This story originally appeared on Oct. 2, 2007
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.
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.
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.
The Belkin N1 Vision offers something other N routers do not -- an LCD screen that provides you with more information than you'll ever know what to do with. To the right of the screen, the N1 sports a handy set of buttons that allow you to work your way through the menu, choose options like SSID and encryption, and get status updates as needed. Even better, the router displays extras like a map of all the computers connected to it and usage over the past 24 hours.
One of the best features of this Draft 2.0 router is its inclusion of a guest SSID, which effectively allows protected guest access while prohibiting malicious users to use your network. The guest SSID feature allows friends to get on the Internet, but they cannot access other areas of the network, including other computers. It also generates a guest password for added security.
Unlike other routers, the Belkin N1 Vision features three antennas that protrude out the back of the device. While this makes for a stylish design, it also contributes to this router's poor performance due to the inability to position the antennas in the direction of the wireless device.
While measuring on a dedicated N-network, I witnessed speeds of roughly 65Mbps from 10 feet away; this less-than-impressive performance dropped off significantly to 60Mbps at 50 feet. At 200 feet, the measured throughput was just 20Mbps. If included in a mixed environment (N and G devices), the witnessed speed at ten feet was almost 30Mbps.
Range performance was equal to that of the other routers in this round-up -- it extended to 100 feet past the back corner of my home.
The Belkin N1 Vision is a sleek router with an LCD that makes it easy to get information about the workings of the router. Unfortunately, that also means it comes with a steep price of $199. Performance on the router could have been better, and except for range improvements, you probably won't notice a difference between your current G router and this device if you're running in a mixed environment.
The Nfiniti is an 802.11n Draft 2.0 device that's ready for use in no time. Much like the Apple Airport Extreme, the Nfiniti comes with a handy Client Manager that lets you customize the router's settings on any Windows PC. Another nice feature of this router is Buffalo's decision to include its AirStation One-Touch Secure System (AOSS). AOSS, which can be activated by pressing the corresponding button on the top of the router, is a one-step setup that allows you to toggle security settings for any kind of wireless traffic, including Web surfing, streaming media, or using your Nintendo DS.
Similar to Apple's Airport Utility, the Nfiniti's Client Manager features an intuitive interface and a menu system suitable for novices and advanced users alike. One especially useful feature is the router's inclusion of an NAT/SPI firewall and intrusion detector, which constantly searches for unwanted attempts at accessing the network and once found, alerts you to those attempts.
Besides a healthy set of features, the Nfiniti really shines when you start using it. When measuring throughput from 10 feet away, the router actually offered 148Mbps -- well above any other router in my testing. Next, I moved it back to 50 feet and then 200 feet, and found the throughput dropped slightly to 137Mbps and 78Mbps, respectively. On a mixed network, the router still performed admirably with speeds measuring 65Mbps at distances of 10 feet.
The Buffalo G300N actually surpassed the range of the other routers -- it easily extended to 150 feet past the back corner of my home, where the G network went dead.
The Buffalo G300N is a fantastic router that performs better than any other N router I tested. And for an affordable price of $100, this router should be on the top of your list if you plan on establishing an N network in your home.
With a sleek white finish and three matching white antennas, the Dir-655 will look snazzy in just about any location. It features a USB port on the back, which lets you plug in a printer or storage device, but I was disappointed to discover that I couldn't share those products with other computers on the network.
One of the router's best features is its inclusion of a sophisticated QoS monitoring system that effectively allows you to prioritize traffic on the network. If you're a gamer, or you want to stream video or use Skype, these latency-sensitive programs can be set to a higher tier and thus given preference over the less important traffic such as downloads. In essence, this feature gives you the ability to dole out the best performance as needed.
Unfortunately, the Dir-655 still uses a Web interface to configure the router -- as a result, its usability is abysmal. It affords tremendous customization capabilities and allows advanced users the latitude they can expect from a well-built router, but the menus are overcrowded and maneuvering your way to a specified setting is a pain. For example, a simple task like port forwarding, which should take a few seconds to configure, took me almost five minutes to find, configure, and implement.
Although I had problems with the menu system, the Dir-655 performed extremely well and almost matched the Buffalo G300N. At a distance of 10 feet, the measured throughput speeds over a dedicated N-network reached 120 Mbps, but at distances of 50 feet and 200 feet, that figure declined to 95 Mbps and 35 Mbps, respectively.
