|Introduction & Specifications|
Quick! What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Western Digital? If you're like most people, you immediately thought of hard drives and other storage products, which have been WD's bread and butter for several decades now. But the times, they are a changin', and in case you haven't noticed, Western Digital is no longer content to simply take residence in your PC. That became evident when Western Digital dove into the media player market with its WD TV line-up of set-top boxes, but why stop at owning the living room when you can lord over the entire manor? Unable to come up with a viable answer to that question, Western Digital decided to do just that by launching its very first line of wireless home networking products.
Western Digital sent us its WD My Net N900 HD dual-band wireless router to take for a spin. It's one of a half dozen new networking products and the company's flagship model, sans internal storage (for those who need or want integrated storage, there's the My Net N900 Central with 1TB or 2TB hard drives baked in). As you can discern from the model number, wireless performance tops out at 900Mbps, at least in marketing speak. In reality, you can't actually combine the 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios into a super-connection of sorts, though each one does operate at up to 450 megabits per second (Mbps), or Wireless-N speeds.
The My Net N900 also features seven -- yes, SEVEN -- LAN ports and one WAN port, whereas most home consumer routers sport four LAN ports. But Western Digital's biggest bullet point is the router's FasTrack QoS Plus technology that's pre-programmed to recognize and prioritize streaming entertainment services like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Skype, and other video, audio, and voice platforms. The idea is to deliver a steady high-definition stream no matter what else you might be doing on your home network, so even if little Billy decides to download a massive game demo, it won't interfere with your HD playback of Game of Thrones.
Does it work as advertised? We'll tell you that and much more on the following pages, but first, let's take a glance at the spec sheet.
The My Net N900 is baked with all the ingredients required for a high-end router, including dual-band radios that operate at up to 450Mbps. It's Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) and Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) certified, supports IPv6, and boasts the latest WPA/WPA2 (Personal and Enterprise) security protocols. Outside of a handful of draft 802.11ac routers starting to emerge, the My Net N900 is one of the best equipped consumer routers currently available.
The My Net N900 doesn't come with internal storage like the My Net N900 Central, but it does support USB drive (and printer) sharing via its two USB 2.0 ports. Western Digital set the MSRP at $180 for this particular model. Other models and MSRPs break down as follows:
At $180 MSRP, the My Net N900 is priced right on par with competing high-end routers.
|For most people, looks aren't all that important when shopping for a router, but Western Digital didn't use that as an excuse to launch a line of ugly networking devices. On the contrary, the My Net series brings a bit of style to a category that doesn't typically receive much aesthetic attention.
The top of the My Net N900 is textured and concave in design, though we don't suggest using its as a bowl to hold your keys or candy. It gets a little warm to the touch, and we can't imagine melted M&Ms are good for a router. A silver strip forms a bezel around the device, giving the router a pleasant two-tone finish that should easily blend in with your home entertainment gear or other electronic gadgets, depending on where you decide to put it.
Functionally, it's too bad the router only sits horizontally. The decision to go this design route may have come down to the placement of internal antennas and how best to beam the wireless signal throughout your home, but the tradeoff is that you'll have to clear enough desk space to accommodate a wide router rather being able to situate it upright in a vertical position.
Four soft-glowing blue LEDs run alongside the front: Power LED, Wireless LED, Internet LED, and Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) LED. There's also a WPS button on the right-hand side. The nice thing about the LEDs is that just a little bit of light seeps through the tiny slits, so it's unlikely to keep you up at night if you place the router in your bedroom.
Around the back is a generous serving of LAN ports. There are seven to be exact, or three more than what you'll typically find on most home consumer routers. The My Net N900 is the only model in Western Digital's lineup to offer seven LAN ports; even the My Net N900 Central (1TB and 2TB) top out at five.
