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

Interoperability, speed and range have improved

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Netgear RangeMax Next

RangeMax Next Router

RangeMax Next Router

The RangeMax Next Router is a white miniskyscraper, devoid of any external antennae, that sits vertically in a cradle. The USB client device is about 40% larger than a credit card and white, like the router.

It took about 20 minutes to install Netgears Next Router using the on-screen install guide. There are only four steps involved, but Netgear is meticulous in explaining each and every part of those steps. If you get something wrong, its probably because you havent followed along closely.

Our only problem with the installation was that the Netgear equipment wanted to see an existing network/Internet connection before it started the router installation, which seemed counterintuitive for a first-time install. The installation process will not continue until you have such a connection, so just connect your computer to your modem to get around it.

Legacy (b/g) notebook clients were all over the map with the RangeMax Next Router, at times abruptly dropping the connection. Typically, they exhibited low signal strength and transfer speeds -- at one point 1Mbit/sec. This was despite Netgear's software allowing a variety of adjustments for possible gear in the neighborhood.

Netgear clients behaved better with Netgears router, especially the closer they were to the device. In our poor-traffic zone, the transfer rate ranged from 81Mbit/sec. to 108Mbit/sec. Our 921MB sample file flew through the air in seven minutes and three seconds. Streaming MPG files were no problem, and jumping around the videos timeline produced no real lag. Overall, Netgear's PC Card adapter consistently provided stronger signal levels and faster noted connection speeds than its USB adapter.

Bottom line: Installation was more difficult than it needed to be, it had mixed results with legacy equipment, and transfer speeds weren't quite up to par with the other equipment.

Netgear RangeMax Next Router WNR854T; $105.74 to $149.99
Netgear RangeMax NEXT Wireless-N USB 2.0 Adapter WN121T; $90.41 to $119.99
Netgear RangeMax NEXT Notebook Adapter; $64.95 to $119.99

Linksys Wireless-N

Linksys Wireless-N

Linksys Wireless-N

This equipment is less notable for its looks -- the router is a simple rectangular box with rows of flashing LEDs on the front panel -- and more notable for the fact that the router has a built-in IPsec virtual private network (VPN). Clearly, Linksys, which is a division of Cisco Systems Inc., is aiming this router at telecommuters and others who must sometimes connect to corporate networks.

This equipment is also notable for its installation, which is far less automatic and far more manual than the other routers. You access the router through a browser using the IP address provided in the guide. Your options at that point are legion, but for the majority of us, it will just be a matter of choosing the security passphrase. Its the kind of thing an IT geek would not break a sweat over, while the average person will have to stop and think about it for a minute.

Perhaps befitting its business-like target audience, this equipment is more expensive than the other equipment we looked at: The Linksys router will set you back around $200 on the street. For that money, you get more security and a little pop-up box at the lower-right corner of your screen alerting you when you have a 1Gbit/sec connection, which, of course, requires a gigabit port on your PC. In practical terms, it means a 921MB MPG file can be copied from wired gigabit workstation No. 1 to wired gigabit workstation No. 2 in about 25 seconds.

That was via a wired Ethernet connection. Wirelessly, the USB version of Linksys adapter logged a solid 54Mbit/sec. to a b/g router for an eight-minute and 15-second transfer time for our 921MB test file from the dark and distant corner of our test area. Linksys matched the same streaming performance we found with the other two brands. Jumps from one end of the video's timeline to the other produced no noticeable lags. Back or forward, even hops into the middle, made no difference.

Bottom line: The Linksys was the overall performance winner, especially when connecting to legacy equipment, although some of its specific test results didn't match that of the Belkin router and adapters.

Linksys Wireless N Gigabit Security Router with VPN WRVS4400N; $178.96 to $229.99
Linksys Wireless-N USB Network Adapter WUSB300N; $87.90 to $119.99
Linksys Wireless-N Notebook Adapter WPC4400N; $93.83 to $124.95

Last Word

Prestandard equipment isn't for everybody. Corporate IT departments, for instance, are unlikely to go anywhere near it until 802.11n is an officially ratified standard, and many individual users will feel the same way. But this equipment, taken as a group, was reliable and, most important, fast.

Among the gear we tested, Linksys is the easy choice if money isnt a factor. It was consistent, worked well with legacy equipment, has built-in gigabit routing capabilities as well as support for VPNs. Belkin gets the nod for economy and for speed when paired with other Belkin equipment. Although the Netgear equipment has improved remarkably since the last time we looked at its pre-N products, still seems to need a bit more spit and polish -- which is what the Draft 2.0 phase is all about.

Bill OBrien has written a half dozen books on computers and technology. He has also written articles on topics ranging from Apple computers to PCs to Linux to commentary on IT hardware decisions. For a look at Apple Inc.'s Airport Extreme wireless router for 802.11n, go to: First look: Apple offers 802.11n, and a wireless wow

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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