New 802.11n Routers: The Best Wi-Fi Yet

Illustration by Mick Wiggins.
Illustration: Mick Wiggins
What a difference a couple of years makes. In our first roundup of draft-802.11n Wi-Fi routers (see "Wireless Routers: The Truth About Superfast Draft-N"), we found so many problems, we couldn't recommend any of them: Firmware was buggy, interoperability between vendors was hit-and-miss, and performance was not as good as that of some enhanced, earlier-generation 802.11g routers.

As of this year, we're happy to report, those issues have largely gone away. Although the standard is still technically in draft form and final ratification of 802.11n by the IEEE isn't expected until next year, the Wi-Fi Alliance has been certifying draft-2.0 n routers for interoperability and compatibility since last year, and the final version should largely be a formality that at most may require a firmware upgrade.

And the Wi-Fi certified products are worthy updates. With link rates--the nominal connection speeds, as opposed to real-world throughput--of up to 300 megabits per second (compared with 54 mbps for standard 802.11g) and extended range (thanks to multiple smart antennas), 802.11n Wi-Fi is the first Wi-Fi technology that can rival wired 100-mbps ethernet in performance. Upgrading your home router to 802.11n is thus one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve your network.

But choosing a particular 802.11n router has become more complicated than ever because the standard covers a lot of ground that lets vendors issue a dizzying array of product options, with literally dozens of models ranging in price from $50 to $250. D-Link alone has six 802.11n routers.

To give an idea of the options, we chose two widely available models in each of three categories: under-$90 routers for people who don't need maximum performance, but who can nonetheless benefit from 802.11n's improved range and speed; midrange (about $150) models that offer top wireless speeds and gigabit ethernet; and dual-band routers ($180 to $200) that support both the crowded 2.4-GHz frequency range (used by all of the less-Expensive models and their 802.11b/g predecessors) and the relatively open 5-GHz band, with support for legacy 802.11a gear. These top-of-the-line units target users preparing for an expected influx of networked multimedia devices that need uncluttered bandwidth to stream media. (The 802.11n spec supports both frequencies.) Up to now, vendors have been focusing on the 2.4-GHz band in order to support the vast majority of legacy devices.

For a point-by-point comparison of the six routers we examined, see our chart, "Wi-Fi Draft-2.0 802.11N Routers: Good, Better, and Best."

Deconstructing the Technology

The 802.11n variant of Wi-Fi achieves its high through??put (typically four times that of 802.11g) in two ways. First, it uses MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) antenna technology to transmit more data at a time. Intelligent antennas combine streams of data arriving at different times from multi??path signals bouncing off walls, floors, and ceilings. Entry-level routers typically have two receiving and transmitting antennas; midrange and high-end models have three of each.

Second, draft-n uses channel bonding: Instead of the 20-MHz-wide channels found in previous Wi-Fi standards, 802.11n can use 40-MHz-wide channels, which in theory should double their data-carrying capacity.

Unfortunately, the limited bandwidth of the 2.4-GHz range means that just one 802.11n router using channel bonding will take up virtually the entire 2.4-GHz spectrum, leaving no room for neighboring routers, and causing severe interference. For this reason, draft-2.0's so-called good-neighbor policies require that routers ship in 20-MHz mode, and that, when in 40-MHz mode, they drop to 20-MHz operation if they sense nearby Wi-Fi nets or other 2.4-GHz devices. The top link rate in 20-MHz mode is only 150 mbps (rather than the much-advertised 300 mbps); since many users are likely to be within range of other 2.4-GHz traffic, we ran our 2.4-GHz tests with 20-MHz channels.

More Bandwidth, Less Range

The 5-GHz frequency range, however, has much more bandwidth to play with and can support multiple 40-MHz channels. It's also relatively unused (802.11a products appeared primarily in business environments), so interference is generally minimal to none. We therefore used 40-MHz channels in our 5-GHz testing of the two routers that support 5-GHz operations.

Interestingly, even with twice as much channel bandwidth, speeds in our 5-GHz testing at close range did not double; on average, they rose about 20 percent. But they were generally more consistent than the 2.4-GHz results, and throughput at close range never dropped below 40 mbps--well above the 25 mbps needed for top-quality HDTV streaming.

The downside to 5-GHz: Its higher frequency doesn't allow it to cover as large an area as 2.4-GHz draft-n. But its range is still generally far better than that of standard unenhanced 802.11g.

