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,
A high-definition gaming adapter, like the Linksys WGA600N, can be used as an access point to the router and a bridge connected to a wireless PC.
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.
To establish a baseline, we turned to an SMC Barricade N Pro Wireless Broadband Router. It's a meat-and-potatoes Draft 2.0 router. Apple's Airport Extreme made the cut, as did Netgear's RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Router. These are both dual-band but not simultaneous. You can use them on one band or the other, but not both at the same time. D-Link's Xtreme N Duo Media Router and Linksys WRT610N are both simultaneous dual-band routers. These last two are supposed to be the workhorses of the group.
Keep in mind as you go through the reviews that we're only using "802.11n" as a short form. While they are all Draft 2.0 compliant, these routers are "pre-802.11n" until such time as the specification is a finally ratified. That means they could be subject to change between now and then -- as they were between when the plan was first laid out and now. The harsh reality is that if manufacturers are going to spend money developing the specification, they also need to recoup some of that money by selling products -- whether they're going to change over time or not. Reality bites.
How We Tested
There are a myriad number of ways to test routers and other Wi-Fi gear and they're all equally correct and, probably to some extent, equally wrong. Besides, it's already been established that 802.11n products -- even in Draft form -- do produce an empirical increase in throughput and distance.
We're not going to re-invent the wheel. Instead, we chose a very simple approach, which started by optimizing the network topology. If that sounds impressive, it's just taking a close look at what components are in a network and where they are in relation to the router.
In our case, we removed a Linksys WRT600N router from an upstairs room where all computing for our nine PCs had begun and spread downward through the house. We moved that router to the ground floor. Naturally that meant that the upstairs computers needed to be converted to wireless. Computers on the main floor were hardwired into the router and the computers in the basement were configured wirelessly.
The reconfiguration placed the wireless PCs, on average, eight feet above or below the router and no more than 20 feet away laterally. (Feel free to use the hypotenuse of a right triangle formula to figure the exact distance as the Wi-Fi flies.) The places where 802.11g adapters could not be found by the router ("dead zones") were gone.
Technically, that negated the need for the better accuracy and increased distance coverage of 802.11n gear. (And it's something you should consider before you run off with your credit card in hand.)
Our tests started with a simple file-transfer process: copy an 873-MB mpeg video file from a wired PC on the main floor through the router to a wireless PC in the basement. During the file test, we shut down all of the PCs except the single wired computer on the main floor and the one wireless computer in the basement.
Those file transfers were accomplished at each of the bands available from the routers (2.4 GHz and/or 5 GHz). First we used the native equipment (a Linksys router and Linksys Wi-Fi adapter, for example). Then we reconfigured the wireless computer with a Netgear N121T adapter. It's an older 802.11n device and, basically, gives us a reasonable attempt at finding compatibility with the new equipment. After that, we configured a pair of Netgear WNHDE111 high-definition gaming adapters as an access point to the router and as a bridge connected to the basement PC.
If you've never heard of that before, it's pretty slick. The connection between the bridge and the access point is wireless and, for these adapters, uses the 5-GHz band. However, the PC and the router on each end of the setup believe they're wired together, so it totally ignores what might be happening on the router's wireless side. Effectively, if you have a 2.4-GHz router, adding the gaming/media adapters gives you a simultaneous 5-GHz and 2.4-GHz Wi-Fi arrangement. (Even if your original router is a 802.11g.)
Once all of the file transfers were done, we turned everything on for every computer (nine of them) plus a Roku Netflix player and started having fun playing videos and downloading Instant Play videos from Netflix. Whether it was the overall quality of the new gear or the optimized site topology, everything went smoothly. The only exception was Linksys, which we describe in the detailed review that follows.
SMC Barricade N Pro
Setting up the SMC Barricade was like returning to an old friend.
Features: Dual Band: No Firewall: Yes Data Stream Management: Yes Wi-Fi Protected Setup: Yes Antennas: 3 Number of Switch Ports: 4 Port Speed: 10/100 USB Port: Printer Dimensions: 7.1 x 4.8 x 1.2 in.
