Wireless networking products are never modest in their performance claims. However, Belkin's new Wireless Pre-N Router ($150) and Notebook Network Card ($100) promise - and deliver - dramatically faster speeds and much better range than their fastest 802.11g predecessors.
Not only is the new gear compatible with 802.11g and 802.11b equipment, in our tests 802.11g clients actually performed better on a network based upon the Pre-N router. The Pre-N name refers to the 802.11n standard that is still in development - of which more later.
This impressive performance wouldn't matter if you used a wireless network only to share broadband Internet access (which tops out at 1 to 1.5 Mbit/s) and were happy with the range of your existing setup. But Belkin's Pre-N products would clearly benefit users who want to move large files, stream video, or extend the range of their home or small-office Wi-Fi network.
In our tests transferring data between a PC connected to the Pre-N router via Ethernet and an IBM ThinkPad R40 notebook equipped with the Pre-N PC Card, throughput speeds from a distance of 10 feet were between 37 Mbit/s and 42 Mbit/s, with an average of 40 Mbit/s. When we ran the same tests with a network using Belkin's own 802.11g router and PC Card, throughput ranged from just 13 Mbit/s to 23 Mbit/s, with an average of 20 Mbit/s. (See our article on "real" Wi-Fi speeds).
When we moved the notebook some 50 feet and several rooms away from the PC and 802.11g router, the Pre-N throughput declined, as we would expect. Speeds ranged from 12 Mbit/s to 33 Mbit/s, with an average of 20 Mbit/s. But the 802.11g PC Card and router could not transfer data at all.
And it helps 802.11g
However, when we replaced the 802.11g router with the Pre-N router, the notebook with the 802.11g card was able to connect from 50 feet, though at speeds we'd expect from the slowest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11b. And when we connected an 802.11g notebook to a network that otherwise included all Pre-N equipment, the network didn't slow down in an informal test.
This result is important because previous non-standard attempts to speed up 802.11g have resulted in technologies that interfere with the performance of 802.11g and 802.11b systems.
The Pre-N products achieve their performance gains mostly by using technology called MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output), in which a number of antennas transmit many unique data streams in the same frequency channel (other Wi-Fi products transmit data in a single stream in a single channel - read our explanation of MIMO).
Belkin says it calls the products "Pre-N" because some implementation of MIMO is almost certain to be the basis for the IEEE's upcoming 802.11n standard, the successor to today's 802.11a/b/g standards. Certified 802.11n products won't appear until early 2007 (here's what we know about 802.11n's progress). The delivery of so-called "Pre-N" products such as Belkin's is causing excitement (see MIMO-based 802.11n will kill the Ethernet jack), but is controversial because - when 802.11n products arrive - it is possible that it will be incompatible with the certified gear.
Despite this, if you have a single access point network and want to improve your net's speed or range, we see no reason to wait two years until the 802.11n standard is finalised.
This is not an enterprise-class, wireless LAN product but could be very useful if throughput and range are a priority on a small WLAN.