Wireless Routers: The Truth About Superfast Draft-N
New wireless routers promise big speed and coverage improvements. But our lab tests show that the new products have big drawbacks.
Story by Becky Waring; Testing by Elliott Kirschling
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.
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.
- See our Wireless Routers chart
Features to Look For
QoS helps ensure smooth streaming media and VoIP calls by prioritizing multimedia packets on the network. All but the Netgear lines had this feature when we tested, and Netgear planned to add it via firmware updates. (Note that QoS support must be present in both your router and your adapters to work.)
UPnP enables automatic peer-to-peer connectivity of networked computers, hard drives, game consoles, streaming-media players, and even kitchen appliances, so that they can recognize one another and share data intelligently. We were pleased to see that all the tested routers had this capability.
Note, however, that in calculating the PCW Ratings we did not give draft-n products extra points for upgradability potential, since without vendor guarantees the value is uncertain at best.
Indeed, our bottom-line advice is to hold out for certified 802.11n products (turn to "What's Ahead for 802.11n" for more on the standard's progress), unless you just can't wait to get the added bandwidth for entertainment applications and large file transfers.
Wait If You Can
Remember that unless you upgrade all your adapters to match, you won't see the true benefits of any of these high-speed network technologies; this requirement adds nearly $100 per device to your investment in potentially nonstandard equipment. Just upgrading one adapter doesn't work well, since using older 802.11b/g devices at the same time can seriously affect router performance.
Also, older adapters are unlikely to support WPA2 encryption, which is needed to get the maximum out of draft-n. Finally, consider that for now new adapters are primarily for notebooks--only a few vendors also offer desktop cards, and most consumer electronics vendors are expected to hold off on products with fast Wi-Fi support until 802.11n is ratified.
If you must have added range now, consider the Netgear RangeMax 240, which earned the top rating in this group for its combination of performance, design, and features. If you're willing to take a performance hit in order to gamble on upgradability to the eventual standard, look at Netgear's draft-n-compliant RangeMax Next line, the only one in our tests that could approach the range of the Airgo-based products.
Though the Belkin N1 Wireless and Linksys Wireless-N routers had top-rated features, design, and usability, they faltered in performance. The Buffalo AirStation Nfiniti line performed similarly to the Belkin and Linksys products, but It suffered some serious flaws, such as a lack of strong WPA2 encryption--a must-have for this class of router.
Another option--if you are on a strict budget and are primarily concerned with improved range (as opposed to top speed)--is to invest in even older and cheaper Airgo-based gear, such as Belkin's Wireless G-Plus MIMO router. This unit's range is nearly as good, and its price is much lower.