Test Results (in minutes) Proprietary 2.4 GHz: 3.5 Proprietary 5 GHz: N/A Netgear N121T: 2.2 Netgear 5GHz HD: 2.0
Setting up the SMC Barricade N Pro Wireless Broadband Router SMCWBR14-N2 was like returning to an old friend. After years of testing Draft N equipment, nearly a dozen similar routers lounge around the place. They are all basically big, fat waffles, each with a cadre of antennas poking out into the world. Setup was better than in the past.
The Barricade worked out of the box: Attach it to the modem, attach your PC, power up the modem, router, and PC (in that order), and Shazaam, it's working! You can stop there if you want, or you can run your browser and reach the router through its address, provided on the quick start sheet. Once you've customized names or passwords or any other parameter you feel needs tweaking, close the browser and you're done.
SMC's USB adapter (SMCWUSB-N) is just a tad more complex -- you'll need to run a driver disk. This is single-band equipment so there are no 5-GHz versus 2.4-GHz choices to make. It operates solely at 2.4 GHz and the two SMC components work together in a surprisingly odd manner.
Since we were looking to establish base timings, we weren't expecting all that much from a basic 802.11n unit. (Yes, we're jaded.) We were also correct, of course. Transferring our 873-MB file took 3.5 minutes and that was dead last in the group, tied with D-Link. The Barricade had no problem with our older Netgear N121T USB adapter, punching through the file transfer in a meager 2.2 minutes, tied with Linksys.
When we bypassed the wireless portion of the router and ran the test through our WNHDE111 HD gaming adapters, the transfer time was 2.0 minutes, which was about a half-minute slower than the rest of the group -- with the exception of Apple's 1.9-minute time.
All told, this is a great 802.11n single-band starter kit if you're looking to test the waters before 802.11n goes live next year. You can also add 5 GHz to it via the HD gaming adapters so there's no tossing it out as the technology advances.
Apple Airport Extreme
Apple's Airport Extreme is equally capable in both Windows or OS X.
Features: Dual Band: Either/Or Firewall: Yes Data Stream Management: No Wi-Fi Protected Setup: Yes Antennas: 3 Number of Switch Ports: 3 Port Speed: 10/100/1000 USB Port: Printer/Disk Dimensions: 6.5 x 6.5 x.1.3 in
A little shorter and all white, Apple's Airport Extreme dual-band router is a good physical match for the similarly square Mac Mini. And if are wondering why an Apple product is included in a router review that's so obviously PC, admittedly Apple came late to the table with its newest incarnation of the Airport Extreme, but it delivered a router that is equally capable under either a Mac or PC environment.
Installation is a snap with the provided disc. It delivers the needed software for either Windows or OS X, depending on what environment it finds itself in. Apple has accomplished a near miracle by making the Airport utility software -- the core application from which you customize the router for either 2.4-GHz or 5-GHz operation (it's not simultaneous) -- run in relatively plain English. It's a linear progression of option selections that get you from start to finish without having you break a sweat.
In case you hadn't noticed, there aren't many (i.e., none) 802.11n adapter cards available from Apple. Why should there be? Most of the newer Macs and Macbooks are already "n" enabled. There went the portion of our testing scheme that called for file transfers in 5-GHz and 2.4-GHz bands using a proprietary adapter. So we cheated a bit. Instead of using a native adapter, we employed a MacBook as the proprietary hardware for both 5-GHz and 2.4-GHz proprietary transfer tests.
Although the testing is not 100% comparable because of differences in hard drive and processor speeds between our PC test and the MacBook, the Airport Extreme did turn in the second-best 2.4-GHz transfer time. The 2.5 minutes it needed to move our 873-MB video file was second only to Netgear's RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N. Likewise, it took top honors at 5 GHz (by a scant but measurable 0.1 minutes).
Why bother if we can't directly compare? The Airport Extreme can also be used as a bridge, attached to an existing router. If you have an 802.11n single band router or, gasp, an 802.11g router, simply attach the Airport Extreme to it, use the Airport Utility software to set it up for 5 GHz, and you have a simultaneous dual-band router that runs quite rapidly at 5 GHz -- 1.5 minutes in our testing. You can mix and match your existing Wi-Fi gear to it, or be exclusive and just hang any new Apple 802.11n equipment on it and leave your old PC gear to your old router.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Airport Extreme evolved into one of our favorite routers during the testing. It's not cheap by any means, but its performance and flexibility is worth the price of admission.
