Wireless networks today are faster, more secure, and more reliable than their predecessors. But to some extent Wi-Fi is a victim of its own success: Search for a Wi-Fi hotspot these days, and you may find a dozen networks competing for the same 2.4GHz bandwidth-so nobody gets a good signal.
At the same time, changes in the way we use networks demand better performance than ever. Exacting applications such as network backup, high-definition video streaming, BitTorrent downloading, and VoIP can choke even the fastest Wi-Fi: At best, a draft-2.0 802.11n router delivers a little over 100 megabits per second in real-world throughput. If multiple Wi-Fi clients claim a share, performance can rapidly--and, in the case of streaming video, visibly--deteriorate.
For these reasons, our look at networking products has two components. The convenience and ubiquity of 2.4GHz Wi-Fi make it the technology of choice for the router at the heart of your network, so we evaluated six workhorse routers that support draft-2 802.11n Wi-Fi and gigabit ethernet:
- Belkin N+ Wireless Router F5D8235-4
- D-Link DIR-655 Xtreme N Gigabit Router
- Linksys Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router WRT630N
- TrendNet TEW-633GR 300Mbps Wireless N Gigabit Router
- Netgear RangeMax Next Wireless-N Gigabit Router WNR3500
- SMC Barricade N ProMax Draft 11n Gigabit Broadband Router.
In addition, we looked at six powerline networking kits:
- D-Link DHP-303 PowerLine HD Network Starter Kit
- Belkin Powerline AV+ Starter Kit F5D407
- Netgear XAVB101 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter Kit
- ZyXel PLA-401 and PLA-470 HomePlug AV adapters
- Actiontec MegaPlug AV Powerline Gaming Kit HPE200AV
- Linksys PLK300 PowerLine AV Ethernet Adapter Kit.
Each of these kits lets you use your home's existing electrical circuits to hardwire devices requiring more reliable performance. These kits all performed at least as well as draft 802.11n Wi-Fi on our throughput tests, and each delivered rock-solid high-definition video streaming from a Sling Media Slingbox Pro. Using Wi-Fi gear in the same environment, we experienced frequent deterioration in video quality.
We believe that many people would benefit from a hybrid network incorporating both technologies; fortunately, this isn't difficult to set up (see "Adding Powerline to Your Network Is Easy").
With regard to product quality, we're happy to report that all of the draft-2 802.11n Wi-Fi routers we tested rated at least Good overall, and several earned marks of Very Good. This was not the case in our previous round of wireless networking tests, an indication that the category is maturing. The Belkin N+ and the D-Link DIR-655 scored highest, thanks to very good performance and setup tools, along with valuable features such as support for USB drive sharing and a security-conscious guest access mode.