Another 5-GHz plus: While draft-n is backward-compatible with 802.11b and g gear in "mixed" 2.4-GHz mode, performance for n clients drops significantly on networks when b or g clients are present. But with a dual-band router, you can put newer draft-n gear that supports 5 GHz on the fast track while maintaining a slower 2.4-GHz network for older gear. We recommend a dual-band router if you need maximum performance for streaming media or networked storage--or if you can't get a good Wi-Fi signal at all due to interference from neighbors' networks.

Draft-N on a Budget

Bare bones n: D-Link's $80 Wireless-N Router DIR-615 (left) and Belkin's $90 N Wireless Router have only two transmitting and receiving antennas each, making them slower than pricier models.
Bare bones n: D-Link's $80 Wireless-N Router DIR-615 (left) and Belkin's $90 N Wireless Router have only two transmitting and receiving antennas each, making them slower than pricier models.
Want to have some of draft-n's superior speed and coverage without paying top dollar? We tried two entry-level draft-2.0-certified routers priced at $90 or less: the Belkin N Wireless Router ($90) and the D-Link Wireless N DIR-615 ($80). These products have 100-mbps (not gigabit) ethernet ports and two-antenna configurations with less speed and range than their three-eared cousins. While not optimal for streaming media, they should be fine for normal Internet use, VoIP calls, and the odd file transfer in a small-to-medium-size house.

Of the two, the Belkin was generally superior. The D-Link has a few features the Belkin lacks, but it stumbled badly in our performance tests.

Belkin N Wireless Router

When we first reviewed the Belkin N router in 2006, we loved everything about it--aside from its performance. But many manufacturing revisions and firmware updates have fixed that, and speed and range are now more than acceptable for a budget router. In fact, even with one less antenna, the Belkin performed almost as well as the midrange Netgear router in our tests.

The unit's design, usability, features, and customer service remain stellar. The out-of-box experience is second to none, from numbered cables and a step-by-step install wizard that connected perfectly, to a great user manual. The Belkin has a lifetime warranty; the others we tested were for one year.

The Belkin supports many key router features, including UPnP, WMM, WPS, and DDNS (see "Wi-Fi Buzzwords" for more on these and other useful router technologies).

Missing are auto-channel selection (the ability to let the router choose the least crowded of the 11 available 2.4-MHz channels to improve performance in busy areas), and DHCP reservation (the ability to set fixed IP addresses for specific computers or peripherals), useful for networked printers, NAS drives, media servers and the like.

Like most low-end routers, the Belkin doesn't support WPA/WPA2-Enterprise encryption. But if you don't need gigabit ethernet or high-def streaming performance, the Belkin N Router is a great value and our budget pick.

D-Link Wireless N Router DIR-615

The D-Link DIR-615 is just about the lowest-cost draft-n router on the market and has a great feature set, but unfortunately it performed poorly on our speed and range tests.

At close range, it could pump out only 36 mbps on average, compared with 48 mbps for the competing Belkin N. And in our long-range tests (about 60 feet, with multiple walls and appliances in between), the D-Link's throughput dropped to a mere 3 mbps, versus 13 mbps for the Belkin. Even worse, 15 percent of our long-range tests failed completely due to disconnections, versus none for the Belkin.

And that was with the second D-Link DIR-615 router we tried. We were unable to test the first, a revision A1 model provided by D-Link, because it provided no way to turn off 40-MHz channel-bonding (making that unit ineligible for Wi-Fi Alliance certification), so we bought a revision B2 (the latest model, which is Wi-Fi-Alliance-certified) for our testing.

Performance could improve with firmware revisions, and the D-Link has a very good feature set drawn from the company's higher-end routers, including WPA/WPA2-Enterprise and RADIUS server security support for corporate use, as well as a laundry list of features like UPnP, WMM, WPS, DDNS, and DHCP reservation.

Setup, though uneventful, wasn't as well thought out as that of other models we reviewed. The Web configuration interface is a confusing mix of wizards and manual tools; after initial setup, we prefer to skip the wizards. We also found it very difficult to convert the router to access-point mode, though we finally unearthed the necessary directions in the manual.

Gigabit Workhorses

Fast, wired and wireless: The Linksys Wireless-N Gigabit Router (left) and the Netgear RangeMax Next Wireless-N Gigabit Router offer solid 2.4-GHz speed and backward compatibility with 802.11b and g gear, making them good small-business choices.
Fast, wired and wireless: The Linksys Wireless-N Gigabit Router (left) and the Netgear RangeMax Next Wireless-N Gigabit Router offer solid 2.4-GHz speed and backward compatibility with 802.11b and g gear, making them good small-business choices.
Double your investment to $150 or so, and you step up to routers with gigabit ethernet switches (a huge plus if you have networked-attached storage drives, or share files between wired Clients) and three antennas for better range and performance.