Netgear RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N
Netgear's WNDR3300 isn't as solid a 802.11n router as we hoped to see.
Features: Dual Band: Either/Or Firewall: Yes Data Stream Management: Yes Wi-Fi Protected Setup: Yes Antennas: 8 Number of Switch Ports: 4 Port Speed: 10/100 USB Port: No Dimensions: 8.8 x 6.0 x 1.2 in
Looking not a lot different than a rectangular alien spaceship flashing bright blue LEDs under a clear dome on top, Netgear's RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Router WNDR3300 is possibility one of the most annoying routers you'd ever not want to look at. Then again, an appreciation for eye-searing blue pulses over my preference for the twinkle of amber and green LEDs (which it also has) could be an acquired taste.
As with Apple's Airport Extreme, Netgear's WNDR3300 is not a simultaneous dual-band model. You can, however, use its browser-based interface to switch among several modes -- some of which might give you pause, literally.
Up to 270 Mbps at 2.4GHz
Up to 270 Mbps at 5 GHz & 54 Mbps at 2.4 GHz
Up to 130 Mbps at 2.4 GHz
Up to 130 Mbps at 5 GHz & 54 Mbps at 2.4 GHz
The default is "Up to 270 Mbps at 2.4 GHz", which allows all 11b/11g and 802.11n wireless stations to peacefully co-exist at 2.4 GHz at a reasonable speed. If you want 5 GHz, the second and fourth options will allow it but you're driving everything else (basically, any 802.11g legacy adapters you might be using) way down to 54 Mbps and disallowing any 2.4-GHz 802.11n adapters you might be using, unless they also support 802.11g fallback.
Although security typically means remembering annoying passwords, Netgear supports Wi-Fi protected setup -- which it calls "Push 'N' Connect." Basically, press the button on the router, then press the WPS (or would that be "P'N'C"?) button on the adapter -- if it has one. The two devices will talk it over as the router configures the adapter to work correctly.
Of course, if you have a wireless adapter like Netgear's WNDA3100 USB device that doesn't have a WPS button, you'll need to follow along with the installation wizard you'll find on the provided disc -- and you'll also need to remember the annoying password -- at least once. Other than that, the whole process is simplicity itself.
All of the possible connectivity options made the WNDR3300 a bear to test. In fact, we ran it through the mill three times, once at 270 Mbps @ 2.4 GHz, once 130 Mbps @ 2.4 GHz, and finally 270 Mbps @ 5GHz/54 Mbps @ 2.4 GHz.
Its most impressive performances were in the 2.4-GHz band, where it transferred our 873-MB test file in 1.9 minutes and two minutes at a rated 270 Mbps and 130 Mbps, respectively. It was not noteworthy in any other testing venue. Netgear's own WNHDE111 gaming AP/bridge was 0.8 minutes faster at 5 GHz.
If experience is any teacher, at some point between now and when 80.11n is finally ratified, Netgear will release a rock-solid router with all the expected bells and whistles. The WNDR3300 isn't it.
D-Link Xtreme N Duo Media Router
While the shift in router design is toward internal antennas, the DLink's Xtreme N Duo Media Router clings to a more traditional design with three external antennas.
Features: Dual Band: Simultaneous Firewall: Yes Data Stream Management: Yes Wi-Fi Protected Setup: Yes Antennas: 3 Number of Switch Ports: 4 Port Speed: 10/100/1000 USB Port: Disk Dimensions: 4.6 x 7.6 x 1.2 in
D-Link offers a simultaneous dual-band router called the Xtreme N Duo Media Router DIR-855. "Simultaneous," of course, means that you can access both bands at the same time -- effectively setting up a situation where you can use the 2.4-GHz band for your usual data files and tap into the less crowded 5-GHz band for your media needs. That's the theory.
D-Link's installation software is plain English, question and answer, and so meticulous to detail that it's almost tediously annoying. When it's done, especially if you also agree to use the trial version of Network Magic, you're not only up and running but you're also monitoring your network's performance via daily e-mail reports. (For the geekier among us, you can access all of the router's features via a browser-based based interface. As you might suspect, that approach offers access to a somewhat more comprehensive feature set.)
