Review: Ruckus' wireless IPTV delivery

Wi-Fi equipment for home media applications

How does a vendor of home Wi-Fi equipment stand out in a crowded field? Ruckus Wireless approaches this problem by claiming it can cleanly deliver IPTV and other streaming media in the home environment, which typically is crowded with potentially interfering signals from cordless phones and microwave ovens.

To do that, they use a pair of technologies they call BeamFlex and SmartCast on top of their standard 802.11g equipment. BeamFlex refers to MIMO smart antenna technology delivered via a six-directional antenna array inside the Ruckus MediaFlex Router. The idea is that the router selects what the company calls the “optimum antenna pattern” for any device it is communicating with. If nothing else, this gives the router an interesting look, as wedges of light turn on and off as the router searches for that optimum pattern.

SmartCast is a technique that examines packets flying back and forth and prioritizes the ones carrying video data, sending them out via the appropriate antenna pattern to direct them quickly to the destination device. Technologies such as these are potentially important when transmitting media, which is more sensitive to issues such as dropped packets than other, more pedestrian types of data. It also has the potential to separate out the Ruckus equipment from the horde of other MIMO and draft-802.11n Wi-Fi equipment.

But is Ruckus' approach better than that of more readily available home Wi-Fi equipment?

Out of the box

I reviewed both the $159 Ruckus MediaFlex Router and the $99 MediaFlex Adapter together, though you won't need the adapter if your destination device is already Wi-Fi-enabled.

Steve Rubinow

Ruckus MediaFlex Router

The Ruckus units have a distinct clamshell, or U-shaped, design. The power and Ethernet connections are on the outside of the "hinge" of the clamshell (the design is fixed, so there is no actual hinge). Connection and activity lights are on the inside of the lower shell, which is fine if the device is at eye-level or below. But if it is sitting above eye level, you won’t be able to see them. In general, wireless routers work best when they’re placed on a high shelf or other elevated surface, so the placement of these status lights is an odd design choice. Another strange choice was to include a power cable only 6 feet long, which adds another challenge to placing the units above room clutter.

If you buy the router and adapter together, they should come "prepaired" so that, as soon as you plug them in, they’ll communicate with each other. If for some reason they aren’t paired, you can autoconfigure the adapter by connecting it to the router via an Ethernet cable. Fast and easy.

Like most consumer-oriented routers, the Ruckus devices have a Web-based interface for administration. Oddly, there are two versions of this interface. Entering a username of Admin gives you a no-frills dashboard that is most useful for checking the status of the unit. Logging in with a username of Super gives you greater control over details like setting the SSID and port-forwarding. Even the Super dashboard, however, lacks many of the options you’d find in most consumer-level routers from vendors like Linksys or Netgear.

Another unusual feature is the inclusion of two separate SSIDs in the router. One, called Home, includes the DHCP and NAT functions you’d expect from a consumer router. The other, called Service, is intended for service providers and lacks these features but comes WPA-encrypted by default. This is another potential source of confusion. If your adapter or wireless device ends up paired to the Service SSID, you must manually configure an IP address and other network settings. If it pairs to the Home SSID, your IP will be automatically configured via DHCP.

The adapter can also be used as a bridge by connecting its single Ethernet port to a port on the destination device. Then, the destination device sees itself as using a wired network. Unfortunately, the adapter could use more than a single Ethernet port; it would be nice to have several ports so the adapter could work as a hub in case you need more than one Ethernet connection in your entertainment system. In my test setup (my apartment in a busy complex with lots of wireless networks in range), I have both a TiVo and XBox 360 that require Internet access.

Is it better?

To test the system, I connected the router to a PC running Windows XP Home Media Edition and the adapter to an XBox 360 in a different room. For testing purposes, I choose two sample video clips: one at 720P and the other at 1080P. The XBox connected to the PC without any trouble and both clips played flawlessly. So far, so good.

Next, I disconnected the Ruckus gear and replaced it with a Linksys WRT54GS Router and Linksys WET54GS5 Wireless Bridge and repeated the test. Again, the clips played flawlessly.

Then, I tried a second test suggested by the folks at Ruckus. I used the GNU-licensed VideoLAN VLC player to stream video wirelessly from the PC to a MacBook Pro (using its built-in wireless capabilities). The files this time were large .vob files, which is the format used by DVD players.

In both cases, the results were terrible, even though the MacBook was within a few feet of the routers. The pictures were severely pixelated and the feed stuttered and hung frequently. I tried again, foregoing the built-in wireless and using the Ruckus adapter. This resulted in no connection streaming at all. In the end, I couldn’t demonstrate that the Ruckus MediaFlex Router was any better at streaming IPTV than a commonly available Linksys router. Nor did it seem any worse.

More to the point, while the Ruckus potentially could outperform the Linksys system, my tests didn't saturate the throughput of even the allegedly lesser system. That said, how many of us need to stream more bandwidth than a 1080P HD video file?

That's why, in the end, it’s hard to find a reason to recommend going out of your way to track down a Ruckus system, which is currently only available from a few specialty outlets, when commonly available, and somewhat cheaper, gear seems to get the job done about as well and offers more robust options to fine-tune your wireless network.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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