In years past, the Linksys WRT54G wireless router was popular with hackers, who could easily modify the router's Linux kernel to suit their own needs. While Linksys--now Cisco--has never officially endorsed this practice, its new 802.11n router, the $119 WRT160NL, tacitly acknowledges their efforts. The company doesn't offer any features to make Linux hacking easier--and you still void the warranty if you cook your own firmware--but it's an interesting wrinkle in a field otherwise crowded with devices that look and function the same.
Setup and Design
As with most Linksys routers, the setup process on the WRT160NL--which took only three minutes--is simple, fast, and not meant for the advanced user; anyone who just needs whole-house wireless access will be pleased. The router sports a thin and stylish clamshell design. Although this look hasn't changed much in the past two years, it's still one of the more attractive designs compared to the techie-looking D-Link models.
There's a USB port on the back of the WRT160NL, which can be used to add an external drive. In our tests, we used a 160GB Seagate FreeAgent USB 2.0 hard drive; the router allowed us to format the drive, split up partitions, and make the drive available for both a Mac OS X notebook and a Windows 7 system without any complex setup steps. The WRT160NL uses external antennas, which is an unusual feature since most Linksys routers now have internal antennas. This is another nod to customizers who want to add high-powered antennas.
The WRT160NL is not the fastest N router we've tested, but it performed adequately. Using IxChariot, a wireless benchmarking utility, the top speed was close to 80 MBps, about 16 Mbps short of the average, and about 46 Mbps less than the Linksys WRT610N. The WRT160NL also suffers when it comes to coverage, failing to get a signal at 300 feet while the WRT610N and the D-Link DIR-855 and DIR-628 still provided between 4 and 24 Mbps of throughput. Still, we can see modders adding an antenna or other such accessory in lieu of the included antennas to boost the range.
We tested several laptops to make sure they worked well with the WRT160NL. An older Macbook--which supports 802.11n--maintained a smooth connection, as did an HP Mini netbook over 802.11g.
Linksys is not as well known as D-Link for its exceptional quality-of-service technology, but on the WRT160NL, this feature worked quite well. (QoS smooths transmissions for such activities as streaming video and VoIP.) We used Skype while downloading a Wolfenstein demo from Gamespot.com; with QoS turned on and enabled for Skype, calls were smooth. Without QoS enabled, our calls would frequently sound delayed or fail outright.
We also tested media streaming from the WRT160NL to an Xbox 360 using the movie Miracle at St. Anna (a 2GB standard-def file). The router, which supports UPnP for media streaming, never had any problems.
While most routers use some form of the Linux kernel, Linksys has committed to making the WRT160NL the go-to router for those who wish to customize the firmware--which usually involves adding Linux apps for capturing BitTorrent streams automatically or for working with a particular security protocol. Of course, such customization is not for novices; Linksys offers nothing in the way of a guide, utility, or the like for newbies, only the company's assurance that it won't move this model away from a Linux platform.
Overall, the Linksys by Cisco WRT160NL is a capable router, and is the one you want if you're planning any Linux customizations. We also like the removable antennas and USB port for sharing storage across a network. It's not the fastest router on the block, but the WRT160NL is tailor made for tinkerers.