Consumer router design seems to have evolved into two competing camps: sleek and elegant, and in-your-face. The TP-Link TL-WDR4300 is firmly in the latter category, with its three huge detachable antennas, glossy black casing and multiple bright blue status LEDs. I personally don't like this kind of styling, but I'm more interested in what's inside and how it performs.
|Subtle, it ain't|
|Dual USB ports are unusual at this price point|
It ticks most of the boxes for ports, with four switched Gigabit LAN ports and a Gigabit WAN port (there's no ADSL version). There are two USB ports, each with a status LED (not sure why, as they're tucked out of sight). As with most routers destined for Europe these days, there's a physical power toggle button. There's also a sliding switch to turn the dual-band, dual-radio 11n Wifi off, plus a tiny reset/WPS button tucked between an antenna and a LAN port. This is very difficult to access if the port is occupied and you have large fingers.
The casing itself is very wide and feels a bit cheap, with rather sharp corners on the glossy black plastic. I like discreet status lights, but the blue LEDs are anything but. There are 10 of them, including one peculiar 'system ' light that flashes when there's nothing wrong, and turns off when there's a problem - what kind of problem is not mentioned in the manual, but it seems a little pointless.
As I have to set the MAC address of any router I test (I still use an old Virgin Media cable modem), it is always a good test of how clever the setup procedure is - to date I have only seen one router, the D-Link DIR-857, that recognised the problem and asked whether I wanted to change the MAC address. TP-Link's setup assistant (run from either the CD or the web GUI) is very easy to use, and surprisingly did offer to clone the PC's MAC address if you select the Dynamic IP WAN connection type. You can also enter the MAC address manually, which is what I had to do. It's a nice touch, although not many users have this problem these days.
|The setup assistant is simple but works well|
Wireless settings and security can also be configured in the wizard - the TL-WDR4300 allows concurrent dual-band or single-band operation on the 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands. The setup CD also lets you install the USB printer sharing utility, which is simple and works well. It also supports scanners.
|USB printers and scanners can be shared|
The router's web interface has the standard TP-Link text-based UI layout, which is fairly clear and easy to use. The handy help column on the right is generally well written and very useful. Unlike some routers, it doesn't insist on a reboot after every change, but can defer changes made on different pages.
The USB ports can also be used for NAS storage, and there's a DLNA media server included. User-level access to shared folders can be enabled, or you can just leave it open to all. The USB ports can't be used for 3G dongles, though.
Advanced features are a mixed bag. Although there is brute bandwidth control for specified IP addresses or ports, there are no proper QoS settings. There are MAC-based parental controls, although these are limited to a whitelist of domains or keywords, and are a bit messy to configure. The Access Control feature allows rules-based traffic blocking, but less technical users would greet this with blank stares.
Opening the router revealed that it is using an Atheros AR9344 2-stream radio for the 2.4GHz band, and an Atheros AR9580 3-stream chip for 5GHz. There's also an Atheros AR8327N chip powering the Gigabit switch.
And so to the performance. Using my standard setup of an Acer Aspire One netbook with a 3-stream Intel 5300AGN aadapter, and running Passmark Performance Test 7, at close range it could only manage about 40Mbps on the 2.4GHz band, rising slightly to 44Mbps at 5Hz. At 25m it returned a very disappointing 5Mbps at 2.4GHz, although the 5GHz performance was a bit better (although very variable) at about 11Mbps. The graphs below show one run from each test (I run the tests three times and take the average).
As a sanity check, I usually repeat the tests using my trusty old Fritz WLAN USB stick, which is a 2-stream device but often outperforms the Intel adapter. In this case, though, it was almost identical, although it did give much better 2.4GHz results at 1m (up to 54Mbps), and the 5GHz performance at 25m was much more stable at around 14Mbps.
Note that my test environment (my home) is plagued with lots of neighbouring 2.4GHz wireless networks of various strengths, so 2.4GHz performance can be affected. However, there are (so far) no other 5GHz networks in the area.
My review sample did have the first firmware release, so perhaps there is room for TP-Link to tweak it a bit in future releases, but as reviewed it is a disappointing showing. Of course, at around £75, the TL-WDR4300 is one of the cheapest 3-stream models around, so I wasn't expecting miracles, and for those wanting to move up to 3-stream 5GHz wireless to minimise interference from neighbours it's a reasonable entry-level model with decent features. The nearest rival I've seen personally is Belkin's N750DB, which had slightly better performance but also costs a bit more.
So there you have it. If you like your routers brash and black, the TL-WDR4300 might appeal, and although it's not the fastest on the planet, it's very easy to setup and configure, has some useful features such as a media server and dual USB ports, and perhaps more importantly, has a bargain price tag.
Web: TP-Link TL-WDR4300 N750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router
Phone: +44 (0) 845 147 0017
Update 27/12/12: As you can see from the comments below, a few people have been having trouble with VoIP when the hardware NAT feature is enabled. Hardware NAT acceleration is one of those weird features that is really a bit pointless for most users (it uses a special chip to offload the NAT duties, theoretically improving LAN to WAN performance), and I'd suggest disabling it if you use VoIP. You will still have NAT protection if it's turned off, but it will be done in software using the router's CPU as it is with almost every other router.
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