Netgear reckons its DG834N is the first modem router to meet the draft 802.11n specficiation, and it’s certainly the first making the claim that came through the door here.
However, claiming compliance to a specification that is still in draft is, to say the least, controversial, with some referring to draft N products as "science experiments."
Some early tests found the performance was worse than 802.11g in some cases.
The specification will certainly change before it is finalised next year. So there are no guarantees that these products will upgrade to the final standard, or work at top speed with other "draft N" products.
They all promise to fall back to 802.11g and 802.11b speeds, but if you want top speed, you should reckon buying your router and your card from the same draft N vendor.
Draft N is therefore expensive, often costing more than £100 each for the router and also for the card, which in most laptops will be superseding earlier built-in wireless.
With that in mind, we got hold of Netgear's Draft N router (branded RangeMax Next) and its accompanying PCMCIA card. This has to be done with some care, as Netgear is in fact using two different chipsets in its Draft N line: Marvell's TopDog and Broadcom's Intensi-fi.
Netgear is labelling the products as giving 270 Mbit/s or 300 Mbit/s, which are the usual fantasy speeds based on symbol rate. You won't get throughput anything like that, and won't get the maximum unless you have a card and router from the same part of the Next range.
If the product name has a T in it, you have the TopDog version (the WNR854T router, and WN511T card); we had the Broadcom version - the DG834N DSL router, and the WN511B card.
At the same time, we also had in D-Link's Draft N product, the Rangebooster N 650 and its card (Read review ), so we had a chance to try compatibility between the two ranges.
What we found, reinforced our opinion that it's too early to put Draft N in a network where multiple vendors' kit is used (ie most networks).
The good side
First things first: packaging and installation. Here, Netgear has done its customary good job, and made a device that feels solid and ready for use.
It's a square white box, a little larger than an A5 sheet of paper and 1.5in thick. It's part of an overall style refresh, and future Netgear consumer/SOHO products will lose the curved edges: in this case, it makes for a box that will stand up - which is how Netgear insists you use this.
Draft N radios tend to have three antennas. D-Link and Buffalo mount them on the outside of the box, for the user to adjust. Netgear takes the line that consumers don't want to deal with external antennas (its earlier RangeMax line based on the Ruckus chipset had seven internal antennas - Read review - so it has aligned them and sealed them in. That's why the box needs to stand upright.
The router follows Netgear's usual well-designed install procedure and user interface. The ADSL connected easily. And the LAN worked fine - it picked up the Storage Central box we have.
For security the router offers WPA and WPA 2, which use the TKIP and AES encryption algorithms, respectively. Both are only in pre-shared key (PSK) mode (rather than using 802.1x).
The earlier and less secure WEP encryption is mentioned in the help files and online datasheets, but not available on the model we tested.
That's an issue on my home network, where my downtrodden daughter's old 802.11-dongle can only handle WEP, but Netgear probably figures that anyone shelling out more than £100 for the latest Draft N wireless card, probably won't be running any kit that old.
Other security features include allowing the user to decide not to broadcast the SSID, or use access control based on MAC addresses. Both aren't foolproof, but will help deter casual hackers. Management features include remote management on port 8080.
The Netgear card installed easily, and connected directly, with the Netgear software reporting a 270 Mbit/s connection. While transferring large files, we weren't able to generate enough traffic to really see how fast it was, so we concentrated on compatibility and range.
In the same room, as you would expect, the performance was good. The card worked with our existing 802.11g router, so the fall-back works on the card.
The software showed about 30 Mbit/s of throughput, but transfer time on a 6.5 Gbyte file was 25 minutes. The fact that the time was pretty much the same over 100 Mbit/s Ethernet told us that our storage device couldn't fill the pipe. In that sense at least, on our network, Draft N really is as fast as (what we do on our) Ethernet.
In the next room - around 10m away, the connect speed was 270 Mbit/s but the throughput pretty much the same. For fun, we turned the microwave oven on and, found that whatever else it does, the Draft N magic doesn't banish that sort of interference.
Does it go the distance
We also went two floors up - and a couple of walls away. Plain 802.11b and 802.11g will not reach the back bedroom from the office, but we have found previous enhanced 802.11g products, such as D-Link's 2XR and Netgear's earlier Rangemax will reach it, even in g-mode.
The Netgear passed this test, with a symbol speed of 108 Mbit/s, and a decent 20 Mbit/s of throughput. Turning on WPA slowed our (Pentium II) laptop down noticeably, but should not affect a newer one.
We tried the same operations with a D-Link Draft N card, and got somewhat worse performance, particularly at longer distances, but we were surprised at how well it handled the foreign card.
Two floors up, with the D-Link we had throughput of about 2.3 Mbit/s, which is better than 802.11g delivers in that setting - perhaps more surprisingly, this was actually better than the D-Link card delivered working with its own D-Link router. (Read review)
We also tried an 802.11g dongle, which gave good performance at 802.11g levels, with less fluctuation than the Draft N card. Vanilla 802.11g doesn't tend to reach the upstairs room without some MIMO help, so it seems that Draft N products do improve the range if not the throughput of older clients.
Oh, and about my daughter's obsolete 802.11b connection? It worked fine, at normal 802.11b speeds.
One day all wireless LANs will be this fast, but for now, think whether yours needs to be. If you buy this you have to buy the card as well, and you may find, as we did, that none of your hardware goes fast enough to need it, and older hardware will get little benefit. Of the two Draft N products we have looked at so far, this is the better one.