Review: Speedy next-gen Wi-Fi equipment that works now

Interoperability, speed and range have improved

The next Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n, has been mired in the standards-setting process since 2004. This standard promises theoretical speeds as high as 540Mbit/sec., which is 50 times faster than 802.11b and as much as 10 times faster than 802.11a and 802.11g. It also promised far greater range than the current generation of Wi-Fi and better performance for streaming media.

Unfortunately for those waiting for this wireless speed breakthrough, the first draft of the standard failed to gain acceptance. That didn't stop equipment vendors from releasing products based on that first draft, much of which didn't work well with Wi-Fi equipment using older standards.

However, Draft 2.0 of the 802.11n standard appeared in February and there are hopes that a final version, which would be very similar to Draft 2.0, will emerge before the end of the year. As with the first draft, products are now available based on that draft and, in theory, those products are interoperable with older equipment. And, better still, the hope is that a simple firmware update will bring products based on Draft 2.0 up to the final standard when it is ratified.

So how good are products based on Draft 2.0? To find out, we examined equipment from Belkin Corp., Cisco-Linksys LLC and Netgear Inc. D-Link Corp., which initially indicated that it would participate, did not send equipment for this test.

Bottom line: The routers and adapters we tested proved that this second coming of 802.11n is indeed a dramatic improvement over existing standards and also over products based on Draft 1.0. None of the products we looked at achieve the standard's originally stated 540Mbit/sec. speed. In fact, these vendors were less grandiose in their claims, claiming their products could achieve speeds in the 270Mbit/sec.-to-300Mbit/sec. range. Even at that, we found that, short of an alignment of the planets or voodoo, these trimmed-backed expectations fell into the range wishful thinking.

However, that doesnt mean you cant achieve wireless transfer rates above 100Mbit/sec. And that is quite impressive compared with current standards.

We tested this prestandardized equipment in several ways. Most simply, we tried connectivity between similarly branded clients and routers. Next, we checked their ability to connect to another client of the same brand on an ad hoc basis. To test the range of these products, we also took a client adapter into a far and dimly lit corner where connectivity using products based on 802.11b/g protocols is nearly impossible and tried to stream a video. Last, we tested for interoperability between 802.11n clients and an 802.11g router.

Here's what we found.

Belkin N1

Belkin N1 Wireless Router

Belkin N1 Wireless RouterBelkin has nailed the look to which every router vendor aspires, with a strong visual contrast between the silver base and piano-black top and multicolor LEDs shining through icons inlaid on the black faceplate. It's a pretty good router, too.

Installing the router and the USB and PC Card adapters was quick and painless with the included setup CD. The one anomaly we found was that once the drivers were loaded, the USB adapter worked more reliably using Windows Wireless Wizard than Belkins own software. Oddly, the PC Card did not suffer from that inconsistency.

The N1 Wireless Router was the value/performance leader among our three routers, but there are some things you should consider before you run out to buy one. The N1 USB adapter was our worst performer when positioned in our distant black hole of networking when attempting to connect with a legacy 802.11b/g router. We gave up after 20 minutes when trying to transfer a 921MB file.

Things improved dramatically when we used both the Belkin router and adapters from that distance. When we did that, speed ranged between 120Mbit/sec. and 162Mbit/sec., giving it a transfer time of five minutes and 21 seconds for our large file, the fastest of the group in this particular test.

If streaming media is your thing, our test MPEG video played flawlessly between Belkin equipment and displayed no lag time when jumping ahead by a half or two-thirds of the movie's length. Both the USB adapter and PC Card performed equally well.

Bottom line: The Belkin equipment isn't a good choice if you are mixing and matching it with equipment using older Wi-Fi standards. But if all your adapters are from Belkin, its performance was stellar.

Belkin N1 Wireless Router F5D8231-4; $109.99 to $157.55
Belkin N1 Wireless USB Adapter F5D8051; $74.95 to $119.12
Belkin N1 Wireless Notebook Card F5D8011; $73.00 to $100.93

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