If you back up over your network from a wired desktop to a NAS, gigabit will reduce the time required almost tenfold (assuming your computers and network drives also have gigabit ethernet, as most recent models do). Wireless performance and range also bump up in this class, thanks to the extra antenna, and you'll find more-advanced routing features.

In a close match, we give the nod to the Linksys Wireless-N Gigabit Router WRT310N ($140) over the Netgear RangeMax Next Wireless-N Gigabit Router WNR3500 ($160) for the Linksys' excellent performance, very good setup tools, and deep routing features.

Linksys Wireless-N Gigabit Router WRT310N

The Linksys WRT310N outclassed the Netgear WRT3500 in close-range tests, averaging 61 mbps in the same room as the client, compared with the Netgear's 48 mbps. It also performed well at long range (about 60 feet, through several walls and appliances), although it was not quite as fast as the Netgear.

Both short- and long-range performance were much better than that of the the budget routers, thanks to the extra antenna, which provides more spatial diversity. We experienced good performance in our entire 1400-square-foot house, obviating the need to run a second access point to cover dead spots. This is fortunate, since, unlike the Netgear, the Linksys does not support wireless range extension.

But that's about the only fault we found with this Linksys. Its design is sleek (the antennas are internal, as are those of the Apple and Netgear routers), and its performance proves you don't need rabbit-ear antennas to get good range.

Setup via a desktop application called Linksys EasyLink Advisor (LELA) steps beginners through everything from cable hookups to password creation--though you'll need the Web configuration tool for special settings like port forwarding or DHCP reservation.

The Web utility offers many deep routing features. For example, while all routers in this review offer WMM/QoS (for prioritizing video or VoIP traffic), the Linksys WRT310N lets you customize application priorities: You can set gaming or streaming media to trump all else, or ensure that BitTorrent doesn't muck up your VoIP phone calls.

Web filtering is another area where the Linksys excels. You can stop proxies, Java, ActiveX, and cookies right at the router, which should ward off most Trojan horses and spyware. But we wish you could limit the filtering to certain computers; lack of Java and cookie support will cripple the viewing of many Web sites. On the other hand, you can limit access to specific applications, URLs, and keywords on a PC-by-PC basis, a handy feature for parents.

Netgear RangeMax Next Wireless-N Gigabit Router WNR3500

The Netgear WRT3500's design is the most unusual, and annoying, of the bunch. You can't wall-mount the tall, upright case, and fitting it on a desk was tough too, since you can't stack it and need a reasonably clear area around it. It's cool-looking though, especially when the ring of blue lights around the top flash to show network activity.

Performance was mediocre at close range--about the same as the much-cheaper Belkin--but improved greatly at long range. The Netgear also offers a useful repeater function that can extend your wireless range with additional Netgear access points.

But what really impressed us was the setup software and the intelligence of the router in recognizing our network conditions. It saw that our DSL modem had the same LAN IP address--a network no-no--and promptly changed itself to a different range while telling us exactly what it was doing, and why. Excellent, context-sensitive help also appears right alongside the router configuration pages. It's always on, so you don't have to click a button to see it, unlike with most other routers.

Routing features were very good, although not quite as deep as with the Linksys. It has UPnP, WMM, DDNS, and DHCP reservation, but lacks the WPA/WP2-Enterprise encryption support required by many businesses. This should not be a big issue in a home router, however. If you're looking for a good gigabit router with wireless range extension to cover larger areas or larger houses, the Netgear is a safe choice.

Duel of the Dual-Bands

Two bands of n: Apple's Airport Extreme Base Station with Gigabit Ethernet (left) and Linksys's Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router with Storage Link support 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz modes--but only the Linksys can do both simultaneously.
Two bands of n: Apple's Airport Extreme Base Station with Gigabit Ethernet (left) and Linksys's Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router with Storage Link support 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz modes--but only the Linksys can do both simultaneously.
If you're willing to spend $180 to $200 for the latest and greatest, consider a draft-n router that supports both 5-GHz and 2.4-GHz operations (and, respectively, legacy 802.11a and 802.11b/g gear). The Linksys Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router with Storage Link WRT600N and the Apple AirPort Extreme pack in other useful features for those extra bucks, notably USB drive sharing.

