The best wireless access point is a networking device that should be able to keep up with the fast pace of tech development by implementing some of the latest technologies suitable for both small and medium businesses (allowing the creation of large scalable networks), as well as for the home user, especially as an equivalent to the mesh WiFi systems. Considering that the demand for such devices is very high, there is now a large variety of wireless access points to choose from and, based on the wireless performance, the amount of features, the user-friendliness of the UI, the design and the aforementioned scalability factor, I chose the best Wi-Fi access points on the market, by taking into account both the older 802.11n standard and the 802.11ac standard (I will be soon adding 802.11ax APs as well).
UPDATE: I have added the Ubiquiti UAP-nanoHD to the best wireless access points list
UPDATE: The Xclaim Xi-3 AP has been removed from the list because the manufacturer decided to announce that the entire series will be EOL by 2021 (at the moment, the status is End of Sale).
|Zyxel NAP303 Wireless Access Point||Ubiquiti UAP-nanoHD||TP-Link EAP245 Wireless Access Point|
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|EnGenius EAP1250 Wireless Access Point||Linksys LAPAC1750C Wireless Access Point||Cisco Systems WAP561 Wireless Access Point||TP-LINK TL-WA901ND Wireless Access Point|
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It’s true that the wireless access point has the role of converting the data received from a wired Ethernet cable into wireless signal (2.4GHz or 5GHz) but a wireless router can do pretty much the same thing, so one my ask why would you need a separate access point?
Well, routers can definitely do a great job at serving all the close-by clients, but, there are always WiFi dead spots where the signal just won’t reach and so, if you have a rather large house, you may need at least one additional access point to help with your network.
While the main purpose of an AP is to extend your network, some manufacturers have taken up to a new level, adopting the mesh networking technology, so you can use one or two small devices in your home (which are usually very easy to setup) or you can use a bunch of them and create a mesh network, where your clients can seamlessly roam the building and have uninterrupted access to the Internet and a steady, strong signal.
Note 1: This article addresses both consumer and small business wireless access points (WAP).
Note 2: If you have an old router laying around, you may try to convert it to an access point and save some money in the process.
Note 3: I purposely left out the Outdoor Access Points, which will be the subject of another article.
1. Zyxel NAP303 Nebula Wireless Access Point
The Zyxel NAP303 is an AC1750 Cloud-Managed wireless access point which was developed to offer a solid wireless performance, relying on the Smart Antenna technology to eliminate any interference (the antenna pattern keeps on adjusting depending on the client connection), on the mesh technology to create a larger network of compatible access points and it immediately integrates within the Nebula management platform, so it can be remotely managed and monitored alongside other Zyxel devices (including switches, gateways and Nebula / NebulaFlex access points).
As you will see, Zyxel insists on using the NAP303 along with other Nebula devices, but this is a device that focuses towards the SMB market, so, while a single gateway + access point isn’t completely out of the question, you will truly appreciate its features and performance when you’re going to pair it with a Nebula gateway (such as the NSG50), a Nebula Ethernet switch (such as the rack-mountable NSW100-10P) and at least another couple of mesh-compatible Zyxel access points.
Just like the Zyxel NWA1123-AC HD, the NAP303 is a fairly large access point, featuring a hexagonal shaped body, resembling a thicker flush mount light. The bottom of the device is made of a zinc alloy (which will make the device fairly heavy – it weighs 2.17 lb), while the top is made of a hard plastic, both sides being covered by a white matte finish. On the top, surrounding the glossy protruded Zyxel logo, there’s a narrow canal which hides some ventilation cut-outs (a rarity in this type of devices, but they do have an important role at keeping the internal temperature in check). These cut-out sections and the zinc alloy do make for a nice combination and are surprisingly effective at lowering the access point’s temperature (even when put under some stress).
If you turn the device upside down, you can clearly see the two holes for mounting the device on the ceiling (or on the wall), the circular area for attaching the mounting bracket and next to them, there’s a carved in area where you can find the 12V DC-In Power connector (to power up the AP via a power cable), a Gigabit Ethernet Uplink port (to power up the device using either a PoE switch or a PoE adapter), a LAN1 Gigabit Ethernet port (to connect wired clients), an RJ45 Console port, a recessed Reset button (press it for about 10 seconds to return the AP to factory default settings) and a grounding screw.
Note: Unfortunately, Zyxel did not add a PoE injector, so you need to purchase one separately if you want to take advantage of this functionality – also, a strange omission is the lack of a power cable.
Some of the main features of the Zyxel NAP303 are the Smart Mesh technology which, similarly to the proprietary implementation on the WiFi systems, it has the role of inter-connecting multiple compatible access points in order to create optimized paths for the data (includes the ability to go through multiple hops in order to reach its destination). Furthermore, the NAP303 also relies on the Smart Antenna tech which, as I said in the intro, it adjusts the antenna pattern to ensure that the connected client receives the best signal.
