If you're buying your first wireless router, chances are you'll just want it to work. If this is your second or third, it's likely you'll be looking for one that isn't so slow as to warrant a coffee break with every file transfer or one that doesn't cut out as soon as you close the living room door.

If, on the other hand, you're a devil-may-care Wi-Fi maverick, you'll demand all the performance current standards have to offer and more, and take the risk of using a Pre-N router.

The AirStation Nfiniti draft-N router from Buffalo is one of a batch of routers that has jumped the gun on the 802.11n wireless standard, which has been coming for some time from the IEEE's 802.11 Working Group.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has announced that it, too will jump in and certify "Pre-N" products. This should give a measure of interoperability between products, but certification won't happen till next year sometime, and won't apply to this year's Pre-N devices.

Why you might do it
Pre-N routers promise speed and range in excess of the 54 Mbit/s which is 802.11g's symbol rate (actual throughput for 8023.11g is around 20M bit/s, tops. Enhanced (and unofficial) 108 Mbit/ss and 125 Mbit/s modes have been announced.

With performance-enhancing technologies, you never know quite what you're getting. Draft-N wireless routers conform to a draft proposal of the 802.11n wireless standard; however, it is one that is already being rewritten for the final standard. When the 802.11n wireless standard is finalized, these draft-N products will very likely be incompatible with it, and they are also unlikely to get certified when the Wi-Fi Alliance starts certifying.

They are also likely to be incompatible with other draft-N products, at draft-N speeds. Whatever high-speed they offer is only guaranteed when they are used with draft-N adapters from the same vendor. Our reviews of D-Link and Netgear draft-N routers revealed that they didn't work well together.

They are worth considering only if you have an immediate need that 802.11g cannot meet, and these products can. And if you don't mind using a single vendor, and replacing the kit when 802.11n becomes the basic level of Wi-Fi competence.

The Buffalo Nfiniti was one of the first draft-N routers out and our tests showed it working well on its own terms. Draft-N promises symbol rates up to 270 Mbit/s, and real-world data transfers around 90 Mbit/s. This is comparable with a good wired 100 Mbit/s connection. In a home environment, where weak signals from other wireless LANs were in range, we achieved a maximum data throughput of 61 Mbpit/s from a distance of 10ft.

Although draft-N hardware is required at each end to achieve such high speeds, the use of MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) connections ensures better transmission of the signal around obstacles. This helps even when connecting with normal 54 Mbit/s 802.11g adapters. Performance from a room two walls away was significantly better than that of a typical 802.11g router when using 802.11g client hardware.

Hunting hardware
At the time of writing, only PC Card adapters were available from Buffalo, although soon PCI cards and, eventually, USB adapters should become available. Buffalo makes no claims regarding interoperability with draft-N products from other manufacturers, although if they all follow the same N specification there's no technical reason why they shouldn't work together.

Initial setup of the device is via a simple browser-based interface. Advanced options and those inappropriate to your connection type are kept hidden from view. Although the language used can get technical quite quickly, most of the basic setup is automatic, and the user guide takes you through trickier tasks such as firewall configuration.

Buffalo's Aoss (AirStation One-touch Security System) button allows quick configuration of wireless clients. Pressing a corresponding button on the client's software utility configures security settings automatically, without the need to enter or remember any encryption keys. WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol) and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) are supported.

One reason draft-N was not accepted as the final recommendation is the fact that it has the potential to disrupt the operation of 802.11g networks that happen to be in range. In theory, connecting through 802.11n hardware could bring down complete 802.11g networks, causing no end of trouble for your neighbours.

This may not necessarily be a concern to you. However, if you don't want to upset those nearby, you'll be glad to hear that the AirStation Nfiniti can combat this with the Friendly Neighbour technology built into Broadcom's wireless chipset. When 802.11g networks are detected, the Nfiniti reduces its use of available channels and bandwidth to give them a fair chance.

This means your draft-N router won't be able to work at full speed, but it will still be significantly faster and have greater range than any 802.11g router installed in the same position. You may not like the idea of compromising the performance of your wonderful router, but it's a good option to have.

Specification

  • Draft specification 1.0 for 802.11n/g/b
  • 125 Mbit/s Turbo G mode available
  • 4-port Fast Ethernet switch
  • DSL WAN connection
  • works as router or access point
  • 35x170x183mm
  • 400g

Peter Judge contributed to this article


OUR VERDICT

Don't expect compatibility with a long-term standard, but do expect it to work at 802.11g and b rates with existing kit. Buy if you have an immediate need for speed. Wait if you want to guarantee future compatibility.