Routers That Do More
All of the Wi-Fi routers we reviewed have gigabit ethernet, an essential feature for network backup (you can use it to connect to a network-assisted storage (NAS) device next to the router and get much faster performance than you would with either a Wi-Fi or a powerline connection). Other key features include USB ports (present in the Belkin, D-Link and SMC routers) for linking standard hard drives and/or printers to the network, guest Wi-Fi access mode (in the Belkin and D-Link models), and strong parental control features (a paid option in the Linksys router).
One surprising finding from our performance tests is that some routers with two transmitting and three receiving (2x3) antenna arrays outperformed 3x3 configurations, even at long range. So a 3x3 router is not necessarily better than a 2x3 one.
On the other hand, a laptop with a 3x3 Intel Ultimate N WiFi Link 5300 client card consistently outperformed one with the 2x3 Intel WiFi Link 5100 client adapter. The improvement was dramatic, too, ranging from 28 to 62 percent overall; so when buying a new notebook, paying an extra $40 or so for the higher-end client may well be worthwhile if you use Wi-Fi a lot.
A few vendors offer simultaneous dual-band 802.11n routers--devices that support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks at the same time (the Linksys model reviewed in this roundup can support either band, but not concurrently). 5GHz networks (which support legacy 802.11a clients) are more robust than 2.4GHz networks because their many nonoverlapping channels (a dozen 22-MHz channels versus only three in the 2.4GHz band) are far less prone to interference. Even so, we chose not to review these routers for several reasons: They are still rather uncommon; they are very expensive; and powerline generally offers better performance for the streaming video applications for which a 5GHz network is frequently used.
For a detailed comparison of the features offered by each Wi-Fi router we reviewed, see our chart, "Draft-N Wireless Routers: Most Perform Very Well."
For complete hands-on reviews of each Wi-Fi router in the roundup, click the links below:
- 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
More Power to You
Among powerline kits, the D-Link DHP-303 is our top pick. Its throughput was more than 30 percent higher than the competition's, and it carries a lower price tag. (Significantly, the D-Link device is also the only product in this group that uses powerline chips from a Spanish firm called DS2; as a result, it isn't compatible with the others, which are based on the HomePlug AV standard.) That said, we obtained rock-solid HD video streaming with all six powerline kits we tested.
For a chart comparing specific features of the six powerline networking kits we included in our roundup, see "Powerline Networking Kits: A Connection at Any Outlet." For hands-on reviews of those six kits, click the following links:
- 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
A hybrid Wi-Fi/powerline network solves many problems: By using powerline wiring to connect bandwidth-intensive devices that you rarely move around (such as network-attached storage drives, printers, game consoles, home entertainment center components), you improve their performance and that of mobile Wi-Fi gear (such as a laptop or a smartphone), by reducing the overall network demand on the wireless bandwidth.