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Dual-Band Router Showdown

Our reviewer picks the top networking gear from SMC, Apple, DLink, Linksys, and Netgear.

The Linksys WRT610N has a slick appearance.
(click for image gallery)

The African elephant has one of the longest gestation periods of any mammal: 660 days on average.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has been working on the 802.11n specification for nearly 1,825 days, or five years now, and hopes to have a final version by the end of 2009.

We really could have used an 802.11n router last year, we probably needed them this year, and by the time they show up next year we'll likely need something faster anyway. But that hasn't stopped the presses -- or the device manufacturers.

Over the years, router makers have been cobbling together "Pre-N," "Draft-N," and any myriad number of products with names that associate their devices with the 802.11n standard without actually saying they are the standard -- because they're not, because there isn't one. They're all based on draft proposals that keep inching closer to what the standard could be. Latest out of the blocks is dual-band 802.11n.

Why have we bothered to wait around for so long? It's because 802.11n is better and faster than 802.11g -- the current honest-to-goodness standard. Yes, it really is. Multiple input multiple output, or MIMO, technology, allows a router to send more information over multiple radios at the same time and receive data more reliably, thanks to multiple antennas. Better still, since it can compare the different antennas' data streams, it can fill in any missing data to derive the correct content. Good stuff, huh?

As a side benefit, because it can work with partially corrupted signals, you can squeeze more range out of an 802.11n. In fact, the boast is that it works best with the most reflections. (More fractured data streams mean more signals to compare and integrate.) Enabling mint julep-sipping out on the veranda while surfing the net is worth the wait!

Until now, however, our Wi-Fi has been wallowing in the doldrums of the 2.4-GHz band. That also happens to be where you'll find your microwave, most cordless phones, some garage door openers, and baby monitors -- among other things. You have to deal with all of that -- plus all your neighbors' Wi-Fi signals. That's why we're jumping on the 5-GHz band.

Of the 11 Wi-Fi channels in the 2.4-GHz spectrum available in the United States, only three: 1, 6, and 11, don't overlap, based on a 20-MHz wide signal. With 24 channels on 5 GHz, there is more overall bandwidth available to accommodate the use of wider channels, making things faster. In theory, that would increase throughput to 540 Mbps rather than the 135 Mbps on the mandated (2.4-GHz) 20-Mhz signal. But we all know about theory, right? The truth is that most 802.11n product manufacturers don't advertise 540 Mbps. They usually use a number closer to 300 Mbps. The honest truth is that actual throughput can hover around 120 Mbps and that's still quite a bit faster than you'd achieve with 802.11g on its best days.

The way to use dual-band 802.11n correctly is to keep all mundane Internet tasks (mail, Web surfing, etc.) down on 2.4 GHz and throw all your streaming tasks (audio, video, and the like) up on 5 GHz where the lanes are wider and can better handle the load. That's why the latest iteration of 802.11n supports dual-band operation and the latest version will let you use those two bands in the same router simultaneously.

Which brings us to the dual-band routers we've chosen to review.

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