Despite being rated as an AC1750 device, you obviously won’t get these speeds in real life conditions (where there are lots of interference and some overhead), so, in order to see how it behaves in ordinary conditions, I put the device to test using a computer as a server (connected via an Ethernet cable to the AP) and another computer as the client (it’s equipped with the ASUS PCE-AC88 wireless adapter). So, using the 5GHz network (802.11ac standard), from the client to the server, at 5 feet, I measured an average of 537 Mbps, while at 15 feet, I got around 522 Mbps. Afterwards, I increased the distance to 30 feet and the speed decreased to 258 Mbps. From the server to the client, I measured an average of 308 Mbps at 5 feet, around 295 Mbps at 15 feet and an average of 170 Mbps at 30 feet.
The Zyxel NAP303 is designed to be used with the Nebula Control Center, but it still has a stand-alone user interface (accessible by going to its IP address – can be found using the ZON utility) but, unlike the satisfying experience of the NWA1123-AC HD, the stand-alone UI of the NAP303 is severely lacking, offering only a few basic options to configure. That’s why you should right away register the AP to the NCC by using either the Nebula app (Android or iOS) which does make the process very painless or using the Nebula Control Center which will require a few more steps.
The Dashboard will display blocks of info for every type of device connected including the AP area (which shows the number of Online APs, the Total number of APs and the Heavy Loading) or the AP Client area, but, to monitor and configure the access point, you need to go to the AP area (from the top menu) and, if you click on it, it will summon a small drop-down menu with options grouped into two categories: Monitor and Configure. Under Monitor, you can view all the adopted APs and by clicking on any of them, it will take you to a dedicated page which includes more in-depth details about the device (as well as some Live tools to help you diagnose any connection issue); there’s also the Client list (click on any to view more details about that specific client), the Event log, the Wireless health (a great way to see if your connection to the clients is properly optimized and if you need to run some features to make the connection better) and the Summary report (general AP stats).
The Configure group of options includes the SSIDs where you can set up general SSID settings for all the APs on the current Site (every new adopted access point will receive these settings); you can also configure the Radio settings (maximum output power, the channel width or the DCS setting), the Port setting (can be set for each individual AP), the Authentication settings (includes the WLAN security, enabling the Captive Portal), the Assisted roaming, the U-APSD, the Walled garden, the Layer 2 isolation or the Intra-BSS traffic blocking), the SSID schedule or the possibility of personalizing the Captive Portal (which is very useful especially for hotels or airports).
2. Ubiquiti UAP-nanoHD Wi-Fi Access Point
The Ubiquiti UAP-nanoHD is the successor to one of the best wireless access points (WiFi 5) developed for SMBs, the UAP-AC-PRO and it’s not just small increments in performance, the new device is pretty much a complete overhaul of its predecessor, now offering MU-MIMO, four spatial streams, it’s built on the Mediatek platform, instead of Qualcomm (as it did its predecessor) and the case itself, despite having the same design, is much more compact.
Indeed, the Ubiquiti NanoHD sports a smaller and more compact case (measures 6.30 x 6.30 x 1.29 inches), but the look is pretty much the same, so the case has that saucer shape, it’s covered by a white matte finish and at the top, there is a narrow canal that circles around to let the LED to shine through. The LED is significantly brighter than on the UAP-AC-PRO, but it has the same functions: white means that the access point is not yet paired, solid blue means that the AP is added to the network and works properly and flashing blue means that the device is flashing blue slowly. The plastic case on the UAP-AC-PRO was completely sealed, allowing the user to mount it outdoors, but, considering that most people used the wireless access point in the office or their homes, the UAP-nanoHD is indoors-only (this way, Ubiquiti could push forward its outdoors series more easily).
There are no ventilation cut-outs anywhere on the case of the NanoHD, but the silicone seal is missing, so water and dust can enter the enclosure. The good news is that the wireless access point does not get hot, while it’s predecessor would always function at a higher than comfortable temperature. One design choice that I’m not really fond of is the removal of the secondary LAN port which means that on the bottom of the NanoHD, you only get a Reset button and a Gigabit PoE+ Ethernet port (802.3af). Considering that Ubiquiti didn’t give any option to power up the device using a power cable, you either have to use a PoE switch (you can read here a list of the best Ethernet switches on the market) or a PoE adapter – bear in mind that the manufacturer has added a PoE adapter inside the package.
