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Wi-Fi gear based on the current draft of the forthcoming 802.11n standard has become a sore temptation for bandwidth hungry home and small business WLAN users. The new standard, which is not expected to be ratified by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) until next year, promises network speed boosts to 250 Mbps and higher, up from the 11g theoretical maximum of 54 Mbps.
All or most of the major Wi-Fi equipment makers now have “Draft n” products, including Netgear with its RangeMax Next line. Netgear, in fact, was first to market with Draft n products in April.
The company makes two flavors. The RangeMax Next Wireless Router Gigabit Edition (WNR854T), which includes four Gigabit Ethernet ports and uses the TopDog 11n chipset from Marvell. It promises network speeds to 300 Mbps and sells online for between $137 and $190. The RangeMax Next Wireless Router (WNR834B), with 100-Mpbs Ethernet ports, uses Broadcom Corp.‘s InteNsi-fi Draft n technology. It promises network speeds to 270 Mbps and sells online for between $110 and $130.
I reviewed the TopDog gear, testing the router with both the RangeMax Next Wireless Notebook Adapter (WN511T), which sells online for between $89 and $108, and the Wireless PCI Adapter (WN311T), which sells for between $100 and $109. Netgear offers similarly priced and physically virtually identical notebook and PCI adapters that work with the Broadcom gear (WN511B and WN311B).
The question with Draft n, as we’ve discussed in this space before, is whether it makes sense to invest in 11n gear now or wait for products based on the final standard? The Draft n proposition is that you can get an instant boost in network speed and overall capacity today, and when the standard is ratified, vendors will be able to update from the draft to the final standard simply by installing new firmware.
The problems are threefold. First, not all Draft n gear actually delivers the speed boost in all circumstances. I have reviewed Draft n products here that were, at least in my test network, slower than 11g. Second, interoperability between Draft n products from different vendors is iffy. Netgear claims that its products will interoperate with other vendors’ products using the same chipsets.
Third and perhaps most important, there is some chance that vendors will not be able to upgrade firmware to make products compliant with the final standard. In that event, the Draft n gear you buy today may never be interoperable with final-standard 11n gear from other vendors.
The Netgear equipment at least delivers on the first part of the proposition. It is faster than 11g equipment, though in some real world tests, not as much faster as one might hope. It also delivers on the promise of stable, high-speed connections capable of supporting multiple high bit-rate media applications such as video. And it appears to boost range as well. Netgear attributes some of this performance improvement to its proprietary Steady-Stream and RangeMax technologies.
The RangeMax Next gear looks good, as equipment from this vendor usually does. That said, the router, with its internal antennas, is 15 percent to 20 percent bigger overall than typical Wi-Fi routers, and double the size of the smallest. It measures 8.9 x 6.8 x 1.5 in (225.5 x 172 x 39 mm). The notebook cards look virtually identical to 11a, b and g cards, but the PCI card has a significantly different design. The antenna, a paperback-size unit attaches to leads on the back of the card by cables and sits on a flat surface such as a table or the top of a CPU tower.
My out-of-box experience with the Netgear equipment was generally good. I simply unplugged everything from my existing Linksys 11g router and plugged the same devices — cable modem, desktop PC, Vonage VoIP gateway, network hard drive — into the RangeMax router. With a couple of hiccups requiring reboots of the cable modem and router, I was up and running in less than 30 minutes. I have one persistent problem with the wired network devices: my EMC Retrospect backup software will no longer duplicate files to the network drive. This issue, which may have nothing to do with the router, was still under investigation at the time of writing.
Setting up the wireless devices — a laptop and a desktop computer in another room in my small but wirelessly congested home — was also relatively problem-free. Both require installing software first, then hardware. In the case of the PCI card, the installation didn’t go quite as simply as the documentation suggested, mainly because after installing the hardware and rebooting, the Windows Found New Hardware wizard launched. Once it completed, however, the Netgear installation process resumed and completed as documented. The PCI card could not connect to the network at first — the client software on the PC said no networks were found. But that problem resolved itself after a reboot.
I tested raw network throughput and also the capacity of the network to support multiple media streams. In the throughput test, I copied the same large (557 MB) file from the network drive to the laptop, first over the 11g network (Linksys router, Buffalo notebook card), then over the RangeMax Next Gigabit Edition network, using both the notebook and PCI cards. I measured download times with a stop watch.
On the 11g network, it took 4 minutes to transfer the file with the laptop in the same room as the router. With the laptop in another room where I have typically had poor wireless network coverage, it took 8 minutes and 19 seconds. With the Netgear RangeMax network, it took 2 minutes 24 seconds with the laptop in the same room as the router — not exactly the five-times speed boost the equipment is supposed to provide, but still a significant improvement. The result when I took the laptop into the second room was a little more impressive: 3 minutes and 15 seconds. With the PCI adapter, which is in the same coverage-challenged room, it took 3 minutes and 1 second to transfer the file.
To test the capability of the network to support multiple media streams, I used a 15-minute video clip recorded off the air in MPEG2 format. I set up three different computers to simultaneously stream that file from my main test PC (3.4 MHz, Windows XP) over the RangeMax Next network — two using the RangeMax Next adapters, one using a standard 11g adapter. For good measure, I turned on my Slim Devices Squeezebox digital music receiver which streams WMA lossless files to my stereo system.
The two video streams on the devices using the RangeMax adapters were rock solid. The third stream was good but not perfect — there was some skipping, presumably due to lost packets. The music stream was also rock-solid. Netgear and other vendors are claiming that 11n can support multiple high-definition video signals. I wasn’t able to test that claim, but I was duly impressed with results on the tests I was able to do.
Bottom line: If your main reason for wanting to upgrade is to increase network range and support media streaming around the house, the Netgear equipment delivers. The risk of being left with noncompliant equipment when the 11n standard is ratified, however small, remains. If you were mainly looking for a big boost in raw data throughput, the risks may outweigh the rewards.
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