A router that supports a plethora of media-sharing protocols and features a built-in 250GB hard drive should be a perfect addition to any home with lots of multimedia. Integrating storage into a router -- a device that's always on and can be easily hidden away -- makes excellent sense, particularly when full-fledged NAS solutions are often too expensive or difficult to use. Considering that it's priced at roughly AU$370 from online retailers and is only slightly larger than standard routers, the Asus WL-700gE could have taken the networking world by storm. Instead, we expect to find it in the homes of alpha geeks only. The WL-700gE has so many features and such a poor configuration interface that confusion is guaranteed to overtake any mere networking mortal. It's a tough product to compare to other wireless routers, because it offers so much more and for a much heftier price. If all you need is wireless networking, you can easily find an AU$100 router that will suit your needs. But if you're a BitTorrent fiend and you like the idea of being able to download to your heart's content while you and your PC are sleeping, this router is worth the added cost and configuration headache.
Although it houses a 250GB 3.5-inch hard drive, the Asus WL-700gE looks like most other wireless routers and is only a bit bigger. Its white top and bottom sandwich the router's silver sides, presenting an understated and clean design. Nine indicator lights adorn the front panel: five for connected LAN and WAN ports and one each to show wireless activity, hard drive activity; on/off status (conveniently located on the power switch), and the status of the router's "readiness" for use.
You'll also find a USB 2.0 port and a copy button on the front panel. The USB 2.0 port can be used for additional storage or sharing a peripheral, such as a printer, across your network. If you connect a USB storage device to the router and hit the copy button, the contents on your USB device -- say, a portable hard drive or a thumbdrive -- will be copied to the router's hard drive. The WL-700gE can also use external drives as a part of a RAID setup.
Like virtually all routers on the market, the unit's back panel features five 10/100 Ethernet jacks, one of which is a dedicated WAN port, along with an antenna and a reset button. Unlike most routers, the back panel also supplies two additional USB 2.0 ports and an EZSetup button. The WL-700gE has four rubberised feet on its bottom, and Asus ships the router with a weighted base to prop it up for vertical use.
EZSetup is Asus' proprietary configuration utility for Windows-based computers. Though the configuration utility is straightforward and simple to use, like most things about the WL-700gE, there are a few flaws: The EZSetup wizard says holding the button on the router for three seconds will cause the power light to flash, but the power light remains solid and the "ready" light flashes when the button is held. Through the wizard you can configure the most basic router settings including the type of Internet connection you have and the name and the security settings of the wireless network.
The second issue concerned mapping the hard drive. The EZSetup wizard can also map the router's hard drive to a Windows drive letter, but our attempts to do so -- both in wireless and wired modes -- proved futile. At the very end of the process, we received error messages that blamed our wireless adapter and suggested retrying, which led to subsequent attempts, all of which failed. In the end, the EZSetup wizard got us connected to our network and the Internet but failed to map the router's hard drive. We ended up manually mapping the drive. The EZSetup guide is simple to use but, clearly, isn't reliable.
All other configuration must be done from the router's downright confusing Web interface. Unlike other manufacturers that turn networking jargon into regular English or explain all the settings in their configuration interface, the WL-700gE's configuration pages are designed for geeks, and the tool tips often add to user confusion. One of the worst offenders is the configuration page for BitTorrent file sharing. A configuration question asks: "Enable download daemon?" and offers help by stating that "This field allows you to enable gift based download daemons, Gnutella and FastTrack. But this task is CPU consuming." We found out that giFT is a client for multiple peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, but that still leaves non-Unix geeks unclear on whether this option should be turned on.
Asus's hardcopy quick-start guide walks you through only the EZSetup process; it doesn't address the router's Web interface. The included utility CD purports to have in-depth user guides, and to be fair, it does -- in Chinese. The only English guide is an electronic version of the quick-start guide.
The Asus WL-700gE offers 64/128-bit WEP, WPA, and WPA2 for password protecting your network. It also offers MAC address filtering, SPI and NAT firewalls, and URL blocking. You can also manage user settings/permissions as well, using the Web interface. The security features provided by the Asus WL-700gE are standard for routers.
The included Download Master lets you set up to seven BitTorrent streams at once, or up to 10 FTP/HTTP downloads. We started a BitTorrent download late in the evening, shut off our PC, and happily found the completed download in the mapped drive the next morning. When we first initiated the download, we were a bit confused as we stared at the Download Master window. Instead of updating continuously, it seems to update every 10 to 20 seconds, leaving you wondering at first whether anything is happening. It also took a long time for the progress bar and the ETA figures to appear, leaving us scratching our heads. The Download Master interface could certainly use some improvement for better usability.
Besides downloading content using Download Master, you can also set up a message board on the router or a public site (if you get a dynamic IP address from your ISP, you'll have to set up a dynamic DNS host). You can also network printers using the USB ports.
The Asus WL-700gE supports both 802.11g and 802.11b clients. Its performance pales in the face of the scores from the Draft N routers on the market but are more than sufficient for home wireless users. In mixed mode at three metres, it scored an average of 22.4Mbps. At 60 metres, again in mixed mode, it scored 11.6Mbps.