All Ubiquiti wireless access points make use of the UniFi Controller software in order to undergo any configuration changes to the device and to the network. The UniFi has been long regarded as the best controller for SMB equipment and it has created a blueprint which has been followed by many other manufacturers. As a quick overview (you can read more by checking out the dedicated review), the interface has a left vertical menu divided into two sections: the first includes the Dashboard (a graphical representation of the download and upload latency / throughput, the number of devices on the 2.4 and 5Ghz channels, the number of devices, clients and the Deep Packet Inspection), Map (you can view or create a graphical topology of your network), Devices (displays a list of all the UniFi devices discovered by the Controller), Clients (displays a list of the network clients and allows you to configure them), Statistics (number of Clients, the Top Access points, a Quick Look over the most active AP and client, as well as Recent Activities) and Insights.
The second section includes the Events, Alerts, Settings and Chat with Us. I have also tested the Ubiquiti UAP-nanoHD using a couple of computers, one as the server and the other as the client (I have actually used two different clients, one equipped with a Tp-Link TX3000E and the other with an Intel 8265). The results were really good, better than with the UAP-AC-PRO (it’s worth mentioning the support for 160MHz channel bandwidth). As you can see, from the client to the server, I saw an average of 665 Mbps at 5 feet on the 5GHz network using the 160MHz channel bandwidth and 647Mbps on the 80MHz mode; using the Intel 8265 client, the throughput at 5 feet was considerably lower at 512 Mbps.
At 30 feet, I saw an average speed of 242 Mbps using the client equipped with the TP-Link TX3000E (on 5GHz, at 160MHz) and an average of 193 Mbps using the 80MHz channel bandwidth. Using the Intel 8265 adapter, the throughput was very similar, scoring an average of 228 Mbps.
3. TP-Link EAP245 Access Point
TP-Link has been building affordable consumer-friendly wireless access points for years, but, ever since Ubiquiti showed that there is profit to be made in the SMB area and the demand was very high for enterprise-level APs on the budget, the EAP series has been adjusted to accommodate both the needs of the regular consumer users and the exigences of smaller to medium companies that value the reliability and the scalability factor. The TP-Link EAP245 is one such device that promises to push back against Ubiquiti’s reach and to provide a similar level of performance and stability at a lower cost, so let’s see if it can deliver.
Similarly to most other ceiling wireless access points, the TP-Link EAP245 went with a minimalistic design, the case having a rectangular shape, resembling some flush mount ceiling lights (or smoke detectors?). The entire device is covered by a white matte finish, but, on the top, there is a rectangular glossy band to break the monotony; while the Ubiquiti UAP-AC-PRO positioned the LED within a recessed area on the top surface, the TP-Link EAP245 was a bit more conservative and it put a single small LED light to show the status of the device and network.
The LED indicator will quickly flash a yellow colour when the AP is upgrading the firmware, it will become solid green when the device is working properly and it will be flashing red if the device has experienced an error. The TP-Link EAP245 may not be the largest access point in its category, but it certainly has one of widest, measuring 8.1 x 7.1 x 1.5 inches and weighing 1.0 lbs – it’s nowhere near the slim profile of the UAP-AC-PRO. These dimensions make sure that the EAP245 will stand out when mounted on the ceiling or wall, but this may prove to be an advantage in terms of heat management. While I tested the device, it did get warm near the bottom label, but it never got hot (still, the best solution for maintaining the temperature as low as possible seems to be the use of a metal alloy, as can be seen with the Zyxel NWA1123-AC HD).
Note: The EAP245 was created solely to be mounted either on a wall or on the ceiling, so, while you may keep it on a desk, it lacks the necessary feet to keep the device steady.
On the bottom of the EAP245, there is a small label with info about the device (MAC address, Serial Number and more) and two cut-out areas which allow you to connect the mounting bracket. If you’re looking for the ports area, you’ll find it on one lateral side: from the left, there’s a Kensington lock, next to a recessed Reset button which, when pressed and held for 5 seconds, returns the AP to factory default settings; further to the left, there’s a single Ethernet Gigabit port (to connect to the router – it’s PoE compatible) and the Power port. Yes, unfortunately, TP-Link decided to not add an additional Ethernet port for wired clients for whatever reason (they’re not that expensive to implement), so, only wireless clients will be able to connect to the EAP245 – unless you use a PoE switch.
Inside the case, the EAP245 is equipped with a Qualcomm Atheros QCA9563 SoC, backed by 128Mb SPI NOR Flash memory (from GigaDevice). Also, there’s an Qualcomm Atheros QCA9563 b/g/n 3×3:3 chip (for the 2.4GHz radio) and a Qualcomm Atheros QCA9982 3×3:3 chip (for the 5GHz radio).
