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 Buffalo AirStation External Flat Antenna

 Author: Tim Higgins
 Review Date: 2/22/2001


Model: WLE-DA

Pros:

- Relatively inexpensive
- Improves signal range and robustness

 
Cons :

- Doesn't work miracles! 

 


Review Updates

7/23/01  Corrected Antenna connector info.

Introduction


The biggest complaint that I hear about wireless networking products is disappointing range.  Although there's not much you can do about the transmit power levels that wireless products use, you can try some alternatives in the antennas that some products use.

This review takes a look at the Buffalo Technology WLE-DA External Flat Antenna.  I found that although it didn't work miracles, it did give me modest improvement in connection speed and some range extension to boot.  It also allowed me more freedom in where I sat with my laptop in order to get a decent connection.

 

How does it work?


The WLE-DA is a passive (no power required) uni-directional antenna designed to connect to Buffalo's AirStation line of products.  It's both wall and desk mountable (Buffalo even throws in the screws) and will connect both to the Buffalo AirStation Access Points and routers, and to their PC client cards via the antenna connector that all AirStation products have.

Update 7/23/01 The Antenna connector type is proprietary to ORiNOCO.  See this page for information on obtaining adapters.

Tip: You can also use the WLE-DA with the ORiNOCO Silver and Gold cards and RG1000 Residential Gateway.

The WLE-DA comes with an approximately 10 foot cable permanently attached and terminated in a plug.  It also comes with a manual that describes how to open the various AirStation products and attach the antenna, and the procedure is pretty simple.

It's important to note two things about this product:

1) It's a uni-directional antenna.  This means that you need to point it in the direction where your wireless clients will be.  If your clients are in back of it, the antenna will probably not pick them up.  It's helpful to think of the antenna as having a cone extending from its front surface.  A best case placement would have the WLE-DA located at one end of the middle floor of a multi-story building, facing the inside area to be covered.

2) It's not weatherproof. If you want to use it to go building to building, put it near a window, not outside.

 

How did if perform?


To test the WLE-DA, I used a setup essentially the same as I use for testing wireless routers and Access Points, which is described here.

Antenna Test Setup

 I added a new location called Condition 5 for this testing:

Condition #5: Client on upper floor at opposite end of residence, approximately 14 feet away from Condition #4 location and 70 feet from AP.  This location also puts an additional wall between the AP and wireless client.

The WLE-DA was attached to a Buffalo Tech WLAR-L11-L AirStation and a Windows PC was connected to one of the LAN ports of the AirStation.  I used an ORiNOCO Gold PC client card as the LAN client, mainly because it has very useful performance utilities (probably the best of any products I've seen) for quantifying performance.  I also used NetIQ's Qcheck when I needed a throughput or response time measurement.

The ORiNOCO Client Manager link test has a log-on-demand feature that was very handy.  I walked the laptop around to each of my test Condition locations and had the logger take a data snapshot.  I did this both with and without the WLE-DA attached.

The chart shows average Signal-to-Noise, Signal, and Noise readings in dB, as measured at the wireless Client (Local) and at the Access Point (Remote).  The most interesting column is the one labeled RSNR Avg. You can see about a 6-10dB difference in Remote Signal to Noise in the farther-distance Conditions. (Each 3dB represents a doubling in signal power.)  Since the ORiNOCO help file lists a SNR of 0 to 10dB as Out of Range (10 to 20db is Marginal, and over 20dB is Excellent), the antenna made the difference in getting a connection under the difficult Condition 5 location.

 

Client manager log [click to enlarge]

This screenshot shows the ORiNOCO Link Test Test History feature.  This shot shows the laptop moving to the Condition 5 location with the WLE-DA in use.  This plot shows both Signal and Noise over time and you can see how the signal drops as I move farther away from the AirStation.

Qcheck measured a Throughput (using a 1Mbyte test size) of around 3Mbps and a Response time ranging from 4 to 170ms.

 

Condition 5 - with antenna [click to enlarge]

This shot shows the laptop stationary in the Condition 5 location.  This time I switched to the Signal-to-Noise (SNR) plot, since that's the most important parameter.  The plot starts with the antenna connected, then shows what happens when I removed the antenna.

With the antenna removed, Qcheck measured a Throughput (using a 1Mbyte test size) of around 0.6 Mbps and a Response time ranging from 5 to 113ms.  Operation without the antenna, however, was very unreliable.

 

Condition 5 - without antenna [click to enlarge]

This plot shows a move from Condition 4 to Condition 2 without the antenna connected.  Condition 2 is located in a room right above the AirStation, so you'd expect very good performance. But you can still see a SNR improvement when I add the antenna.

Move from Condition 4 to Condition 2 without antenna. Add Antenna at Condition 2. [click to enlarge]
 

Summary


Although it may be painful to spend another $90 or so after you've already shelled out about $300, the WLE-DA can enhance your wireless networking experience.  I found that in addition to increasing my laptop's roaming range, using the antenna made my laptop less sensitive in its orientation to my Access Point.  Without the antenna, I could make my connection appear and disappear by moving from my couch to a chair placed next to, but perpendicular to the couch.  With the antenna in use, I could finally rest in my comfy chair and get a good connection!  And isn't that what wireless networking is all about?


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