As you can probably tell by its name, ZyXel's NWA1123-AC Wireless AP is designed more for small business users than for consumers, but people with larger homes that even the strongest Wi-Fi router can't cover will want to take a long look at this wireless access point (AP). It's packed with features, and it delivers very good performance.
Widely available online for about $100, the ZyXel (which, in the interest of brevity, is how I'll refer to it from here out) can be configured to operate in four different modes:
- Stand-alone wireless AP: The device is hardwired to your router and supports multiple wireless clients. In this mode, the ZyXel can support as many as eight virtual APs, each with its own profile (network name, security, quality of service, MAC filter, and other settings).
- Root wireless AP: The ZyXel is hardwired to your router, but it serves both wireless clients and wireless repeaters to extend the range of your wireless network. The device can support up to five virtual APs in this mode.
- Wireless repeater: The ZyXel connects to another ZyXel operating in root wireless AP mode to extend the range of your Wi-Fi network.
- Wireless client: The ZyXel is hardwired to a client PC (or a printer, fax machine, or anything else with an Ethernet port), but wirelessly connected to your router.
The ZyXel can operate in dual-band mode--on the 2.4GHz band as part of an 802.11b/g/n network, and on the 5GHz band as part of an 802.11n, 802.11a, or 802.11ac network simultaneously--in any of the first three configurations. When you configure the device as a wireless client, of course, you must choose either the 2.4- or the 5GHz frequency bands, depending on the type of wireless network you're connecting to.
If you're looking to optimize the performance of your Wi-Fi network, you might use the more crowded 2.4GHz band for non-latency-sensitive tasks such as web surfing and downloading files, and reserve the less-crowded 5GHz band for applications that are sensitive to lag, such as streaming media and playing games.
You could also set up guest networks on either or both frequency bands and configure them to allow your guests Internet access, but prevent them from slowing down your own streaming by reducing their quality of service settings. You can also increase the security of your network by denying them the ability to access other computers on your network.
Security and Power over Ethernet
You'll find support for all the usual wireless security protocols, including WPA2-PSK, and you can establish as many as eight unique security profiles, which you can then assign to the various APs you set up. Business users will want to know that the ZyXel also supports the RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial In User Service) networking protocol that provides centralized user authentication and authorization to connect clients to the network. RADIUS support is well beyond anything consumers need, however, so I won't get into that topic any deeper.
Layer-2 isolation, on the other hand, is worthy of discussion, even for consumers. Enable this feature and you can restrict wireless clients from communicating with each other. You could use this in conjunction with your guest network to allow guests to access the Internet, and also to use your networked printer while barring access to any of the other computers or storage devices on your network. All you need to do is enter the printer's MAC address in the Layer-2 isolation configuration screen. You could do the same if you wanted to grant guests access to a NAS box with music or photographs stored on it, or any other device on your network.
The ZyXel can be powered with a conventional AC power adapter, and one is provided, but if you have a router or switch that supports power over Ethernet (PoE), the AP supports that as well. PoE is a fabulous option in that you can use the same cable to carry both data and power. This makes deployment much more flexible because you don't need to worry about placing the AP near an AC outlet, and you don't need an electrician to string CAT5 cable (because it's consider low voltage wiring).
If you don't have a router or switch that supports PoE (I don't know of any consumer routers that do), you can use a PoE injector (you can find these for sale online for less than $20).
Industrial design and performance
The ZyXel's circular design closely resembles a smoke detector. Mount it to the ceiling and run the wires up into your attic, and the device won't draw any more attention than one of those safety devices will. The housing is plenum-rated, too, meaning it's fabricated from a non-toxic material that won't emit hazardous fumes should a fire break out in your home.
For reasons of physical security in an office environment, the manufacturer recommends installing the access point in a secure area, such as a locked room, to prevent unauthorized people from gaining physical access to it. I didn't need to go that far, of course, but I did want to install it in as central an area of my home as I could get while still having access to an Ethernet jack. I ended up installing it on the ceiling inside the built-in floor-to-ceiling entertainment center in my home theater.
That location might have reduced the ZyXel's throughput at longer range, especially when you consider that my home theater is a room-within-a-room design with double-thick walls, but the AP had no problem delivering speeds fast enough to support HD video streaming at all four of my test locations. While it wasn't as quick as the fastest 802.11ac routers I've tested, all of those devices have supported three spatial streams; the ZyXel delivers only two.
After I benchmarked the ZyXel's performance as a wireless AP (in "root" mode), I installed a second unit configured as a wireless repeater. ZyXel's otherwise very good documentation let me down here, as I had some difficulty with this task (I was able to set it up correctly in the end). Apart from that, when you combine the ZyXel NWA1123-AC's respectable performance with its long list of features and low street price and you end up with a very good product.