Now that we had a look at the hardware, let’s see what kind of performance this access point can deliver. After I connected two computers to the EAP245 (one to the 5GHz network and the other through a switch), from the client to the server, I measured an average of 645 Mbps at 5 feet and 352 Mbps at 30 feet; from the server to the client, the AP delivered 328 Mbps at 5 feet and 147 at 30 feet. Afterwards, I connected the wireless client to the 2.4GHz network and, from the client to the server, at 5 feet, I measured an average of 151 Mbps and, at 30 feet, the speed went down to 104 Mbps; from the server to the client, I measured and average of 109 Mbps, while at 30 feet, the throughput decreased to 50.4 Mbps.
The hardware installation is very easy, all you have to do is connect an Ethernet cable to the port on the AP and then into the PoE (Power over Ethernet) port from the adapter (or PoE switch) and, using a second Ethernet cable, connect the adapter’s LAN port to the router; alternatively, simply use the Power cable and connect the access point to the router using the Ethernet cable (no PoE involved).
The TP-Link EAP245 can either be run as a standalone device (the usual choice for consumer users) or as part of a larger environment by using the Omada controller. To do the former, you need to install the proprietary app on a mobile device and, under Standalone APs, you will be able to view some status info about the EAP245, as well as perform a basic configuration.
Using the controller opens up more options and the ability to configure more than one EAP access point under the same software – the problem is that at the moment, the Omada controller can only adopt and monitor access points, so it will feel more limited than the UniFi. If you decide to run Omada locally, you will need to run a local instance on your host computer.
Some of the main features that you will be able to find are the Rogue AP detection, Fast Roaming (compatible only with 802.11k/v clients), Airtime Fairness, Band Steering, Auto FailOver and the Mesh ability; there’s also the Portal section (very useful for hotels since it allow the creation of personalized Terms of Service for guest users, as well as the ability to change the Authentication type – Voucher, Facebook, SMS, Simple Password, RADIUS or more), QoS, and Management VLAN.
4. EnGenius EnTurbo EAP1250 Wireless Access Point Review
The shift towards Cloud-based management has been happening for a while now and, as can be seen with most of the wireless access points that I have covered so far, there’s either a hybrid implementation (using both local and Cloud controllers) or purely Cloud-based management. Long gone are the days when Ubiquiti was pretty much the only manufacturer to offer an accessible alternative to the enterprise-level products and now EnGenius has released a series of networking devices (WiFi 5 and WiFi 6) to help the SMB to reliably manage a large number of clients on multiple sites. The device that I’m going to focus is not a Cloud wireless access point, but it can still be added to the ezMaster platform using the SkyKey, which is a physical On-Premises network controller with Cloud Management. This way, the EnGenius EnTurbo EAP1250 becomes a hybrid-type wireless access point which has a local management interface and should be able to also receive a global configuration using the Cloud.
In terms of design, the EnGenius EnTurbo EAP1250 is just as simple and minimalist as most other APs on the market, but, what differentiates it from its competitors is the size: the device is incredibly compact, even for an AC1300-class access point and overall it’s actually just a small plastic cylinder – it measures 1.47 x 5.2 inches (height and diameter). Following the minimalist trend of the WiFi mesh systems, the EnGenius EAP1250 is covered by a white matte finish and, with the exception of the top-printed logo, there really isn’t much else going on, well, with the exception of the small LED that hides on the side of the device and it has the role to inconspicuously show the status of the AP and the network. Moving on the the bottom of the EnGenius EAP1250, we see an info label and next to it, EnGenius has dedicated an area for the ports: from the left, there’s a Power port, followed by an Ethernet port and a small recessed Reset button (press and hold it for 10 seconds to return the device to factory default settings).
As I said many times, it’s advisable to have at least two Ethernet ports since there is a high chance that you may want to connect a wired client, so the single Gigabit port is far from ideal. Still, it does support the 802.3af/at PoE standard, so, if you don’t want to use a DC cord, then you can power on the EAP1250 via a PoE switch. Looking around the case, I noticed that there are no cut-outs to ensure a decent airflow, which means that the temperature inside the device can up by quite a bit.
I have decided to configure the EnGenius EnTurbo EAP1250 using the SkyKeyI so, after inserting the IP address of the AP into the URL, I got access to the ezMaster Login window which took me to the local user interface. Of course, it’s not entirely dedicated to the Access Points, since there’s also a section dedicated to the Switches, but the AP area does show some useful stats at the Home page. You can also create a Mesh network with multiple compatible APs, view any Active Clients, set up the Captive Portal and more (read more on the full review of the EnGenius EAP1250). As I said in the introduction, you can also add the EAP1250 as part of the Cloud management platform, although it’s going to feel more limiting than when using a Cloud AP.
