30 Hardware and Windows Tips in 30 Days Tip 17: Before Going to 802.11n Wireless Networking, Check the Fine Print
Users who want the 'latest, greatest' wireless network are flocking to 802.11n hardware, but disappointment can await if you don't check specifications and performance carefully.
802.11g wireless networking, once the high-end performance choice, has now sunk into a comfortable middle age as the basic wireless network standard. Its former position as the fastest wireless network standard's been taken over by 802.11n - at least on paper. How can you make sure moving up to 802.11n gets you better performance? Follow these guidelines to avoid wasting your money.
1. 802.11n's fastest features are optional - and lots of vendors skimp on the options. 802.11n offers features such as the use of two high-speed channels to improve performance, and the ability to use the 5GHz frequencies pioneered by 802.11a wireless networks as well as the more crowded 2.4GHz frequencies used by 802.11g and 802.11b. Unfortunately, many implementations of 802.11n don't offer dual-channel connections or 5GHz frequencies. Look at the frequencies supported and the number (and speeds) of the channels used for top-speed performance to avoid disappointment.
2. MIMO means the more antennas, the merrier. MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) refers to the use of multiple antennas to improve throughput. Unfortunately, lots of low-end 802.11n hardware doesn't use MIMO effectively. Typically, the more expensive the router, the more antennas it features - but again, check the specifications.
3. Draft 2.0's closer to the final than draft 1.0. The first 802.11n hardware introduced supported draft 1.0 of the standard, but a lot changed with the development of Draft 2.0. Although 802.11n Draft 2.0 is still not the final version, the Wi-Fi Alliance started certifying hardware as 802.11n Draft 2.0 compliant in mid-2007. Buy Wi-Fi Certified Draft 2.0 hardware - and leave the Draft 1.0 802.11n hardware on the shelf.
4. Need to mix wired and wireless clients? Get Gig! Some 802.11n routers still include old 10/100 Ethernet ports, while others (usually the pricier models) support Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000), enabling full-speed wired connections to many recent systems. Check the speeds supported by the Ethernet ports to avoid slowing down Gigabit-capable wired clients.
5. Check third-party tests for the real-world word on performance. Performance claims from vendors mean even less with wireless network hardware than with other products. Tests performed by Maximum PC, PC World, PC Magazine, and others are a better way to tell how fast a particular combination of hardware is.