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It's a tricky time to be in the market for a new wireless router. The safe bet is buy a model based on the tried-and-true, rock-solid 802.11n standard—and I recommend that you adopt that course if you're looking for a new router for your small business. Consumers, on the other hand, may fall in love with the blistering speed and phenomenal range that routers based on the second draft of the 802.11ac standard deliver.
The performance of each of the five 802.11ac routers that I tested for this story overwhelms the performance of the Asus RT-N66U, which may be the best 802.11n router on the market today. Looking to stream high-definition video over your wireless network? Using an 802.11ac router, I streamed a Blu-ray video ISO image—complete with high-definition Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master Audio multichannel soundtrack—from a server in my home office to a bridge-connected PC in my home theater, an acoustically isolated room that some lesser-quality 802.11n routers can't even penetrate, much less stream media into. I experienced no glitches and no dropouts.
But 802.11ac Draft 2.0 won't crystallize into a bona fide standard until sometime next year. We went through a similar routine as the 802.11n standard went through its final stages. Back then, however, the Wi-Fi Alliance (an industry trade group) assured consumers that all products based on the 802.11n Draft 2.0 standard and bearing the alliance's logo would be compatible with hardware based on the final standard—as well as with each other. The Wi-Fi Alliance offers no such assurances this time around.
So there's a slim chance that these early first-generation 802.11ac routers will be incompatible with hardware released after the standard is finalized. Another caveat is cost: Either you'll have to buy two 802.11ac routers and configure one of them as an 802.11ac bridge, or you'll have to buy one router and a dedicated 802.11ac bridge, in order to realize an 802.11ac router's full potential. And though the bridge will establish a wireless connection to the router, you'll need to use ethernet cables to connect devices to the bridge—because no desktop or laptop PC currently has built-in 802.11ac network adapters, and no USB 802.11ac network adapters exist. (Broadcom announced in June that Asus's new G75VW gaming laptop would include a built-in 802.11ac adapter; but as of September 11, Asus's website indicates that the machine has only an 802.11n adapter. Netgear, meanwhile, has announced a USB 802.11ac network adapter, but as of the same date, it had not yet shipped its A6200.)
So why should anyone consider buying an 802.11ac router? Well, if you're looking to connect up to four stationary clients in one location—a home theater PC, a smart TV, a Blu-ray player, and an A/V receiver, for instance—to a wireless network, an 802.11ac network will deliver better performance than anything else on the market. We're talking real-world throughput of 400 to 500 megabits per second (mbps) at close range; that's twice the speed of the best 802.11n routers.
And at very long range, where most 5GHz 802.11n routers peter out, an 802.11ac router can deliver throughput of between 50 mbps and 100 mbps—more than enough bandwidth to stream high-definition video. For more details on how the 802.11ac standard is designed to function, check out "Three-Minute Tech: IEEE 802.11ac" on PCWorld's new sister site, TechHive.
An 802.11ac router can also operate a concurrent 802.11n wireless network for your existing laptop, tablet, desktop PC, smartphone, and printer. In this sense, an 802.11ac router delivers the best of both worlds. As for the likelihood that the final 802.11ac standard will render products based on the 802.11ac Draft 2.0 standard obsolete, no one can guarantee that it won't, but in my opinion it's a fairly remote possibility.
If you're ready to make a leap of faith to the unfinished standard, the next question is "Which 802.11ac router is best?" I'm glad you asked. Here are my assessments of all five 802.11ac router models available for sale as of September 10, 2012, based on my tests:
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