Now let’s have a look at the wireless performance of the EnGenius EAP1250. Since it has a single Ethernet port, I had to rely on a PoE switch (I chose the TRENDnet TPE-LG80 unmanaged PoE switch) and, after creating two SSIDs, one for the 2.4GHz and the other for the 5GHz connection, I used two computers to test the throughput (one wired and the other wireless – equipped with an ASUS PCE-AC88 WiFi adapter). That being said, first, I connected the client to the 2.4GHz WiFi network and, from the client to the server, I measured an average of 270 Mbps at 5 feet and an average of 121 Mbps at 30 feet; next, from the server to the client, I measured around 164 Mbps at 5 feet and an average of 108 Mbps at 30 feet.
Afterwards, I connected the client to the 5GHz WiFi network and, from the client to the server, I measured an average of 511 Mbps at 5 feet, while at 30 feet, the speed decreased to 185 Mbps. From the server to the client, at 5 feet, I got around 343 Mbps and, at 30 feet, I measured an average of 200 Mbps.
5. Linksys LAPAC1750C WAP
The Linksys LAPAC1750C is part of the new wireless access points that support the Cloud controller out-of-the-box, but besides this new software, the device is still identical (in terms of hardware) to the five year old LAPAC1750. Despite that, the LAPAC1750C is still suitable for today’s exigence (they rarely change that much in this market), so, it still respects the design trend of compact circular or hexagonal-shaped devices that can be easily positioned anywhere (even on the ceiling). The case of the LAPAC1750C is basically identical to any other from the LAPAC series, so we’re dealing with a hexagonal shape, but not with sharp angles, adopting soft, rounded corners instead (everything covered by a white matte finish). On the top you can find the Linksys logo, along with the model and a small bar for the LED lights just underneath. There’s also a narrow canal surrounding the top of the device and from this place, the case flows from the narrower top side towards a larger footprint.
When compared to the likes of Ubiquiti UAP-AC-PRO or even the Zyxel NWA1123-AC HD, the LAPAC1750C is among the largest I have tested so far, measuring 9.57 x 9.33 x 1.72 inches but it does weigh a bit less than the Zyxel AP (1.12 lbs). The LAPAC1750C is meant to be positioned on the wall or on the ceiling, as it comes with the whole kit for mounting (including a drill layout template), but, if you decide to keep it horizontally on a desk, there are four small round silicone feet that should ensure a reasonable level of stability.
Turn the wireless access point upside down and you’ll be greeted by lots of punctured holes which ensure a proper airflow along with a carved-in area where you can find the ports and connections: there’s a Power port (only use the adapter that came with your AP), a single Ethernet Gigabit port (PoE+) and a red Reset button.
The LED light from the top of the case will glow a solid green if the system is normal and no wireless client is connected (it will blink when the device is booting). The LED indicator will also blink a blue light if there is a firmware upgrade in progress and will be solid blue if at least one wireless client is connected; lastly, the LED indicator will be solid red if the booting process has failed or the firmware update was unsuccessful.
Note: While some other access points come with a PoE injector, Linksys has decided to not include one in the package.
Generally, the access points focus on different things than routers (like multiple SSIDs with multiple VLANs), so it won’t come as a surprise that the LAPAC1750C may not outshine a AC1750 router in terms of wireless performance, even though the access point itself is branded as AC1750. Despite that, the LAPAC1750C Pro is a worthy performer and the test results are really good.
To test the wireless performance, I took two computers, one as a client (ASUS PCE-AC88), the other as a server and, first, I connected them to the 2.4Ghz radio band. This way, from the client to the server, the LAPAC1750C reached an average of 133 Mbps at close range (5 feet) and it slowly decreased to 120 Mbps at 30 feet. From the server to the client, I measured and average throughput of 104.9 Mbps (at 5 feet) and afterwards, I got 94.2 Mbps at 30 feet.
After I connected the computers to the 5GHz network, things were a lot better. At close range, from the client to the server, I measured an average speed of 564 Mbps and then, the speed decreased to 243 at 30 feet. From the server to the client, the access point managed to deliver an average of 302 Mbps and around 185 Mbps at 30 feet.
In terms of wireless performance enhancing features, the LAPAC1750C is quite bare-bones, lacking the MU-MIMO technology which has the ability to serve multiple clients at the same time, instead of letting them compete for the bandwidth, but it does come with support for the 802.11k Roaming technology which negates the need for re-authentication every time the client roams to a new node (Fast Basic Service Set Transition).
The local web-based utility will only work for one access point at a time (while the controller allows for a mass deployment of APs with fast an easy monitoring and configuration process), but it does have some additional features, such as WDS, Workgroup Bridge, SSID Isolation and RADIUS support for the Splash Page. I do expect that Linksys will make the Controller a more complete solution and I do hope that more types of devices are underway to be added under a single software.
