Review: 6 Ultrafast 802.11n Wi-Fi Routers - InformationWeek

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04:17 PM

Review: 6 Ultrafast 802.11n Wi-Fi Routers

Here's a look at 802.11n routers from Apple, Belkin, Buffalo, D-Link, Linksys, and Netgear. Read on to find out which device is your best choice.

Airport Extreme Base Station
(click image to see larger view)
Apple, Inc.
Price: $179
Apple's Airport Extreme Base Station will immediately jump out at you with its simple yet elegant design.
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Apple's Airport Extreme Base Station will immediately jump out at you with its simple yet elegant design. Its white finish makes it a fashionable addition to any room, but its performance and price make this router a bit of a disappointment.

Setting up the Airport Extreme Base Station takes a matter of minutes. Much like other Apple products, it "just works." The router comes with an Airport Utility CD that works on both Mac and Windows, and allows you to easily configure the router: change the router name, assign it a location, and establish WEP or WPA encryption. Without a doubt, this setup was the quickest and simplest of all the routers in this roundup, but it would have been nice if advanced features were more readily available.

That said, it's not hard to find those features beneath another tab called "Manual setup." It offers the option of setting access times if you don't want your kids to use the Internet while they should be doing homework, and even lets you pick which band (2.4GHz or 5GHz) to use. When using the 2.4GHz band, any B- or G-equipped device can connect to the Base Station. With the 5GHz option turned on, only N routers can connect to the wireless network; I found that this option substantially improved overall performance.

When I measured the G router's throughput at a distance of 10 feet, I got speeds of roughly 10 to 20Mbps. With the Airport Extreme, speeds on a dedicated 802.11n at the same distance were almost 78Mbps, a middling good speed compared to the other routers in this roundup. At 50 feet, however, the Airport Extreme performed almost as well with speeds measuring 75Mbps. At 200 feet, I measured speeds of 35 Mbps.

(After speaking with the Apple technical team, the company pointed out that the aforementioned 78Mbps figure could be improved if the router was optimized to run in a 5GHz, N-only mode -- meaning that you could only use it with 802.11n devices -- by fiddling with the Airport Utility settings. Upon following the tech's step-by-step instructions, I measured 98Mbps throughput at a distance of ten feet. )

Unfortunately, its numbers on a mixed network failed to impress. At a distance of 10 feet on a mixed network, the router scored just 14Mbps -- a very low showing for such a high-priced router.

The Linksys 802.11g router is incapable of maintaining a connection past the back corner of my home. With the Airport Extreme in the same location, I was able to connect to the Internet at a distance of 100 feet past the aforementioned corner. In fact, Apple's router actually performed better than its publicized 2x range.

The Apple Airport Extreme Base Station is a nicely designed router that has the best setup process of any currently available device. The Airport Utility feature makes it easy for both novice and advanced users to customize the router and an intelligent troubleshoot feature that tells you know when something has gone awry makes this product unique.

Although it performed better than a G router in both a dedicated N network and a mixed environment, it may be hard to justify spending $179 on a product that, in a mixed environment, performs nominally better than a well-equipped G router.

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