If you've got problems with wireless access, Belkin's new dual-band router could increase the range of your Wi-Fi.
I tend to resist interim technology tweaks. For example, I'm still using a Linksys WRT600N wireless router from the dawn of the 802.11n age. (Can it be three years already?) There are a few hard-to-reach spots in the house, but it's been running 24/7 and it still works.
However, I've recently added a Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet to my array of Net-connected devices. Usually used in a room on the south side of the house, it routinely requires 3G to access the Internet because my Wi-Fi simply doesn't reach that far. Likewise, a computer in another room needs a 5GHz access point to connect reliably with the Linksys router. It's time to upgrade.
So I was interested when Belkin sent me a note about its new N750 DB wireless dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) N+ router.
According to Belkin, the router ($130 direct, about $99 retail) promises improved coverage through its upgraded antenna system. Another thing that caught my attention: Belkin's claim that the N750 uses "MultiBeam" technology to provide greater throughput at greater distances. It's obviously time for me to enter the modern age of wireless routers.
Make mine MultiBeam
MultiBeam is a refinement of the MIMO technology that's been around since 802.11n was introduced. MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) specifies multiple antennas for a given router (the N750 has five) so multiple signals can be sent and received simultaneously.
A MIMO system collects incoming signals and compares them to see which, if any, of the data streams are fractured because of collisions with objects blocking their path (duct work, metal lathe, appliances, etc.). MIMO merges those signals, using the good parts from each, to assemble a complete data stream -- assuming that the same fragments in each stream won't be mangled by obstructions. It works quite well and typically prevents retries that would slow things down.
According to a Belkin press release, traditional MIMO routers tend to provide "a donut-shaped coverage pattern -- flat and wide." The new Belkin routers, on the other hand, use their internal MultiBeam antennas to "provide improved coverage in all directions -- more of an apple shape." In other words, the new antennas can cover more space, including multistory homes.
Belkin uses a technology described as "implicit beam forming," which tends to focus the signal toward wireless network devices rather than in an omnidirectional pattern that scatters the signal in all directions. In addition, the N750 (as well as its single-band sibling, the N450) transmits data on three streams simultaneously rather than the two streams that are typical for wireless routers. Belkin claims it offers 50% better throughput, but I've yet to see that type of improvement in any product.
The N750 doesn't connect to the Internet until after you've run Belkin's software on your Windows (XP or later) or Mac (OS X 10.5 or later) computer.
Pop in the supplied CD with the Belkin management service; it will run you through the required steps. The most difficult part is entering the network name (SSID) and the password (which Belkin supplies on a card that you can store in the base of the router).
Note: You can, of course, change the default values from within the management program if you want to. Belkin does not use the usual "admin/password" value but supplies unique passwords, so even the default will leave you with a modicum of security.
Once I had everything up and running and Windows assured me that I had both local and Internet service, not much appeared different -- with a small exception: The signal strength of my wireless devices had increased.
My Galaxy Tab went from a single bar to two bars. Meanwhile, at least one computer indicated about a 50% increase in the data rate, from around 75Mbps-78Mbps to 108Mbps; the others showed similar improvements.
When I used the devices, I found that Internet sites loaded more quickly than before, snapping to the screens without hesitation. Scrolling down Web pages was silky smooth, and there were no pauses to play catch-up with the content flow. Even Netflix was now eager to stream movies to my upstairs PC -- before, it had been somewhat sluggish and needed occasional buffering.
The N750 is also a Gigabit Ethernet device, so if your previous router was a 10/100 model and your computer can handle Gigabit Ethernet, you will notice faster throughput.
Although the N750 is a dual-band router, I found myself not using the 5GHz band. While that is a much less crowded band (no microwaves, cell phones, garage door openers, baby monitors, etc.) it doesn't propagate as well as the 2.4GHz band. For example, my upstairs computer, when assigned to 5GHz, had a weak signal strength and a reported 78Mbps transfer rate rather than the excellent signal strength and 109Mbps rate it got when I switched to the 2.4GHz band.
If you intend to stick to 2.4GHz, you could choose Belkin's N450, a single-band wireless router that also offers the Multibeam technology but is available at a list price of $70 (dual-band routers are always more expensive).
However, the N750 has significantly more features. Along with two USB ports, the N750 also provides four apps. The USB Print and Storage Manager helps to manage and monitor the use of the printers, scanners, hard drives and other devices that are connected to your router's USB port and shared across your network. Memory Safe allows you to set up a routine backup of your files to a hard drive or flash drive attached to your router. Video Mover sends media from a USB drive attached to your router to any UPnP (Universal Plug-and-Play) or DLNA-compatible device on your network. Self-Healing is akin to Windows' own network diagnostic tool, but it's aimed specifically at Belkin's router functions.
The only things absent from the N750 that I miss are status lights. Except for a general LED that lights up when you're connected, and one for use during Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) installations (if both your router and USB adapter support it, WPS allows the devices to exchange connection and security information without you intervening), there are no indicators of any other type adorning the front bezel.
While the world waits for the new 802.11ac or 802.11ad wireless standards, router manufacturers continue to add innovations to existing technology.
If you already have a working 802.11n router, you probably don't need to jump on Belkin's N750 DB just because it's new. However, if you're struggling with dead zones for one or more of your wireless devices, then there's more than enough justification for the upgrade.
Bill O'Brien has written a half-dozen books on computers and technology. He has also written articles on topics ranging from Apple computers to PCs and Linux and has authored commentary on subjects such as IT hardware decisions.
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