As noted earlier, the 5-GHz band can handle high-def video streaming with ease--a, assuming your client devices support 5-GHz draft-n (as many new Centrino laptops do--see "How Do Built-In 802.11n Adapters Stack Up?" on page XX). And with USB drive sharing, you can attach standard USB drives for shared storage or backup purposes.

Here, the Linksys again trounces the competition, thanks to its top performance, ability to run simultaneous 2.4- and 5-GHz networks, and kitchen-sink router features. It's not a complete knockout, however. The AirPort Extreme boasts USB printer sharing, top-notch setup software that others can learn from, and significant advantages for mixed PC/Mac networks.

We had hoped to pair up the Linksys with the D-Link DIR-855 or the Buffalo WZR-AG300NH (the only other simultaneous dual-band routers), but Buffalo has been enjoined from shipping its model due to a patent dispute, and D-Link recalled its early models due to manufacturing issues (see "MadDog Multimedia Proves Elusive When Trouble Strikes").

Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station With Gigabit Ethernet

Apple has always "thought different" in its approach to Wi-Fi router design, and the latest incarnation of the AirPort Extreme (earlier 802.11g and nongigabit 802.11n versions have similar names, so be careful when shopping) has dual-band support, but can run only in one band at a time: You must choose either 2.4-GHz or 5-GHz mode.

Why, then, would you pick the Apple unit over a model that can handle both frequencies simultaneously? It has two key features that the Linksys Dual-Band does not: wireless range extension, so you can cover large areas using multiple AirPort Extremes or Airport Expresses as access points, and USB printer sharing. It's also slightly less expensive, so you might keep an older g router for b/g clients, and use the AirPort Extreme as a 5-GHz access point for video and other high-bandwidth tasks with 5-GHz n clients. As a 2.4-GHz router, its performance compares favorably with the midrange gigabit models above.

While it has only one USB 2.0 port for both drive and printer sharing, you can hook up a hub to attach several different printers and drives. However we could only print (not scan or fax) on multifunction printers. Also, the AirPort has three LAN ethernet ports, versus the usual four on other routers.

You can format drives in either Windows FAT32 or Mac file systems, and back up Macs with OS 10.5's Time Machine. You can also get updates using Apple Software Update.

As a 5-GHz router, the Apple beats the Linksys in long-range performance, but it lacks several significant router features that the Linksys has, notably UPnP, DDNS, and URL/keyword content filtering. Apple says points to its own Bonjour network service discovery protocol (for??merly called Rendezvous) fills inas a substitute for UPnP, but Bonjour is not as widely supported by network peripherals as UPnP is.

The AirPort does support IPv6, the next-generation routing system intended to address a growing scarcity of discrete IPv4 addresses and to simplify design of large networks. This likely won't benefit most home users, however, since IPv4 legacy support will continue for the forseeable future.

Setup requires Windows or Mac software (there's no Web interface). But Apple's software makes it easy to turn the AirPort into an access point.

Linksys Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router With Storage Link WRT600N

At $200--just $50 more than many Single-band gigabit routers--and with USB drive-sharing as a bonus, this router can support 2.4-GHz legacy devices and 5-GHz clients simultaneously.

In tests with Linksys's new DMA2200 HD Media Center Extender, 1080i video streamed smoothly and reliably from PC to TV in 5-GHz mode, but exhibited frequent dropouts and pauses in 2.4-GHz mode.

The Linksys outperformed others we tested for overall speed and range, and (like its single-band sibling) has deep routing features, including application-level QoS, port forwarding/triggering for network services and gaming, and URL/keyword filtering for parents. Like the Apple, it also has IPv6 support. The WRT600N even looks like a serious IT lookproduct, complete with umpteen flashing indicator lights across the front, compared with the AirPort Extreme's lone LED. A button at the top is intended for use with the Wi-Fi Protected Setup feature that's on other Linksys routers, but at this writing the unit doesn't support WPS. (Linksys says a firmware update coming by this summer should activate it.)

You can configure the router either manually through a standard Web interface, or via Linksys EasyLink Advisor (LELA), a desktop application included with all new Linksys routers. While LELA is very good, the router has so many features this program doesn't cover that you will probably need to use the browser interface anyway.

For example, the first thing we did after using the setup utility was to identify users and shared folders for our attached hard drive, which can be formatted as FAT32 or NTFS. Drive sharing via USB won't match the performance of a dedicated gigabit ethernet NAS drive, but it's a great option for home users who have an old drive lying around. You can even set up an FTP folder on the drive for remote access.

