Last Update: 2013-4-10

What is a travel router and why would anyone need it?

A “travel” router means it is very small, so it’s suitable to bring it to travel.  (If you don’t mind the size, you can always bring an Asus RT-AC66U…)  As for why anyone would need a router for travel, the simple answer is that you need to share your connection and/or do a LAN-WiFi conversion.  For the different modes available on a TP-Link travel router, read this.

(I bought the TP-Link TL-WR720N 3G for use with my Android phones in Hotel Vintage Shinuku in Tokyo because all sources I have read state that this budget hotel only provides free LAN internet connection, and lends you a network cable on request, but no WiFi service.  When I arrived there, I did see a secure WiFi SSID for the hotel, but I didn’t bother to ask the hotel for the password.

Side Note 1: I’m really impressed with the free LAN broadband internet connection offered by Hotel Vintage Shinjuku.  Its actual throughput exceeds the WiFi capabilities of the TL-WR720N 3G.  Compared to my previous experiences with hotels in Hokkaido and Thailand, free hotel WiFi are usually really slow or even not working at all.

Side Note 2: Some service providers in Japan provide “Pocket WiFi” rental service.  A “Pocket WiFi” is a travel router integrated with 3G/LTE data modem and comes with a SIM card that connects to 3G or LTE network on the go.  Since it is a rental service, you pay more if you rent it for more days, you need to return it, and you’ll be charged extra for losing the device.)

Why not use a travel router at home?

Especially for those models with two fast Ethernet ports, using a travel router at home is actually feasible for some users.  However, for TP-Link travel routers, you get weaker WiFi than normal home routers with antenna such as RT-N16 or RT-N12HP, so this is usually not the best choice for home use.

Why choose TP-Link?

WARNING: Soon after this article is published, TP-Link routers have been discovered to have a backdoor: link 1, link 2.

I would not recommend anyone to buy a TP-Link router for home use (my recommendation goes to Tomato firmware on an Asus router.)  The company I work for actually tried using a TP-Link TL-WR1043ND home router for office use and it fails spectacularly regardless of running stock, DD-WRT or OpenWRT firmware, and it was replaced by an ancient and obsolete Linksys WRT54G with much less processing power but running Tomato stably for a few weeks, before a better router becomes available.)

Different from my stance on home router, I need something cheap for a travel router.  I figured that I would probably use this router for a few times or even once only during the lifetime of it.  For travel routers, most reports about TP-Link are very favorable in Hong Kong forums.

TP-Link travel router lineup

TP-Link offers many models of travel routers, almost too many.  Here’s an overview of the majority of them as of early 2013.

  • TL-WR700N: built-in power supply, small size 81 x 71 x 28mm (This can be considered as a base model in the lineup with 150Mbps WiFi and 1 LAN/WAN port, no other ports.) [Atheros AR9331? @ 400MHz?, 2MB flash, 16MB RAM]
  • TL-WR702N Chinese/International: functionally similar to 700N but powered by micro USB from external power adapter or notebook PC USB port, nano size 57 x 57 x18 mm (There seems to be different colors available for the 702N) [Atheros AR9331 @ 400MHz, 2MB flash, 16MB RAM, later versions even only has 8MB RAM]
  • TL-WR703N (Chinese): 702N plus support for some USB 3G modems, double flash and RAM, nano size 57 x 57 x18 mm [Atheros AR9331 @ 400MHz, 4MB flash, 32MB RAM]
  • TL-WR706N (Chinese): This is a smaller and circular version of the 700N but added a hardware switch AP/Router, size 55mm diameter x 35mm. [Atheros AR9331 @ 400MHz, 2MB Flash, 16MB RAM]
  • TL-WR710N: upgrade version of 700N with two fast Ethernet ports (1 WAN/LAN and 1 LAN), 1 USB port for file sharing or charging mobile phones or tablets.  Larger size 85 x 75 x 28 mm. [Atheros AR9331? @ 400MHz?, 2MB flash, 16MB RAM]
  • TL-WR720N 3G (Chinese): upgrade version of 710N, can be powered by built-in power supply or micro USB, with hardware switch for AP/3G/Router, USB charging advertised as 2A (Important: read my charging test results below), double flash rand RAM, even larger size 91 x 75 x 29 mm (advertised as similar size to AirPort Express).  [Atheros AR9331 @ 400MHz, 4MB flash, 32MB RAM]  Note this is totally different from the TL-WR720N non-3G.
  • TL-WR800N (Chinese): This is the 300Mbps WiFi version of the 700N and has the same size.  Based on my experience of the 720N 3G, I suggest anyone who seriously needs high WiFi performance should seriously consider bringing a router with an antenna instead of a TP-Link travel router.
  • TL-MR10U / MR11U / MR12U (Chinese): Another line of travel 3G routers with different capacities of built-in rechargable Lithium battery with different physical sizes.  They come with a USB port to support USB 3G modem or to charge mobile phone or tablet.
  • TL-MR3020: International version of 703N plus hardware switch 3G/WISP/AP and status LED, slightly larger size 74 x 67 x 22 mm. [Atheros AR9331 @ 400MHz, 4MB flash, 32MB RAM]
  • TL-MR3040: International version of MR11U, 2000mAh battery, size 100 x 62 x 16mm. [Atheros AR9331 @ 400MHz, 4MB flash, 32MB RAM]
  • TL-TR761 / TR861 / TR862 (Chinese): Similar to the MR1xU series but it includes built-in 3G modem specific to each Chinese carrier, and ability to read MicroSD card.  Some models in this line do not have regular USB port.

