Pop-up Review: Portal Wi-Fi
In the world of consumer routers the Ignition Design Labs (IDL) Portal is slightly unusual. Although it uses the typical 2.4 and 5 Ghz Wi-Fi bands it differs in that it also employs Dynamic Frequency Selection or DFS which allows on-the-fly access to a range of 5 Ghz channels from 52 to 140 (in North America) typically reserved for airplane radar. DFS is not new technology. For example, the old Apple Extreme router had it but it certainly did not work as seamlessly as Portal’s implementation does. My guess is that most manufacturers don’t implement it the way Portal does because of the strict FCC certification process required for use in routers. It’s too bad, because with DFS it’s (almost) like having your own private Wi-Fi channels.
With 1 WAN, 4 LAN, 2 USB2 and no less than 9 (yes, nine) antennas one Portal can cover ~3k sq.ft. or it can be configured as a mesh network using a maximum of two devices for ~6k sq.ft. of coverage. The Portal site states there is “wireless and wired backhaul available” for communication between Portals. But unlike a tri-band router where the third band is used as a dedicated backhaul the Portal is a dual-band device. Despite this my network speed does not seem to be adversely affected as far as I can tell.
Security features seem on par with typical routers meaning the usual WPA2 firewall and basic parental controls. The lack of advanced cybersecurity is not an issue for me since I use the Bitdefender BOX security hub which outperforms typical router security on every level.
The mobile app is extremely basic but works ok for the initial setup. The configuration settings are accessible via a Web GUI and should offer enough settings for the typical user, though I’m sure the hardcore crowd will want more. But what else is new, right? Finally, for you router geeks that like to tinker its firmware is based on OpenWRT.
I use a Portal mesh in my Wi-Fi challenged home and now have strong seamless coverage everywhere. But that’s not the best part. In my absurdly congested urban neighborhood I have the DFS channels (literally) all to myself. How do I know? I use a network scanner. Everyone else is fighting each other on the usual (congested) channels while I cruise along all by myself. Nice!
But it’s not all perfect and I do have a few nits to pick:
- Dual-band only. No third band for dedicated backhaul.
- Web GUI (and mobile apps) very basic.
- Guest Network disabled in Bridge Mode.
- No IPv6 support.
- USB 2.0 ports.
- Infrequent software/firmware updates.
Portal has easily been the fastest and most stable router I’ve owned. It’s also my first experience with DFS and mesh, neither of which have disappointed. Even though Portal lacks the extensive features and polished software of cutting-edge routers it’s been a very solid performer. Plus it has an elegantly simple and clean aesthetic. Having experienced the benefits of DFS I simply can’t (and won’t) go back to a non-DFS router. Part of me wishes more routers used DFS, but I’m also glad they don’t because I like not having to share channels. There’s a lot to like and could stop here, but...
It seems the original Portal (which is what I own) has been abandoned by IDL in favor of their collaboration with Razer but that too appears to have run its course. Clicking the Buy Now button on the Portal site now redirects to a .pdf.
Wrap It Up
The way DFS technology functioned in Portal has not only been an eye-opener but it also raised my expectations of routers. But sadly Portal is a dead product. It’s too bad really because it has worked well for me and still does. A quick visit to the bleak Portal community forum will confirm that support from IDL is essentially nonexistent at this point. It’s a disappointing but inevitable reality of technology, I suppose. While I can’t recommend a dead product I will say it’s a decent router that Just Works™. So if you want to satisfy your curiosity grab a used one (or two for a mesh setup) on eBay. There are a lot of them and they’re cheap. I intend to keep mine for the time being, at least until the new Wi-Fi 6 routers come down in price.