TP-Link WR841N: A reliable Wireless-N 300mbps router at just US$20!
As a college student residing on campus accommodation, I needed a cheap wireless router so both my phone and my laptop could enjoy access to the school network and Internet at the same time.
At the start, I dug out my trusty old Linksys WRT54GL, but seeing it spark when I powered it on led me to hunt for a safer alternative. Previously, my experiences with routers under $50 were nothing short of disappointing. They would run fine for the first hour or so and then they would start locking up, which only a reboot would solve.
Due to my new-found financial prudence, I was reluctant to spend above $50 for a new router. So I went around searching for the cheapest router I could find, and tolerate any inconveniences (like the need for frequent reboots) that may crop up.
In the end, I settled on the second cheapest router I could find, the TP-Link WR841N which I am reviewing today.
The cheapest router was also a TP-Link, a WR740N, which had only one external antenna and a maximum speed of 150Mbps. It was only about $3.50 cheaper, so I settled for the WR841N instead, which has an additional antenna and a maximum speed of 300Mbps.
I wasn't expecting much from the WR841N, but it turned out to be a true gem for under $20, and I will show you why in just a moment.
The various versions
Before we move on, I would like to qualify, at this juncture, that there are several versions of the WR841N out there. A list of differences between the various versions can be seen here.
The version I am reviewing is v8.4. There is a newer version, v9, but it isn't supported by any third-party firmware (which is what makes this router so awesome) right now.
The v8.4, similar to all versions before it, is equipped with 32MB of RAM and 4MB of ROM. The v8.4 is powered by an Atheros processor at 533MHz. While that isn't anything amazing by today's standards, it is still better than many other cheap routers which usually come equipped with only 16MB of RAM.
The version number can be seen next to the serial number on the box. I suggest getting v8.4 as of now, because it is widely supported and has the fastest processor among its kind.
What's in the package
I threw away the packaging before I got a chance to review it, so you'll have to make do with this YouTube video by BroadbandBuyerUK.
As is expected for a router of its price, the package contents is pretty much barebones. You get the router itself, a power adapter, a metre-long Ethernet cable, a warranty card, installation instructions, as well as an installation disc (which comes in the form of a mini-CD).
The antenna on the WR841N is non-removable. There apparently is a version with detachable antennas, though I do not know how much it retails for.
Setting up the router
After I purchased the router, I did some research online and realised that the WR841N v8.4 is supported by the popular DD-WRT 3rd-party router firmware. DD-WRT adds support for features not normally supported by the router manufacturer's default firmware, and often adds stability to these routers. As such, it isn't surprising to see it amass a large user base over the years.
So, knowing that the WR841N is supported, I wasted no time in downloading the firmware. The exact firmware I used is shown on this page. The version to download is 'factory-to-ddwrt.bin'.
Upon downloading the firmware, I went to the router's configuration page, at 192.168.1.1 (default username is 'admin' and default password is also 'admin'). Then, I clicked on 'System Tools' and then 'Firmware Upgrade'. Next, I proceeded to upload the 'factory-to-ddwrt.bin' file to the router, and voila! In less than five minutes, I was up and running DD-WRT.
Please take note, however, that any firmware flashing has the potential risk to brick your device! But, considering the low cost of the router, I figured it was worth taking the risk and it did pay off.
Virtually all my time with this router has been spent on the DD-WRT firmware, so I have no idea how the WR841N performs on its default firmware.
Thus, I am happy to report that my experience on DD-WRT has been overwhelmingly positive. I've been up and running for nearly four days straight, with two to four devices connected at a time. Thus, it has passed my litmus test with flying colours (as I mentioned earlier, many of the cheap routers I've used in the past conked out after just a few hours). There hasn't been any slowdowns or lock-ups whatsoever thus far. Though I haven't had the chance to try BitTorrent on this router, file downloading and music streaming seemed to work without a hiccup. My DD-WRT page shows that there's still over 40% of free RAM available, so I believe BitTorrent shouldn't be an issue for this router.
Wi-Fi performance has also been more than satisfactory. For some reason, achieving 300Mbps seems rather elusive even with channel bonding turned on. However, I was able to connect at a respectable 150Mbps on my Samsung laptop (using a Realtek chipset) and 72Mbps on my Samsung Galaxy S4. Do note that these are only theoretical and not real-world figures. I haven't had the opportunity to do a real-world benchmark, but I can report that phone-to-laptop file transfers using AirDroid are reasonably quick.
Wireless range is not exceptional but still more-than-decent. At some three rooms away, I was still able to obtain a wireless signal and without any noticeable slowdown in Internet speed.
I guess the router's only caveat is the lack of Gigabit Ethernet ports, though that's probably a luxury for a router of its price.
The WR841N is probably the most bang-for-buck router on the market today. At less than $20, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything else that offers the same performance.
If you once owned the legendary Linksys WRT54G(L) flashed with DD-WRT, I dare say that this WR841N is a worthy successor and you'll feel right at home with it.