As more products hit store shelves with the promise of Wi-Fi connectivity, more households and small businesses are getting rid of their wired networks. However, while 802.11g has been the standard for quite some time, 802.11n -- in beta form -- has begun to replace 802.11g with its purported faster speeds and longer range.
What does it bring to the party that's new? Well, 802.11n builds on the 802.11 spec by allowing for a new feature called Multiple Input/Multiple Output (MIMO). MIMO uses multiple transmitter and receiver antennas to improve system performance. To further enhance its capabilities over a legacy router (a/b/g), the new 802.11n spec uses the 5GHz spectrum to reduce the interference issues found on 802.11g routers using the 2.4GHz spectrum.
For the past few years, the IEEE Standards Association -- the wireless spec governing body -- has issued a number of upgrades to the N spec, from pre-N to Draft-N to its current stage of development: Draft 2.0. Generally speaking, newer routers work on this new spec, which is the result of thousands of minute improvements to previous iterations. It's also worth noting that 802.11n has not been approved by the IEEE and should still be considered a work in progress.
Currently, there are two key questions to ask before purchasing any specific 802.11n router: Is it worth buying? And does it perform well enough to justify junking your 802.11g router and spending money on the new device?
In order to answer these questions, I tested six 802.11n routers (also known as N routers) from Apple, Belkin, Buffalo Wireless, D-Link, Linksys, and Netgear. I assessed the ease of use of the routers' menu system and used Ixia's IxChariot throughput software tool to measure each router's performance by moving a notebook equipped with an 802.11n client card 10, 50, and 200 feet away. I performed the tests twice -- once on a dedicated 802.11n network and once on a mixed network that supported both 802.11g and 802.11n devices. I then compared these results to the performance of a Linksys WRT54G 802.11g router.
It should be noted that my testing was performed in a “real world" environment -- namely, my home -- and not in a lab. The assumption was also that each device would be installed following the manufacturer's basic instructions in an environment that would be capable of accommodating both 802.11n and 802.11g devices, even if there were only N devices present.
As a result, it is possible that some, if not all, of the routers could have been tweaked in various ways to optimize performance. If you are comfortable going into the nitty-gritty -- especially if your home is equipped only with N-capable devices -- you may want to contact the vendor to find out how you can get the best performance possible.
What happened? Well, while you might expect N routers to perform much better than a G router, the results may surprise you.
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