New 802.11n Routers: The Best Wi-Fi Yet
Duel of the Dual-Bands
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.