6. Cisco Systems WAP561 WAP
Cisco Systems has been in the networking business for a very long time, it holds a great number of network related patents (being a leading recipient, as a matter of fact) and its focus has always been towards enterprise routing and security products (although recently it has also taken an interest into the IoS technology).
Obviously, there is a large array of networking products of different types and shapes, but I’m going to focus on a member of the 500 series, the Cisco WAP561, a small business access point that offers simultaneous 3×3 dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n.
The designers from Cisco haven’t made any radical changes on the appearance of its business access points, so the WAP561 will look pretty similar to its predecessors and its siblings from the 500 series. The case is white, with a matte finish, rounded corners and two recessed zone along the front, with the cisco logo in-between. The overall appearance is pleasant, even though the access point is quite large: it measures 9.05×9.05×0.98 inches and it weighs 24.1 ounces.
This means that there could be some concerns regarding the occupied space. But, you don’t need to worry, as besides the horizontal position, you can also mount the WAP561 on the wall. Since this is a business access point, Cisco anticipated that the wall-mounted position will be the default one, so it has supplied the WAP561 with a mounting bracket, which delivers an easy access to the device and an easy removal in case maintenance is needed.
On the front of the wireless access point, underneath the logo, you can find three status LED light for Power, WLAN (if it’s solid green, then the wireless radio 1 is active, otherwise if it’s solid amber, it means that the wireless radio 2 is active and, lastly, if the LED is solid blue, then both the wireless radios are operating in concurrent mode) and LAN (solid green means that the GE Ethernet link is active and solid amber means that the FE Ethernet link is active)
On the bottom you can find a label with printed information about the access point (the Serial Number, the MAC Address and the PID VID). Next to the label there’s an Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mbps port positioned into a carefully carved zone which allows for the cable to sit comfortably underneath the device.
Surprisingly enough, there is no Power port or switch, as the power is being supplied through the Ethernet port. So, there’s only one cable you need to connect to the WAP561 in order to make it operational.
Inside the case, the WAP561 features a Cavium CNS3420 CPU clocked at 600MHz, a 128 MB of RAM and 32 MB of flash memory. Furthermore, the wireless radio is being provided by a Broadcom BCM43431 dual-band 3×3 chip and a SiGe SE2594L dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wireless LAN Front End. There’s also an interesting built-in antenna sensor that has the role to optimise the radio configuration when the device is mounted on the wall.
Like I said before, this is a dual radio access point and in the case of the WAP561, we get a 2.4GHz radio band (20 MHz, 802.11b/g/n) and a 5GHz radio (20/40 MHz, 802.11a/n). Both radio bands also feature auto channel assignment. By default, the radios are disabled and both have the same SSID: ciscosb.
Now, in terms of wireless performance, the WAP561 is not among the most powerful I have tested, but it did well nevertheless. Using the 2.4GHz radio band, I measured a downlink speed 123 Mbps at 5 feet, it decreased a bit to 95 Mbps at 15 feet and lastly, it managed 56 Mbps at 35 feet. Next, I tested the uplink speed and the WAP561 went up to 112 Mbps at 5 feet, it maintained the speed and I have seen a slight increase to 114 Mbps at 15 feet and afterwards, it decreased at 72Mbps when tested at 35 feet.
Furthermore, I tested the access point using the 5GHz radio band and I got a downlink speed of 205 Mbps at close range, 165 Mbps at around 15 feet and a decrease to 88 Mbps at 35 feet. Next, I tested the uplink speed and got 151 Mbps at 5 feet, afterwards, it decreased slightly to 136 Mbps at 15 feet and there was a rather abrupt drop to 45 Mbps at 35 feet.
The WAP561 also allows you to access a web-based configuration utility by entering the IP address of the AP into a browser of your choice. Afterwards you have to enter the name and password (both are cisco) and access the interface. The WAP561 is very rich in features and you can access every single one of them through this interface.
The main page consists of a vertical menu on the left and the corresponding info on the right. The menu gives you access to the Getting Started page, where you can run the Setup Wizard, configure the radio, wireless network and LAN settings, run WPS and a lot other quick access options that you should consider when running the initial setup. Next, you can go to Status and Statistics, Administration, LAN, Wireless, System Security, Client QoS, SNMP, Captive Portal and Single Point Setup.
I won’t go in depth with all the features and options the WAP561 has, but I will point out the Single Point Setup, a great asset which most business owners will definitely appreciate, as it allows the AP to control up to 15 other access points (from the same model series) by creating a cluster, therefore allowing the sharing of parameters and information.
