it worked immediately.
If you are experienced with wireless networks, then you will not need to install the software. All of the configuration you will need is on the router. First, I will show you the basic configuration screens, should you want to install the software to take care of setting up wireless and it’s security.
During the setup, you will have eight different screens to fly through. Some will be easier than others, especially if you are through a DHCP connection. It will take a bit longer if you have to manually input ISP information and/or passwords. The first screen shows you how to connect everything, and once you are ready to go, you need to push the “EZ Setup” button on the back and then push the button to continue.
This is one part of the setup I find somewhat odd, because this process has to be somewhat quick or I have found it won’t detect the router. If your router is on the opposite side of the house, you might have to huff it to get back to the PC on time, or get a family member to click it when ready.
Once the router is detected, it’s time to give your network a name and also a key. You can use the default key they provide (WEP) or input your own. You can also click to enable WPA instead, which is more secure, but not as compatible with certain products. The next slew of steps are ISP related. Since I am behind a DHCP connection, I was able to skip all of these.
Here is a screen completely unique to this router. Since there is a hard drive installed, they give you the option to set up a network drive on your desktop. This worked seamlessly, and input a Z: drive on both the desktop and in “My Computer”.
Once you finish up with that screen, you are good as finished.
With installation out of the way, let’s check out some of the main features on the router and then give our final thoughts.
I’ve been using this router for the past two weeks now, so I’ve become quite familiar with it’s reliability and flexibility. First and foremost, one of the most interesting parts of the router is the fact that you can download with your PC off. I will touch on this first.
Download Master is one of the best features of the router, but I was skeptical at first. The previous models I have used haven’t proven that reliable, especially with BitTorrent. ASUS told me that BT has been vastly improved in this model though, so I was about to put that to the test.
For Windows users, installing the ASUS software will automatically install a software version of the Download Master. However, I believe you should avoid that at all costs and stick to the one built straight into the router admin. The Windows version is very useless. While it would download torrents somewhat reliably, HTTP/FTP downloads were impossible. The admin inside the router proved to be a FAR better experience.
In this admin, you will have the choice to input a direct URL to the HTTP, FTP of BitTorrent file. If you have the BitTorrent file already downloaded, you can choose the “Download by BT file on local PC.” option and choose it that way. Once done inputing a URL, it’s as simple as clicking Download.
One thing I found odd, was that occasionally after adding a file, regardless of what it is, you will see an “Invalid URL” error. However, after refreshing the page, you’ll notice it’s fine. It’s odd, but at least it works. This page displays all relevant info about your download(s) including elapsed time and progress. They will remain on this page after completion, so you will know.
If you input a URL that’s a direct link to a file, the router should have no problem downloading it. However, if you are trying to download a file that runs through a script, it might be a little tricker. I am referring to those “Please wait 10 seconds while we redirect” sites. I tested on a few different ones, and I found this worked about 20% of the time. you will just need to play around with each one and see what works and what doesn’t.
I am completely pleased with the performance from the Download Master on the router, but not the Windows version. That one should be avoided completely. The performance was great, and the only downloads that didn’t complete were the ones with no seeders on the torrents.
Since I am primarily a Linux user, most of my testing in this regard was done with various *nix applications. I did test out on Windows Media Player, VLC and Foobar for Windows to make sure that all went according to plan. The router boasts being compatible with iTunes, and even though I didn’t test this directly, I have no doubt that it would work seamlessly. If you disable UPnP on the router, you will have to configure iTunes manually, but at default, iTunes should pick right up on it.
One of the first tests I performed simply involved copying over a few music folders to the router, then trying to play them through a music application. As you can see from the screenshot below, Amarok handled it perfectly. It accessed all the data through Samba and was quick while doing it. It may have taken about two seconds total for the song list to show up, and after that everything loaded as if it was on my own computer.
In Windows, adding music from the router to your music player is just as easy. All you need to do is browse for folder, and underneath My Network Places, you’ll find the router. Accessing it, you can go into the Music folder and get your groove on.
For video streaming tests, I used two different methods. First, I ripped a concert DVD (Lamb of God – Killadelphia) to the PC and then copied it over to the router. This means, that the entire DVD contents were on the router, ready to be streamed to any PC. The second method was copying over a 720p hi-def file (Team Fortress 2 Trailer) to see how well that streamed.
