You’ll find that you jump between WiFi hotspots a lot when you’re on the road. If you live on the road full-time it’s almost a daily activity. Whether it’s at Starbucks, the airport lounge, a hotel room, or the campground du jour, you’re sharing your WiFi Internet connection with a lot of other people.
Casual hacking and identity theft have gone portable. So has your data. So should your security system. Securing your connection is even more important when you’re out and about than it is on your “home” network. That’s where a Portable Router comes into play. Of course, when the road is your home there’s not a lot of room to carry unitaskers. You should pick a portable router that provides more than just basic security.
The TP-Link TL-MR3040
The TP-Link TL-MR3040 Portable Battery Powered 3G/4G Wireless N Router has some great features stuffed into a small package. Besides being pocket-sized, it provides three routing modes—3G/4G Router, Travel Router (AP), and WISP Client. It also provides one of my favorite features: bandwidth control!
Of course it also provides a number of standard features, such as (time for geek-speak) wireless channel selection, DHCP, MAC cloning, port forwarding as well as security essentials like DMZ, wireless MAC access filtering and WPA2 authentication (both Personal and Enterprise) over TKIP or AES encryption.
It’s advertised to provide 4–5 hours on a single charge. Realistically, you can expect 2–3 hours of heavy use. That’s plenty for most remote applications away from a pluggable power source.
3G/4G Router Mode
If you have a compatible USB modem, the 3G/4G Router mode is a big plus. It not only allows you to share the connection between multiple computers, but also extends the connection to your iPad, smart TV, or any other Internet-capable device you have lying around.
Travel Router (AP) Mode
This is the standard mode provided by most travel routers. It allows the device to act as an access point (AP) for an existing network, allowing you to add your wireless devices to an existing wired network (“AP” setting) or add a wired device to a wireless network (“Client” setting).
This mode also allows the device to act as a range extender (“Repeater” setting) or WiFi Bridge (“Bridge with AP” setting). Either setting can be used to boost the WiFi signal when your taskbar icon is drawing few to no bars over a lonely dot. I’ve considered putting it in a tree and using this feature when we’re parked too far from a campground’s main office.
WISP Client Router Mode (Awesome)
WISP mode, or “Wireless Internet Service Provider” mode, is by far the mode I use most on our TP-Link TL-MR3040. It effectively performs two routing functions simultaneously. Its acts as both a “Client” router (which extends an existing wireless network to a local wired device) and a standard router to provide a private subnet and local DHCP, DMZ, UPnP, etc. services.
I’ve carried two routers around with me for going on a decade now to provide this same functionality. I still do, actually, but that’s because we require a bit more routing versatility than the average bear.
Bandwidth Control—My Favorite Feature
This is my favorite feature for one simple reason: we pay for our mobile bandwidth. I like to restrict Netflix and other streaming video services to around 60KB/s so they don’t eat up too much of our 4G data for the month.
A number of manufacturers provide this functionality with their mid-to-high end consumer routers these days. This is called “QoS” (Quality of Service). TP-Link provides this feature on nearly all of their products with a fairly simple interface for a price far lower than most of the other big names.
As a notable feature, the TP-Link TL-MR3040 allows you to control the maximum upload and download speeds separately. Control can be applied network-wide or on a per-device basis.
It’s important to note that TP-Link routers, like many other brands, measure bandwidth in “Kbps” (as in kilo-bits per second) instead of KB/s (kilo-bytes per second). To convert from KB/s to Kbps just multiply times 8. If you find you’re having trouble maintaining that speed due to stream lag, round up to the nearest 50 to leave some buffer room for hiccups—e.g. streaming Netflix at 60KB/s = 480Kbps = 500Kbps setting.
For those with the technical knowhow wanting even more functionality, the TL-MR3040 also supports OpenWRT firmware. Additionally it’s one of the cheapest ways to build a PirateBox to share files locally or throw a CryptoParty. If you’re a photographer, there’s also firmware available to use the TP-Link TL-MR3040 as a wireless DSLR monitor/controller. If you don’t know what that means (and don’t want to look it up), carrying a router in your pocket will get you enough geek cred for one day!
- Battery life around 3 hours for medium to heavy use (when not plugged in)
- No 5GHz device support (2.4GHz band only)
- Hard to find a replacement battery in stores, but a TP-Link Replacement Battery can be ordered online
- Limited 3G/4G USB modem support (big-name carriers, popular devices only)
Getting a TP-Link TL-MR3040
If you’re in need of a good travel router and you’re going to be settled in one spot for a few days, I highly recommend picking up a TP-Link TL-MR3040 on Amazon, as it’ll save you a few bucks over stores.
In case you’re always on the move (and in the USA), TP-Link is gaining popularity at electronics, office supply, and big-name stores, so if you have a Fry’s nearby take a look-see. I also noticed Walmart recently started selling a couple of TP-Link products, including the TP-Link TL-MR3040, and Staples supposedly has them available in-store but I’ve yet to see one in the wild.