7. TP-LINK TL-WA901ND V5 WAP
The first thing that comes in mind when thinking about the TP-Link products is affordability and reliability. Sure, no company delivers perfect products (and TP-Link has been riddled with problems from time to time), but the Shenzhen-based company has relentlessly pushed competitive products on the fierce networking market (the manufacturer offers a large array of routers, adapters, Ethernet switches and other networking devices that serve millions of people worldwide). The product that I’m going to focus on is an access point from TP-Link (the TL-WA901ND) which is more of a consumer-type device and less suitable for small businesses, like the other access points from this list. But, since it’s still very popular (and it has recently got its fifth refresh), let’s have a look at what it can deliver.
The design of the TL-WA901ND V5 remains unchanged from the previous versions, so it still gives me mixed feelings, as while I definitely admire the concept, I cannot stop feeling that the case has a bit of a toy-like look. You get a white glossy case, with a circuit pattern on top, with small holes that should ensure a decent airflow and, on the top side, the plastic curves towards the sides and more acutely near the front of the device. The access point doesn’t necessarily lack style, but it does not have the premium feel of the higher-end routers and ends up looking more like an android ant head, especially due to its three detachable antennas.
In terms of positioning, you get two choices: either put it on a desk or mount it on the wall (using the two holes on the bottom side). If you choose the first option, know that the access point has basically the same footprint as a normally-sized router, measuring 7.67 x 5.12 x 1.43 in inches and weighing 19.2 ounces.
The front panel of the wireless access point is home to a series of LED status lights responsible for Power, System (if it is on, it means that the access point is initializing and if it’s off, it means that the device is working properly), Ethernet, Wireless, WPS (if it’s on, then a wireless device has successfully been added to the network using the WPS function). The back of the device is where you’ll find an ON/OFF button, a Power port, an Ethernet 10/100Mbps RJ45 port (it’s still limited to a Fast Ethernet port, but expected considering the price tag) and a recessed WPS/RESET button (to use the WPAS function you have to press it for less than 5 seconds, otherwise, you will perform the RESET function, which will return the device to its default settings).
Note: It seems that TP-Link decided to add a PoE injector inside the package free of charge (unlike other manufacturers that make you purchase it separately).
Performance-wise, the TP-LINK TL-WA901ND doesn’t feature mind-blowing speeds, but, considering its price, it will definitely be a decent addition to a network with lots of WiFi dead zones. At close range (no more than 5 feet), the access point managed an average downlink speed of 75Mbps. Going a bit further, at around 15 feet, the signal slightly decreases and I measured a maximum of 55Mbps. At 35 feet, the speed goes down to an average of 20Mbps. Next, I tested the uplink wireless performance and, at close range, the access point managed up to 60Mbps. At 15 feet, I measured an average of 36 Mbps and at a longer range (around 35-40 feet and a thick concrete wall), the speed decreased to 15 Mbps.
I’m sure that some people have mistaken the TL-WA901ND for a wireless router (especially because of the design choice), but unfortunately for them, this device serves a different purpose. The proper way to setup the access point is first to connect the Internet cable to a modem, afterwards, connect the modem to a router and next, use an Ethernet cable to connect the router to the access point through the PoE injector (use the LAN port). Afterwards, insert another Ethernet cable to the PoE port and into the access point.
In order to configure the TL-WA901ND you can access a Web-based utility by either typing https://tplinkap.net or the IP address of the AP into a browser of your choice. Afterwards, you will be prompted to insert the username and password (by default, it’s admin for both) and click Login. Next, you will undergo the Quick Setup Start and you will have to choose between five operation modes: use the device as an Access Point, Client, Repeater (Range Extender), Multi-SSID or in Bridge with AP mode. Obviously, we will choose the Access Point mode, which is easy to setup: insert a name for you network (SSID), choose the channel, select the Wireless Security Mode (the WPA/WPA2-PSK is the best encryption available) and enter a password to protect you network from unauthorized access.
Furthermore, the interface allows you to configure and manage the AP, by giving you access to five main tabs: Status (read-only list of the current status and configuration of the TL-WA901ND), WPS (allows you to add new wireless clients to the network quickly by function – PBC or PIN), Network (LAN, DHCP Settings and DHCP Client List), Wireless (access to Wireless Settings, Security, MAC Filtering, Advanced settings, Statistics and Throughput Monitor) and System Tools (SNMP, Diagnostic, Ping Watch Dog, Firmware Upgrade, Factory Defaults, Backup and Restore, Reboot, Password and System Log).
What should you take into account before choosing a wireless access point?
