802.11n Wi-Fi Routers: Tested to the Nth degree

We benchmark five of the best 802.11n routers available today. Don't you dare upgrade your Wi-Fi without first reading our results.

Sure, those fancy new 802.11ac routers are wicked fast, but the IEEE isn't expected to ratify that standard until later this year. So today's 802.11ac hardware could be rendered obsolete if the standards body changes course between now and November.

That probably won't happen, but if you value interoperability assurances more than raw speed--for instance, if you're buying networking equipment for your small business--you'll want to stick with products based on the tried-and-true 802.11n standard. Here's a look at five of the best routers in that category.

You might recall that the first 802.11n routers hit the market in advance of the IEEE's final ratification of that standard. But there's a key difference: Back then, the Wi-Fi Alliance ran a certification program that not only assured consumers that all 802.11 Draft N equipment bearing the Wi-Fi logo would operate together, but that those devices would also be compatible with the final 802.11n standard. The Wi-Fi Alliance is not operating such a program for gear based on the 802.11ac draft standard, so you're on your own.

What the jargon means

Each of the routers in this roundup is a so-called N900 model, meaning it supports three 150-megabits-per-second spatial streams on the 2.4GHz frequency band, and three 150-mbps spatial streams on the 5GHz frequency band. That's 450 mbps in total for each band. Multiply that by two and you get 900. You should be aware, however, that none of these routers will actually deliver 900 mbps of data throughput--N900 is just a label.

Each frequency band is subdivided into channels. The 2.4GHz band has 11 available channels (in North America, that is). Each channel is 20MHz wide, but only three of the 11 channels don't overlap one another. To reach 450 mbps, the router must bond two of the 11 channels together to form one that's 40MHz wide. But in order to avoid a situation where one router consumes all the available bandwidth in its vicinity, a router is supposed to abide by what's known as a "good neighbor" policy: It should not bond two of the non-overlapping channels, and it should engage in channel bonding only if it doesn't detect any nearby routers operating in the same spectrum. As a result, it's almost impossible for a 2.4GHz router to achieve channel bonding in a city environment, because so many other devices operate in this same spectrum (everything from microwave ovens to cordless phones, not to mention other routers).

There are many more channels available on the 5GHz frequency band, so crowding is much less of a problem. As a result, a router operating in the 5GHz spectrum can more readily engage in channel bonding without interfering with other routers operating nearby. The downside of operating a router on the 5GHz band is that it will deliver less range, because the smaller wavelengths are more readily absorbed by walls and other solid objects in the signal path.

You might be wondering why 802.11ac routers, which operate exclusively in the 5GHz band, don't have the same problem with range. One reason is that the 802.11ac standard uses channels with more bandwidth (each channel is 80MHz wide, versus the 20MHz-wide channels that 802.11n routers use). Another is that the 802.11ac standard uses a higher-density signal modulation scheme (256 QAM versus the 64 QAM that 802.11n routers use).

Common features of 802.11n routers

Cloud services Some routers allow you to administer them from an Internet connection. More-advanced models let you access storage attached to the router from the cloud, and a few even give you the power to access PCs connected to the router from the cloud.

Guest network A guest network allows you to establish a separate wireless network that your guests can use. It allows them to access the Internet, but prevents them from accessing other PCs or storage devices operating on your network. A guest network is a courtesy that small-business owners can offer their customers, and that individuals and families can offer their visitors.

Media servers Any router should be equipped with a UPnP (Universal Plug-n-Play) server at a minimum. This enables the router to stream music and video to client devices on the network. More-advanced routers will also offer a DLNA-certified streamer (the acronym stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, and the standard has been embraced by nearly every company in the consumer-electronics industry). If you're an iTunes fan, you'll appreciate having a router with an iTunes server.

Parental controls This feature is ostensibly designed for moms and dads who want to shield their children from seamier side of the Web, but small-business owners might also find it useful when deployed in moderation. It enables an administrator to establish rules as to when individual computers can access the Internet, and it can block particular websites or even entire categories of sites.

Quality of Service If you depend on your router for VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), frequently stream music and video around your network, or play online games, you'll want a router with good QoS (Quality of Service) features. Most high-end routers have at least the basics, meaning that the router can analyze traffic moving through the network and distinguish between lag-sensitive packets (VoIP and media streams, for instance) and non-lag-sensitive packets (such as file downloads). The router will assign higher priority to the former, to prevent dropouts, and lower priority to the latter (because any dropped packets can be re-sent with little impact). A more advanced router will allow you to customize its QoS settings or even allow you to write your own rules.

USB ports High-end routers typically sport one or two USB ports. You can use one port to share a printer and the other to share storage--in the form of a USB hard drive--between all the computers on your network. Some router manufacturers are taking the step of building a hard drive into the router itself. If you need fast storage, however, you'll be better served by a dedicated NAS box.

And now, on to the reviews!

This story, "802.11n Wi-Fi Routers: Tested to the Nth degree" was originally published by PCWorld.

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