Simple tests told me how much bandwidth the router itself is able to handle spitting out at a given time. Copying files to the router averaged at around 4MB/s, compared to 9MB/s for copying from one PC to another. This proves overall that a NAS would be much faster, simply because the router is not designed for performance. Either way, 4MB/s should be able to handle -anything-.
Take for instance a DVD video, where the main movie sits at 3.5GB for 2 hours of playtime. That’s 1.75GB per hour, 29MB per minute or 490KB/s. Given that I found the router able to deliver 4MB/s of content a second, you could essentially stream the DVD to more than one PC at once. However, I doubt you could run eight copies, for the sake of it being a lowly router and not a beefy PC or NAS that’s designed for multiple large streams.
Hi-Definition content is more important however, because it requires far more bandwidth than a DVD. The trailer I used for testing weighed in at 220MB for 3:22 worth of content. This amounts to almost 1.09MB of data for every second… twice the bandwidth a DVD would require. I didn’t have any 1080p content on hand to test out, but I’d imagine that would be even closer to 2MB/s. In the end, it’s obvious that streaming -any- content is going to be a smooth process, especially if you are streaming more than one 720p video at a time.
But what were my experiences? In order to stream a DVD off the router, you need a software DVD player that is capable of accepting the VIDEO_TS.IFO file, which is what gets everything kick started. Under Linux, I was unable to find any program that accepted these files, although I was able to play the .VOB files just fine through Kaffeine and VLC. On the Windows side, I used Nero Showtime which did handle the VIDEO_TS.IFO. Once loaded, the DVD worked great. Menus loaded fast, as did the actual content. Presumably it would prove faster over time than using the DVD directly, since the router will have faster seek/load times.
For the hi-def content, I ran two copies at the same time, to see if they stuttered. One was on my Linux machine using KMPlayer and the Windows machine was streaming through VLC. I’m pleased to report that there was absolutely no lag whatsoever. The video was smooth, as was the video. This is not a scenario I’d ever personally be in, but it was nice to know that the router was able to handle it. Running two copies of 1080p content at the same time would no doubt hinder performance though, as you would be trying to ask for more data than the router wants to push out.
One thing to note though, is that if you are copying a large file to the router at the same time while trying to stream large video, you may experience some lag. While I was copying that DVD rip to the router, I was watching that 720p trailer at the same time. It would randomly halt at various points for half a second before resuming. So while the router is able to handle a fair amount of output, it doesn’t want to handle two large tasks at once.
ASUS has impressed me quite a bit with their WL-700gE. As it stands, wireless performance is on par with the other ASUS routers I’ve reviewed, which has been very good. Aside from that, it’s a great looking product. Sleek even. It includes its own stand, so when it sits on your desk it’s not an eyesore but instead a nice addition. If you are a fan of Apples styling, you’ll enjoy the look of the WL-700gE.
Performance and design aside, this router offers a lot to the consumer. The streaming ability has proven very good, although it wasn’t perfect when trying to multi-task (copying and reading at the same time). That won’t be much of a problem however, unless you are dealing with hi-resolution video while copying files to the routers hard drive.
The Download Master on the router proved to be highly reliable, although the Windows version of the software offered the opposite experience. Adding HTTP downloads through the Windows version would never actually add it to the queue, although the BitTorrent downloads were a little more reliable. I would not purchase the router with the intent to use that software, but instead the admin on the router itself.
Some of the features are more useful than others. In the case of the “Create a Website”, it’s not worthwhile unless you want to stick to their strict layout. Nothing is stopping anyone from replacing this website with their own though, as long as it’s HTML/text based. If configured properly, you could host your website quite reliably off the router, once you have a domain name set to your IP. Of course this would be for very small websites. Your bandwidth upload and the routers endurance probably doesn’t want to handle too many users at once.
A small snafu I did run into had to do with Xbox Live. In order to properly connect (even wired), I had to disable UPnP on the router. Because of this, UPnP capable devices will not automatically pick up on the router, although you can still access if it’s already configured.
As far as router prices go, the WL-700gE is more expensive than most. The 160GB version retails for $200 – $230 on average, so you are paying a premium to have a hard drive pre-installed, which in turn offers new features that most routers do not have. It’s really borderline NAS, but a router at the same time. You will get better performance on average from a NAS, but for a combined effort, the WL-700gE really excels.
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