Wireless Performance and Range
Obviously, the most important aspects of a wireless access point is the downlink and uplink throughput and how far can the signal reach. For example, if you use the 2.4GHz radio band, chances are that the signal will go for a long way, but the speed won’t be strong, while if using the 5GHz radio band, the speed will be greatly improved, but don’t expect huge distances to be covered.
Also, you need to take into account the interferences, the number of clients, the surface that needs to be covered and if you need more than a single access point.
The Web Interface/App
This is also a very important aspect, because you need to be able to configure and, if needed control a large network. Ideally, a good interface is easy to navigate, the settings are clear and intuitive and the AP should have as many features as possible for you to fiddle with.
Also, you need to check out whether you can access the interface through an Internet browser or you need to use an app (or both) and if the software allows you to remotely control the network.
Lastly, we have the price to worry about, because you need to know where you stand based on your budget. Usually, the consumer-type access points are cheaper, but they lack a lot of the features of an enterprise-level AP.
You should also keep in mind that some popular products can be overpriced (because of their popularity) and that there could be some rare gems from yet-unknown or rising networking manufacturers that could deliver the same experience at a lower price.
What features should you look for in wireless access points?
The Power over Internet is quite a simple concept (but extremely important) that allows your access point to receive power through a twisted pair Ethernet cabling (so you get both electrical power and data, using a single cable).
Why is it useful? Many organizations like to place the wireless access points on the ceiling in order to help the wireless clients achieve the best possible range, but they have to rely on extension cords (which have an ugly appearance and require a qualified electrician to install them).
That’s why it’s better to use the PoE system, as you can install it yourself and it protects you devices from underpowering or overload. Some of the access points on the market have a PoE injector included in the package, while other do not (you will have to buy it separately), so be sure to check it out before purchasing, if this is a mandatory feature for your network.
Concurrent dual band
You may be surprised that some access points call themselves dual band, but, despite expectancies, it allows you to choose only one band at a time. A good example is the Linksys WAP300N, which has both the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz radio bands, but you can only use one or the other.
I’ve touched the subject of load-balancing when I talked about the more popular dual-band routers on the market and the importance of this feature was clear for any business owner that values a stable network. Is this function also relevant for wireless access points? Absolutely yes.
First of all you need to understand that the load-balancing feature was created to be used with more than one access point. This is because its role is to diminish the network congestion by spreading the sessions among the existing APs in such a way that they share the client load.
So, if you have a large number of clients in a smaller space, instead of overloading a single access point, the load balancing spreads all the connected clients over all the APs, therefore there will be less interruptions and more bandwidth available.
The Man in the Middle (Defence against rogue access points)
A rogue access point is an unauthorized WAP installed (usually with malicious intent) on a secure network. Therefore, the network becomes vulnerable to different types of attacks and can be accessed either from inside the facility or remotely (the more common occurrence).
That is why it is very important that the access point to have a reliable wireless intrusion detection system which audits all the APs on the network on a regular basis to see if they are on the managed list and if they’re connected to the secured network or not.
The Beamforming technology allows your access point to focus the signal towards each client and to concentrate the data transmission towards a specific target, instead of broadcasting it all over the room, therefore minimizing the data waste.
If a few years ago this technology was optional and exotic, nowadays, almost all devices have this feature implemented (still, make sure to check before the purchase). Also, you need to know that every major manufacturer will have its own way of using this technology and it may have a different name and different performance, but the functionality should remain basically the same.
Mesh Networking Support
The mesh network support is one of the most important features to look for when buying an access point because it allows you to add other APs and create a network where all the nodes (APs) cooperate with each other when distributing the data.
An interesting characteristic of a mesh network is that the data is propagated along a path and it travels from one node to the other until it reaches its destination. This way, it has to find the best road and, if needed to reconfigure itself in case of broken paths (using self-healing algorithms).
It also allows for an interrupted experience when travelling into a large building, by automatically switching from AP to AP so you won’t notice any disconnects.
802.11n or 802.11ac?
Future-wise, an investment into Access points that feature the AC standard should be the better choice. If you want to create a network using APs compatible with the 802.11n standard, you don’t have to worry, because, if needed you can replace them in time and the N-access points and AC-access points are compatible with each other and work great with clients of both breeds.
Now, if you are curious about the technical differences between the two standards, let’s just say that the 802.11ac standard delivers up to 3 times faster speeds and, while a N-access point can handle no more than 30-35 clients in order to maintain a reasonable bandwidth for all, an AC-access point has no such limitations.
Lastly, the price could make a difference, because, as expected, the AC technology is way more expensive than the N technology.
Mark is a graduate in Computer Science, having gathered valuable experience over the years working in IT as a programmer. Mark is also the main tech writer for MBReviews.com, covering not only his passion, the networking devices, but also other cool electronic gadgets that you may find useful for your every day life.