Wireless Routers: The Truth About Superfast Draft-N

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Illustration by Harry Campbell.
Illustration: Harry Campbell
"Twelve times the speed!" "Four times the range!" "Faster than wired!" Like barkers at a carnival, home-network equipment vendors are touting the revolutionary performance of the latest and greatest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n. And yes, its promise is great: 802.11n networks should enable superior range and data speeds of up to 270 megabits per second (and eventually 600 mbps). Although (as with previous Wi-Fi standards) real-world performance won't be nearly as fast, 802.11n products should deliver more than enough throughput and range to support high-quality video streaming and Voice-over-IP phone service, graphics-intensive online games, and other bandwidth-hogging goodies throughout a typical home. We can hardly wait to buy the gear. Problem is, that's not what the vendors are selling.

Instead of products based on a final standard--which should appear by early 2008 and will be Wi-Fi Alliance-certified for interoperability--what we have now is a flood of "draft" 802.11n products based on a preliminary and incomplete version of the standard. These products might be--but are not guaranteed to be--firmware upgradable to the final spec.

Erratic Performers

We wouldn't complain if the products worked as advertised. But in our tests, four draft-n router and PC Card lines--Belkin's N1, Buffalo's AirStation Nfiniti, Linksys's Wireless-N, and Netgear's RangeMax Next--were generally outperformed by two older product lines (Netgear's RangeMax 240 and Asus's 240 Wireless MIMO) based on nonstandard technology from Airgo Networks.

We also found that routers based on different draft-n chips (the Belkin uses Atheros chips, while the other three are based on Broadcom chips) do not interoperate at high speed. Buying products from the same vendor doesn't always ensure that all of them will use the same draft-n chips, either: At least one company, Netgear, is selling similarly named routers and PC Cards that are based on different draft-n chips, and you can determine which chip a product uses only by checking its model number and/or the chip logo on its packaging (see "Draft-N Product Look-Alikes").

Finally, we found that at long range especially (in our tests, about 60 feet, from a router in a suburban home office to a notebook located in the backyard), the draft-n products were generally erratic in coverage and performance--particularly the Atheros-based Belkin line. (Atheros attributes the irregular performance results to its implementation of technology that is designed to prevent interference with neighboring Wi-Fi networks.)

On the other hand, the two older product lines, both based on Airgo's True MIMO Gen3 chips, have a couple of significant drawbacks: They will never be upgradable to the final 802.11n standard, and will interoperate with 802.11n (draft or final) products only at poky 802.11g (54-mbps theoretical maximum) speeds.

Vendors are aggressively addressing draft-n performance problems, bugs, and compatibility issues with frequent firmware updates (even as we tested, we were receiving updates to shipping devices). In fact, we revisited one draft-n product--D-Link's shipping Atheros-based RangeBooster N 650 line--after the deadline for our print issue had passed, to see if updates improved performance. (We dropped the product from the main review in print because it could not complete our tests.) But we'd rather vendors didn't use paying customers to do their alpha and beta testing. You shouldn't have to install multiple firmware updates to see promised performance on a brand-new product.

Faced with a choice between work-in-progress draft-n products on one hand and products that perform better but use proprietary technology that can never be upgraded to 802.11n on the other, we chose not to name a PC World Best Buy.

We did, however, assign each product our usual PC World Rating based on our lab tests of performance and other key features (see our separate chart). We particularly looked for QoS (quality of service) and UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), two technologies essential to running the coming wireless video and entertainment applications that are among the main reasons to buy a high-speed router.

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