Wireless Routers: The Truth About Superfast Draft-N

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D-Link's Draft-N Wi-Fi Router Fumbles in PC World Tests

We dropped D-Link's RangeBooster N 650 Router and Notebook Adapter from our roundup review of fast Wi-Fi gear because they were not able to complete our tests.

But because D-Link's products are widely distributed, and because (like other vendors with products based on draft one of the IEEE's 802.11n standard for ultrafast Wi-Fi) the company said firmware upgrades would improve performance and address compatibility problems, we decided to retest the RangeBooster N 650 line a few weeks later. Unfortunately, the products were still unable to complete our tests, so we did not assign the line a PC World Rating. Instead, we decided to describe the RangeBooster N 650 Router, and our experience with it.

The bottom line is, the RangeBooster N 650 has a lot going for it in terms of design and features--but we cannot recommend it until D-Link resolves the performance issues we encountered in repeated unsuccessful efforts to obtain usable test results.

An Atheros Problem?

When we first tried testing the RangeBooster N 650 along with six other products for our October issue's roundup, we ran into an assortment of problems that we were unable to resolve in time to meet the deadline for the print version of the review.

Some of the difficulties involved replacing malfunctioning hardware. But others--most notably highly erratic and inconsistent performance--were similar to obstacles we'd initially encountered with Belkin's N1 gear, the only other product line in the roundup based on Atheros's XSpan chips (the company's implementation of the first draft of the IEEE's 802.11n standard for fast Wi-Fi).

Because Belkin had shipped its product earlier than D-Link had, by the time we conducted our testing for the roundup Belkin had released firmware that at least allowed its products to complete our tests. However, the Belkin's failure rate for our long-range test (an FTP file transfer from a server in a home office to a notebook outside the home, about 60 feet away) was still 28 percent, meaning that it was unable to complete the transfer in one of every four attempts. Overall, we gave the Belkin's performance only a Fair rating.

On the other hand, when we retested the D-Link equipment several weeks after the roundup, using the latest firmware and drivers, we were never able to complete a single file transfer at long range. The products did complete our short- and medium-range tests; but since range is a principal reason to buy such products, we felt that we could not rate its performance without any results at long range.

In the course of our original troubleshooting, we were able to complete some long-range file transfers with beta software that D-Link did not make available to the public in time for our retest. We hope to reevaluate the RangeBooster N 650 line eventually, with updated software that permits it to complete our long-range test.

D-Link Response

"We have not encountered connectivity issues such as those reported in this PC World review in our own internal testing or in other reviews, nor have we received consumer reports of this issue from any of the thousands of purchasers of these products," D-Link marketing director Daniel Kelley said in a statement.

"In fact, consumer response to these products has been overwhelmingly positive, and we are happy to report that users are enjoying the benefits of higher throughput, whole-home coverage, and reliable wireless connectivity with D-Link's new line of draft-802.11n products.

"That said, we respect PC World's test methodology and believe they have taken steps to administer a fair test. For this reason, we are engaging in extensive testing and diagnosis of our products relative to the PC World test results. We will promptly provide updated drivers and firmware on our Web site should we identify any issues that need to be addressed."

We also asked Atheros about the D-Link problems and the Belkin N1's high failure rate in our distance test. "To date, we have not been able to duplicate the performance issues as reported by PC World," Atheros senior product marketing manager Harpreet Chohan said in a statement. "In fact, a variety of reviews by other third parties of these same Atheros-based draft 802.11n products have cited Atheros's superior connectivity at range.

"Each wireless test environment is unique, providing its own set of challenges, and Atheros is committed to understanding what is occurring in the PC World test environment. Upon completing our assessment, we look forward to retesting these products in an upcoming PC World review," Chohan added.

Hands On With the RangeBooster N 650

Performance accounts for a full 50 percent of our rating, so it's impossible to tell how the RangeBooster N 650 would have scored overall. But in specifications and usability, it matched or surpassed the best of the products in our roundup--although at $160 for the router and $100 for the PC Card, it was also the priciest offering.

Its security features are top-notch, with WPA/WPA2 Personal and Enterprise encryption and Radius support. Among the routers we saw, it is the only one with a USB port for Windows Connect Now, a year-old technology that lets you transfer wireless settings from the router to a USB key that you can then plug into a PC or other device to put it on the network.

Installers for both the router and that card are excellent, with clear directions that cover more situations than most. The envelope containing the router's software CD has blank spaces for you to record your network's SSID, encryption key, and router password. The manual and context-sensitive help are also high-quality: They don't just define settings, but tell you why and when you'd want to use them.

In addition to the initial setup routine, which senses your Internet connection settings and configures the router automatically--even prompting you to choose an SSID--the router comes with a utility that has its own Internet connection and wireless security wizards.

Two D-Link Draft-N Routers

The black case with a silver band is better looking than the exteriors of past D-Link routers, but the painted plastic still looks a little cheesy compared with the iPod-like glossy acrylic of Netgear's products, for example. However, the RangeBooster N 650 does have wall-mount holes, a useful feature lacking in several of the high-performance routers in our roundup.

One warning for potential shoppers: D-Link has two draft-n routers on the market. The RangeBooster N 650 (DIR-635) described here is not to be confused with the RangeBooster N (DIR-625), which is less expensive and has only two external antennas, as opposed to the three in the N 650. We did not test the RangeBooster N, which uses the same Atheros chips, but we'd expect that with one fewer antenna it would likely be slower than the more expensive model.

Yardena Arar and Becky Waring

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