Way over to the right is the yellow-colored WAN port, which tethers to your cable or DSL modem. On the left side is the power button, power port, and two USB 2.0 ports. That's not a typo. For whatever reason, Western Digital decided to color one of the USB ports blue, which typically denotes a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port, but both of these are of the High Speed USB 2.0 variety. That's a bit of a bummer, until you realize that the added throughput of USB 3.0 is largely wasted on a Wireless-N device anyway.
Flipping the My Net 900 on its head, we find four rubber feet, a partial vent, and a small fan in case things get too toasty (it never needed to kick on during our stress testing). If we were to crack open the chassis, we'd find a Ubicom IP8260U processor, two Atheros AR8327N switches powering the seven LAN ports, 256MB of RAM, 16MB of flash storage (for storing and flashing the firmware), and a series of amplifiers.
|Setup & Advanced Options|
|Initial setup is a piece of cake. A few screens guide you through the process and you'll be up in running a matter of minutes. One thing we recommend doing right away, however, is flashing the firmware to the latest version. To do this, we had to download the file from Western Digital's website and then upload it to the router. You can instruct the router to check for and fetch updated firmware files on its own, but in our tests, it was reluctant to do so.
Western Digital made it easy to navigate the settings through a sleek dashboard (WD calls it 'My Dashboard') that's one of the least intimidating around. There's a row of icons along the top that give you access to the main functions, and within each menu are arrowed entries that open up sub-menus. It doesn't take much digging to burrow yourself several layers deep within the user interface (UI), though you'll never feel lost. Getting back to the main menu is always just a single mouse click away.
Also of interest is a unique Notifications heading in the upper-right corner. These let you know if there's anything that requires your attention. Most of the time the messages will be benign in nature, such as imploring you to register or reminding you to setup a Guest wireless login, but it can also alert you to any potential problems.
It won't take long for networking gurus to discover the Advanced menu, which is where you'll find features like Port Forwarding, Application Level Gateway (ALG) configuration options, and other features less savvy users will want to leave alone. The Advanced menu is also where Western Digital tucks away its FasTrack Plus QoS (Quality of Service) sub-menu. FasTrack technology is one of the main selling points of Western Digital's router line and is intended to prioritize streaming entertainment traffic. A quick primer from Western Digital:
Most routers these days include customizable QoS settings, and that's what WD's FasTrack technology really is, except that it's pre-optimized for videos, audio (think VoIP), and gaming traffic. Western Digital's focus is on the living room, and the My Net router line with FasTrack technology plays into that strategy.
So, does it work? Clearly it did in Western Digital's own demonstration, as shown in the video above. In our tests, the results weren't as dramatic, but we did notice that Netflix had no trouble streaming high definition content to our iPad 3 while we downloaded a 3GB file from the Web. It doesn't blow other high-end routers out of the water, but if your primary objective is to watch movies, the My Net N900 ensures that kind of content is delivered first, if you want it to be.
Western Digital's My Net N900 Central router comes with 1TB or 2TB of internal storage; the rest do not, including the My Net N900 reviewed here. In lieu of an internal hard drive, you can connect an external drive (or printer or scanner) to either/both of the USB 2.0 ports on the back. Like everything else, setup is quick and simple, requiring just a few mouse clicks.
|Everyone's setup is different, and with that in mind, we set out to test the My Net N900 in a variety of situations from 5 feet away from the router on up to 100 feet away and separated by several walls. We tested both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands at each interval using iPerf/JPerf and compared the results with that of Netgear's WNDR4500 (N900), currently the fastest router we've ever benchmarked.
Our test client consists of an Asus G73Jh-A1 laptop (Intel Core i7 720QM processor, 8GB RAM, Mobility Radeon HD 5870) with an upgraded Wi-Fi adapter (Intel Centrino Advanced-N 622ANHMW) running Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit w/ SP1.
Our first test consisted of placing our client notebook in the same room as the My Net N900 from about 5 feet away. Compared to Netgear's WNDR4500 (N900), the My Net N900 lagged behind, especially on the 2.4GHz band where Netgear's device was almost twice as fast.