We would have liked to see USB printer-sharing support as well, but overall, the Linksys Dual-Band is the router to beat in almost every area.

Wi-Fi Buzzwords: Features to Look For

Draft-802.11n routers support an alphabet soup of really useful features including that are mostly missing from older, 802.11g models--features like UPnP, DDNS, WMM, WPA2, WPS, WDS, and DHCP address reservation. Here's why you should want them--and which of the products we tested have them:

DDNS (Dynamic Domain Name System): Solves the problem of most home users not having a fixed IP address. If you want to run a Web server, a Slingbox, or pretty much any remote-access service, you need some type of DDNS to keep tracks of your current IP address so your home network can be "found" on the Internet. Again, only the Apple lacked DDNS.

DHCP Reservation: Solves the same address problem within your LAN. It's extremely useful for making network printers, NAS drives, and other devices easily findable from within and outside your network. both inside and outside your network. You simply tell your router which IP address to reserve for each peripheral. All routers tested except the Belkin N had this capability.

UPnP (Universal Plug-and-Play): Makes it easier for network devices to "see" each other and work together. For example, a UPnP AV media player box connected to your TV can automatically recognize and stream video from a UPnP AV network storage drive. Only one router we tested, the Apple AirPort Extreme, lacked UPnP.

WDS (Wi-Fi Distribution System): Allows you to extend the range of your network wirelessly by adding access points. Also known as "repeater" functionality, WDS usually works only with equipment from the same manufacturer. The Apple and Netgear routers had this capability.

WMM (Wi-Fi Multimedia): Prioritizes voice and video streams over other data traffic on your network, helping to prevent dropouts and improving call and video quality. It is commonly referred to as QoS (quality of service) and is part of the 802.11n spec. All routers we looked at had WMM, but the two Linksys routers also had extensive customization capabilities, allowing you to prioritize specific applications.

WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access): With AES encryption is the strongest form of Wi-Fi security. WPA2 is part of the 802.11n hardware specification, making it the fastest encryption method to use with 802.11n, as well as the safest. All six routers we tested had WPA2 support.

WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Access): Eases connection of new devices to an encrypted network with a PIN or push-button setup. WPS must be supported by both the client device and the router to work properly. Only the Apple and Linksys dual-band routers lacked this feature. Linksys, however, expects to add WPS in a firmware update this summer.

Notebook Adapters: Intel's 802.11n Is No Slouch

Intel Wi-Fi inside: Micro Express and other laptops handle dual-band 802.11n capably.
Intel Wi-Fi inside: Micro Express and other laptops handle dual-band 802.11n capably.
If you buy an 802.11n router, check the built-in Wi-Fi support in your laptop before spending an extra $100 for an adapter: Your notebook may already have 802.11n support. Many recent Intel Centrino models even sport dual-band n support via the Intel Wireless WiFI Link 4965AGN PCI Express mini-adapter.

But will this Intel product perform as well as the router vendor's matching external USB adapter (which we used in our performance tests, where possible)? To answer this question, I informally tested throughput with all six routers using a Micro Express Centrino notebook with the Intel 4965AGN card. Good news: For four of the six routers in these hands-on tests, Intel's chip set outperformed the USB adapter.

The improvement was most noticeable with the Belkin gear, but it was also true of the D-Link. And with the Apple AirPort Express, throughput with the Intel chip set was a full 33 percent higher than with the Linksys Dual-Band USB adapter that we used for testing both the 2.4- and 5-GHz bands. (Apple does not make USB adapters).

On the other hand, the Linksys and Netgear USB adapters performed better with their matching routers than the Intel unit did, suggesting tighter integration.

In my long-range tests, however, the Intel outperformed almost all the USB adapters--perhaps because of better antenna placement. Notebook vendors typically run Wi-Fi antennas up the side of the screen, somewhat like using a pop-up antenna to improve cell phone reception.

Don't, by the way, pay much heed to the "Connect with Centrino" label that's supposed to show good compatibility with Intel's Wi-Fi technology. Neither of the two routers (Apple and Belkin) that experienced the most improved results with the Intel adapter participate in the Intel certification program (although Belkin says it plans to do so via a firmware upgrade). The D-Link, Netgear, and Linksys WRT310N routers are certified, but not the Linksys Dual-Band WRT600N.

Bottom line: If you already have the Intel 4965AGN, don't bother getting a USB 802.11n adapter--and when buying a new notebook, definitely go for Intel's a/g/n chip set if it's offered.

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