If you need to connect just a single client, such as a laptop or a home-theater PC, to your 802.11ac network, a Wi-Fi client USB adapter is much cheaper than a wireless bridge. Netgear’s A6200 is one of the best.
If you need to connect several wired clients to your 802.11ac network, you should set up a wireless bridge. If you have just one client—especially a laptop, or maybe a home-theater PC—Netgear offers a better, cheaper alternative: Plug its A6200 USB Wi-Fi adapter into your PC and establish a wireless connection that’s fast enough to stream Blu-ray-quality video.
The A6200 is a dual-band adapter capable of operating on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands (as an 802.11n device and an 802.11ac device, respectively). We tested both scenarios, comparing its 802.11n performance with that of the Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 Wi-Fi adapter integrated into our AVADirect gaming laptop, and its 802.11ac performance with that of Cisco’s Linksys WUMC710 wireless bridge.
Being a USB adapter, the A6200 draws the power it needs from the computer, whereas the WUMC710 requires AC power. Netgear’s device, however, can transmit and receive only two 802.11ac spatial streams (900 mbps aggregate), whereas Cisco’s supports three (1.3 gbps aggregate). Bear in mind that those theoretical maximum speeds are nothing close to what you’ll get in the real world, and that the USB 2.0 interface the A6200 uses maxes out at 480 mbps anyway (the Cisco product’s physical connection to its clients is either 10/100 ethernet or gigabit ethernet).
In any event, in our tests the A6200 delivered considerably less throughput than the WUMC710 did, particularly at close range (with the client in the same room as the router, separated by 9 feet). Nonetheless, the A6200 provided more than enough bandwidth to stream Blu-ray-quality video from a home server to the client regardless of distance: 221 mbps at 9 feet, 154 mbps at 35 feet, and 152 mbps at 65 feet. (We used SlySoft’s AnyDVD HD to rip the movie Spider-Man 3 from a Blu-ray Disc and saved it as an ISO image on the server. We then used SlySoft’s Virtual CloneDrive to mount the ISO image on our laptop and streamed it over the network via CyberLink’s PowerDVD 12 Ultra).
The A6200 is also a good 802.11n network adapter operating on the 2.4GHz frequency band. Here again, the A6200 supports only two spatial streams (300 mbps aggregate), whereas the Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 built into our test laptop supports three (450 mbps aggregate). Intel’s adapter stomped the A6200 at close range (with signal oversaturation being the likely culprit), but Netgear’s device pulled out wins when the client was in a home theater 35 feet away from the router and in a home office 65 feet from the router. Those results are likely due to the fact that the Netgear’s two antennas were outside the laptop’s enclosure, while the Intel product’s antennas were tucked inside it.
Speaking of antennas, the A6200’s USB connector can pivot from 180 degrees to 90 degrees, and its antenna can rotate from a negative 180 degrees to a positive 180 degrees (this flexibility adds 1 inch to the adapter’s length, which could increase its range depending on the router’s location and the antenna orientation). Netgear also provides a USB stand with a 3-foot cable that gives you many more options when it comes to placing the adapter. Netgear recommends using the stand, and that’s how we tested the adapter.
If you’re running an 802.11ac Draft 2.0 router, you have a laptop, and you want the fastest possible wireless connection to your network, Netgear’s A6200 is a no-brainer. It’s also a great choice if you’re looking to connect just one wireless PC to your 802.11ac network, because it’s far less expensive than an 802.11ac wireless bridge that has three additional ethernet ports you don’t need. If you are looking to connect several clients to your network, and they’re all in the same spot, the bridge remains the better option.
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Michael is TechHive's lead editor and covers the smart home and home entertainment markets. He built his own smart home in 2007, which he uses as a real-world test lab when reviewing new products. Michael also reviews routers and networking products for TechHive and PCWorld.