On a mixed network, the Dir-655 actually performed better than the Buffalo G300N, with measured speeds at 10 feet of 77 Mbps.
I was quite impressed with the range of the Dir-655, which almost matched the Buffalo G300N as well. All told, the router was able to carry a signal 130 feet past the back corner of my home -- a slight 20 feet less than the G300N.
The D-Link Dir-655 is a great router that performs extremely well in both dedicated N- and mixed networks. In fact, the Dir-655 is the best router I tested on mixed networks. That said, the high $170 price tag and complicated menu customization screens should be taken into consideration.
Much like every other Linksys router, the setup was quick and efficient. In a matter of minutes, the WRT350N was up and running. The router comes with a disc that can be used to set it up and install necessary drivers, but most people can leave that in the box and go it alone.
Once set up, a typical Linksys administrative page helps you customize the router's settings. Much like the D-Link page, the Linksys menu system is cluttered and not very well thought out. More often than not, you'll spend most of your time looking for a setting that is hidden in an entirely different menu. For example, if you want to encrypt your home network, you would think that the settings would be found under the Security tab -- however, you'll actually find it under the Wireless tab. Not only did this add more time to the initial setup than necessary, it made me come to dread the thought of going back into the page.
Linksys' decision to include a USB port on the back of the device was a welcome addition. Much like the Airport Extreme, the router is capable of accepting printers and storage devices that can be used by any computer (wired or wireless) on the network. This feature comes in handy when you want to transfer a large file from one computer to another.
Performance was not what I hoped to see from the 350N. At a range of ten feet, the router only offered speeds of 75 Mbps over a dedicated N-network. As I increased the distance to 50 feet and 200 feet, its speed trailed off to 70 Mbps and a crawling 17 Mbps, respectively. In mixed network mode, the router was only able to dole out speeds of 25 Mbps at a range of ten feet -- unacceptable for a router at that price.
All in all, the measured range was roughly the same as the Airport Extreme (100 feet), but still significantly worse than the Buffalo and D-link routers.
With significant performance issues and a difficult customization utility, the WRT350N doesn't hit the top of my list.
The RangeMax is simple in design and, like the Airport Extreme, doesn't have any external wireless antennas. While this contributes to its clean look, it would have been nice to be able to position the antennas to maximize signal strength.
Installation was a breeze. Like its competitors, the RangeMax can be installed with the help of the included CD entitled, "Start Here." Once loaded, the CD gives you the option of walking you through the installation process (designed for novices) or a manual installation, which lets you surf over to the router's IP address and customize it as you wish.
While the simple installation was a nice feature, the advanced customization opportunities found on the administrative page made for a more reliable experience. The administrative page allows you to manipulate the router's security settings by initiating its encryption and even allows you to activate a firewall via NAT or SPI. Sure, all of these features can be found on the other routers, but Netgear's administrative page offers a much cleaner feel and a more intuitive interface than its competitors.
Performance wasn't the strongest aspect of the RangeMax; in fact, I found it to be quite sluggish when compared to the Buffalo and D-Link routers. At a range of ten feet, the router was only able to muster speeds of 66 Mbps in a dedicated N-network and 55 Mbps and 26 Mbps at distances of 50 feet and 200 feet, respectively.
In a mixed environment, the RangeMax performed well below expectations. At a range of just ten feet, I was only able to get 37 Mbps out of the router.
Measured range was fairly standard; the router was able to hold its signal at a distance of roughly 100 feet past the back corner of my house.
The Netgear RangeMax Next router is a fine device that performs well, although it's not up to high bar set by the Buffalo Nfiniti or the D-Link Dir-655. But with a nice customization menu and a relatively stylish design, maybe the next iteration can add to those benefits.
If you currently don't have a wireless network in your home, then by all means, pick one of these N routers and establish a home network. If you do have a G-router, it's best to stick with it.
Sadly, the average home will not realize any significant benefits of using an N-router because its speeds, while faster than a legacy device, do not translate well until you're far enough away. In other words, the speed increases will not be significant enough to justify spending over $100 for a new device. To make matters worse, the IEEE has yet to solidify one spec as the de facto N-router, which means these routers could become obsolete before you get a return on your investment.
N routers are more capable than the G routers that came before them. But with an unknown future and devices that offer nominally better performance, you may be wise to wait before you invest.