In our second test, we moved our client system to another room located about 15 feet from the router and separated by a pair of walls and some cabinets. In doing so, performance on the 2.4GHz band leveled out between the My Net N900 and WNDR4500, though Western Digital's offering again trailed behind on the 5GHz band by around the same margin as before.
For our third test, we lugged our laptop outside the house and tested the connection from about 50 feet away from the router. This adds more open space to the router's signal, as well as a few more obstacles to navigate through or around. In doing so, the My Net N900 put up respectable numbers, but once again was unable to keep up with Netgear's router.
Our final bandwidth test consisted of trekking across the yard about 100 feet from the router. Western Digital's My Net N900 posted 17.7Mbps on the 2.4GHz radio, and struggled to find a connection on the 5GHz band. The 5GHz band doesn't do as well when there are multiple obstacles to charge through, but even so, the comparison benchmarks show that Western Digital's amplifiers and antenna array are clearly outclassed by whichever ones Netgear is using.
Compared to Netgear's WNDR4500 (N900), Western Digital's My Net N900 leaves a bit to be desired in the signal strength department. On its own merits, the My Net N900 is a strong performer and is able to top 100Mbps in real world performance in some instances. It's just not a strong enough performer to unseat the current champ. For most users, that won't matter much, though it's something to consider if you happen to live in a sprawling mansion or plan to mozy about too far outside your home.
As far as real world testing goes, we connected each router with Speedtest.net to see how they would handle our broadband connection. Here's how it broke down:
Both were benchmarked within minutes of each other and from a distance of about 20 feet of the router, separated by a corner wall.
We used TotuSoft's Lan Speed Test v2.0 to test the performance of reading and writing files over Wi-Fi to a USB connected Iomega Store 'n' Go hard drive. On the 2.4GHz channel, transfers held steady at around 20.5Mbps (write) and 33.75Mbps (read).
In the same test, Netgear's router posted slower speeds: 17Mbps (write) and 26.69Mbps (read).
We repeated the test on the 5GHz band and saw a noticeable improvement in performance. This time around, the My Net N900 posted 31.25Mbps (write) and 57.95Mbps (read) speeds. In both cases, we performed the test at about 20 feet away with a corner wall separated between the client PC and router.
This time around, Netgear's router posted a faster write speed at 40.39Mbps, but a significantly slower read speed at 40.79Mbps. In terms of file transfers, Western Digital's My Net N900 is the overall winner here.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: It's always with a bit of trepidation that we align our expectations when a manufacturer ventures out of its comfort zone, as Western Digital did by releasing its first wireless home networking gear. For a first at-bat, however, the My Net N900 is a solid outing. The wireless transfer performance wasn't enough to earn the My Net N900 a best-in-class award, though it's not a slow device, and there's something to be said for the network traffic prioritization that gives streaming video VIP status.
Western Digital's biggest selling point is its FasTrack QoS technology, and towards that end, the My Net N900 is a high-performance router that excels when viewing content from Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and other Web-based streaming services that are becoming ever more popular. Streaming media is where the industry is headed, and Western Digital is trying to position itself to take advantage of that, both in terms of offering a compelling media set-top box line, and now with a wireless router family designed specifically for that purpose. In our tests, the My Net N900 did an excellent job ensuring a jitter-free HD stream from Netflix regardless of what other network activities were going on, including initiating a 3GB download from the Web.
That said, the My Net N900, despite being Western Digital's flagship router (other than the same model that ships with internal storage), isn't the fastest on the block. Signal strength, while more than adequate for a typical household and general use scenarios, isn't quite strong enough to topple Netgear's WNDR4500. If Western Digital is able to address that in future iterations or firmware updates, it might well earn a spot as one of the best consumer wireless routers money can buy. In the meantime, the current (and first) generation My Net N900 will have to settle for being a well-rounded and reasonably fast first effort into the wireless category.