Get your game on: Two ways to speed up your wireless network

If you want smooth gaming and video over a wireless network, 5-GHz solutions by Netgear and Linksys might help

Wireless networking has become a "must" in home networking, especially when it comes to entertainment. No one wants to be tethered to a router or switch when playing games, watching videos or listening to music. And if you're an entertainment enthusiast with a wireless network, you're not going to settle for anything less than the latest and fastest: 802.11n (actually, 802.11n Draft 2.0). There is, however, a potential problem.

Currently, the three wireless standards -- 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n -- all use the same 2.4-GHz spectrum band, so things are a bit crowded. 802.11 divides that band into channels (the same way that television is divided into channels), but although there are technically 11 Wi-Fi channels in the U.S., only three of them (1, 6 and 11) don't overlap.

The result? Even if you have only a single Wi-Fi-enabled device, you also have cordless phones, microwave ovens, security cameras and Bluetooth devices operating in the same band. And don't forget, all your neighbors' Wi-Fi gear may be trying to horn in on your spectrum as well. It's the New York and Tokyo subways combined during rush hour, and the result could be a considerable performance hit.

However, don't despair. You have another alternative besides knocking holes in your walls to hard-wire your apartment. There is a second band, 5 GHz, that's relatively unused and has 23 possible channels and the ability to overlap them (on purpose) to double throughput.

There is a snag, though. Power levels at 5 GHz are low and that decreases the effective range of devices operating in that band. Throughput levels can suffer as well; shorter wavelengths (remember, 5-GHz wavelengths are shorter than 2.4 GHz) are worse at getting through solid objects and typically propagate over shorter distances.

But if you can stick to the rules -- keep your Wi-Fi device within 115 feet or so of your router or adapter and minimize the number of walls and/or obstacles between the two -- an 802.11n network in the 5-GHz band should run at slightly higher than wired speed (without the holes in your walls).

I tested two wireless adapters designed to offer that capability: Netgear's HD/Gaming 5 GHz Wireless-N Networking Kit (WNHDEB111) and Linksys' Dual-Band Wireless-N Gaming Adapter (WGA600N). I also looked at the Linksys WRT600N dual-band router as an alternative to a second adapter.

Even though these are marketed primarily as gaming adapters, I tested them with video playback and file transfers -- something they're also capable of handling. I used a small media PC connected to my television and a "media server" (basically, another computer with a few terabytes of storage) in an upstairs room. The 802.11n network I had in place was working satisfactorily, but the addition of four more Wi-Fi-enabled PCs (for a total of six) to my network had begun to strain the 2.4-GHz network bandwidth.

Using two 5-GHz adapters

Netgear's HD/Gaming 5 GHz Wireless-N Networking Kit (WNHDEB111) includes a pair of its 5-GHz adapters for about $200 (a single adapter costs about $100, so you're not saving a lot of money; it's the convenience factor that's attractive here).

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Netgear HD/Gaming 5 GHz Wireless-N Networking Kit

To create a 5-GHz Wi-Fi network connection, you need to designate one of the Netgear devices as an access point (AP), and the second as a bridge. The AP device connects to your existing 802.11b/g/n router. (If you already have a PC connected to the router, the Netgear box has a second LAN port so you can re-attach that computer.) The bridge is then connected to your target computer (or LAN-enabled gaming console or media extender). To do this, you need to disconnect the network connections you already have on the target system and connect it to the bridge.

It doesn't matter which adapter you want to be the AP and which the bridge. There's a three-way switch on the back of each that can be set to Bridge, AP or Auto. Leave it on Auto and the adapters will sense what they should be.

Unfortunately, I hit a snag at the start. I just couldn't get the two devices to work together. After spending two days on the phone with Netgear trying to figure out why, it all boiled down to the fact that I'd attached them to running computers. Once I powered the systems off and on, the adapters worked as promised.

In fact, it took a minute or less of watching the activity light on the front of the box for the two Netgear devices to find each other. If there are any problems -- in other words, if the two devices can't agree on the settings and start working -- there is a button labeled WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup) on the front of each one. Press them both within 120 seconds of each other (more than enough time to run upstairs and back) and it will force détente between the pair.

What all of this does is fool the network into thinking that the downstairs computer connected to the bridge and the upstairs AP connected to the router are actually hardwired together -- even though it's a wireless connection. It's the bridge and the AP that work out the details, not an 802.11n adapter and your router.

The PC connected to the AP upstairs still has Internet access because it's still connected to the original router through the AP. In the case of gaming consoles, all you'd need is to connect the consoles to the Netgear gaming devices and forget about your PCs altogether. It really is that simple.

Once I got things running, I found that communication between the two devices was fast and flawless. In fact, those annoying "hiccups" that once occurred during video playback across the two PCs had gone completely. Bottom line: It resulted in the best 63 hours I ever spent setting up my video library, which now finally works the way I want it to.

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