On the hardware end, the rectangular white box lies flat by design. The network activity display would be otherwise difficult to read if the router was set up sideways on blocks. That display provides an easily readable status panel for the router, but you may never have a need for it after the initial installation (although maybe not even then) and doubly so if you're using Network Magic.
While the shift seems to be toward internal antennas, the Xtreme N Duo Media Router clings to a more traditional design of three external antennas. The plus factor to the arrangement is that they are removable and can be replaced with range-increasing alternatives. The minus is that they tend to crowd the back panel connectors somewhat for those who are proud to be ham-handed.
Performance was a bit scattered for the DIR-855. It did its worst work transferring our 873-MB test file at 2.4 GHz through D-Link's own Xtreme N Dual Band USB Adapter DWA-160. At 5 GHZ, the DIR-855 fell behind leaders Apple and Linksys by almost half a minute. Surprisingly, it and our old Netgear N121T USB adapter refused to talk to each other in any meaningful way. Windows pegged the file-transfer time at greater than 30 minutes and terminated the process after five. It worked well with our pair of Netgear WNHDE111 HD gaming adapters, turning in a 1.6-minute time to transfer our test file, but that was 0.4 minutes faster than this simultaneous router could muster on its own.
We really can't recommend the DIR-855 at this point. The price is close to $300 for just the router (the DWA-160 is about $90 additional) at retail sites recommended by D-Link and there's just not that much here to merit that kind of pricing. If the plain English display was effective for the router's operation, we could understand -- and agree -- with the pricing. Novelty items are always extra but they should be optional.
During our initial testing, file transfer using the Linksys WRT610N at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz lost connection and terminated. Things continued to carry on in that manner.
Features: Dual Band: Simultaneous Firewall: Yes Data Stream Management: Yes Wi-Fi Protected Setup: Yes Antennas: 3 per band Number of Switch Ports: 4 Port Speed: 10/100/1000 USB Port: Disk Dimensions: 8.9 x 7.1 x 1.48 in
It took a few seconds to figure out how to turn off the audio track Linksys uses on the WRT610N product site. A sound-enabling Web page is generally considered a slick feature and, as such, it certainly matches the slick appearance of the router itself -- think rear end of a Mitsubishi Eclipse with wrap-around spoiler. The audio track is just oh-so-annoying if you know how to read and prefer to do that instead.
Setup is fairly straightforward and in plain English. When you're done you're up and running with a simultaneous dual-band router -- maybe. During our initial testing, file transfer at both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz lost connection and terminated. Then, after about a half hour, none of the computers we tried could find the 5-GHz band on our first WRT610N. We went through a variety of possible fixes (including a firmware upgrade) with Linksys technical support, but nothing worked. So we had it replaced with another one.
The second WRT610N already had its firmware upgraded and agreed to talk with the Linksys WUSB600N USB adapter. Unfortunately, when we called up our list of attached computers via the Windows Network icon, the PC that was hard-wired to the router was nowhere to be found in the list. It took another contact with technical support to cure that problem, but then media playback at 5 GHz got splotchy.
Things continued to carry on in that manner, to the point that we finally asked if the router might still be a beta model and not a production unit. We were told that it was definitely a retail product. That wasn't a great answer, considering how it was acting, and, when testing was done, we ran -- not walked -- to our router closet and re-installed the WRT600N we'd been using for the last seven months or so.
We can't over-emphasize that we have never had problems with any Linksys router similar to the degree we experienced with the WRT610N. When it worked correctly, it proved itself to be one of the top two (tied with Apple's Airport Extreme) devices in performance. But we felt the need to cross our fingers for luck whenever we walked away from it. We just had no confidence that we'd return to the same conditions as when we left.
On the bright side, a pair of Linksys WGA600N dual-band gaming adapters worked perfectly to create a simultaneous dual-band environment with the older WRT600N. They were the equals of the Netgear WNHDE111 devices we've been using.
As with D-Link, it's difficult to recommend the WRT610N at this point. The WGA600N and WUSB600N adapters are champs if you want to add them to and expand your existing network but, as things stand right now, that's just a two-legged simultaneous dual-band Linksys stool.
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