If you intend to use the USB 3G routing function, make sure you check its compatibility list first, like this compatibility list for TL-MR3020.

The Chinese models are intended for the Chinese market, and (likely) only has simplified Chinese language for the router settings menu and the documentation (my TL-WR720N 3G is like that).  If an international equivalent model exists, the Chinese version is usually cheaper.  If you intend to buy the international version, be aware that there are bad sellers who ship you the Chinese version when you pay for the international version.

Custom Firmware

I have not spent time in investigating running custom firmware on TP-Link travel routers.  However, people seem to have various degrees of success with running OpenWRT on some of these models.  (This would workaround the Chinese language-only limitation if you buy a Chinese version router, and provide other functional benefits.)  Surely you’ll want to get a router with 4MB flash 32MB RAM instead of 2MB flash 16MB.

TL-WR720N 3G Chinese version

Since I bought the TL-WR720N 3G, here’s a mini review of it.  Those who want to look at pictures/details of it should read mveplus’s post in openwrt forum.  Firstly, anyone who considers to buy this needs to know three things:

  • Since this is a Chinese version, it only has Chinese in the router settings menu.
  • There is a similarly named but completely different model known as TL-WR720 (non-3G) which is not a travel router.  Router manufacturers always make the same model of router with same function but with totally different hardware.  This is even worse.  The two WR720N are completely different models with different sizes, features and prices – I even see sellers confuse the two.
  • Do not be attracted by its advertised 2A charging.  More on this below.

Charging Tests

Although USB charging is not the main function of a travel router, I read tons of complaints about it not charging iPad in amazon.com.cn .  Since it is advertised to support 2A charging, some travelers may be tempted to bring only this router, without the original mobile device charger.  As my tests show, this is not wise and is disastrous if you need to charge an iPad.

  • Galaxy Nexus – charges OK.  It charges in USB mode instead of AC mode.  So this means the charging will be much slower than the Samsung AC charger.  (Although I use a custom kernel which can force it to fast charge, I dare not try this with the router.)
  • iPod Touch 4 – charges OK (tested three times with very short duration only).
  • iPad 2 – only 1 out of 5 or 6 times can it charge without error.
  • iPad 3 (New iPad) – only 1 out of more than 10 times can it charge without error.

Throughput tests

WAN-to-LAN in router mode: downstream 90Mbps (approx), upstream 70Mbps (approx) – I’d consider this to be a really good result.

WiFi in AP mode: both downstream and upstream up to 30-33Mbps (approx), measured by Galaxy Nexus running speedtest.net app placed just an inch or two from the router.  This is not a great result, but as hinted before one should not expect too much WiFi performance from this router.  [This is not a scientific test.  I believe other people may be able to get higher performance in perfect laboratory conditions. See the smallnetbuilder review of TL-WR700N for reference.]  In my really tiny budget hotel room where the bed is just a few feet away from the router, WiFi range is not a problem at all.  I do not expect a normal sized hotel room would be a problem either.  However, people with a home larger than a normal hotel room need something better.  At my home where I experience tons of WiFi interference from neighbors, it drops to unusable speeds and is worse than my Asus RT-N16.

Mode tests

I only tested router mode and AP mode.  Both work normally at my home.  However, there is one night the router mode does not work in the hotel, so I switched to AP mode then rebooted the router.  On another night I tried the router mode in the hotel again and it worked.  I have no idea what went wrong.

Documentation

The documentation consists of a single sheet of double-sided paper crammed with concise instructions on setting up the router for all modes, folded several times to match the router size.  Since this is a Chinese version, the documentation is in simplified Chinese language.  For those who don’t know how to choose the operating modes for their own requirements, and those who don’t have some basic idea about how to setup a WiFi router, I don’t think the documentation helps.  For those who do, the documentation is not needed, other than providing the factory default IP address and password.

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