The next Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n, has taken a while to develop - with the IEEE grinding away at it since 2004. This standard promises theoretical speeds as high as 540 Mbit/s, 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, a lot of work was needed to form up the first draft produced last year. That didn't stop equipment vendors from releasing products based on that first draft (see our reviews of kit from Linksys, Netgear, Belkin, D-Link, Buffalo and - most recently - Apple) 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 January and there are hopes that a final version very similar to Draft 2.0, will be agreed 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, Cisco-Linksys and Netgear. D-Link Corp., which initially indicated that it would participate, did not send equipment for this test.
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. Claims for 540Mbit/s have been scaled back, and these vendors now claim their products can achieve speeds in the 270-300 Mbit/s range. Short of an alignment of the planets or voodoo, these trimmed-backed expectations still fall into the range of wishful thinking.
However, you can achieve wireless transfer rates above 100 Mbit/s. And that is quite impressive compared with current standards.
We tested this prestandardised 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.
Belkin gets it right
Belkin 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 Belkin’s 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 921 Mbyte file.
Things improved dramatically when we used both the router and adapters from Belkin from that distance. When we did that, speed ranged between 120 Mbit/s and 162Mbit/s, 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.
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.