Wars and rumors of wars, darkness at noon, riots in the streets, dogs and cats living together! That's what's supposed to happen if you introduce the latest pre-802.11n wireless adapters--so-called draft-n--into a network of 802.11b, g or even the MIMO-fortified g adapters.
How did one scribe put it? Oh yeah, one draft-n adapter "completely obliterated any 802.11b/g router in the vicinity." I'm pretty sure the reportage was purely metaphorical. But it sounded exciting, so we just had to try it.
Geesh, what a letdown--journalistically speaking. We tested a variety of routers and PC cards from Belkin, Buffalo, D-Link, Linksys and Netgear. (See "Race to the N".) They all slid into our Ethernet ports and PC card slots like Stars on Ice. We don't have any problems to report--not a glitch, not a hitch, not an incompatibility or installation hassle. Nothing, nada, zilch.
We weren't able to generate much-ballyhooed conflicts with legacy adapters or interference with phones and other networks. The draft-n routers I looked at beamed over, under, around and through walls; down stairs; out the back door and up the hill; out the front door and up the street--the stuff just ran.
My only complaint is that coverage is so wide-ranging that my software monitor gets all cluttered with other SSIDs in my neighborhood. It's more about my neighbors than I really care to know, but a great argument for network encryption.
Perhaps draft-n will precipitate conflicts with IEEE's final 802.11n specification--now expected in the second half of 2007. I could use a little conflict to report, but frankly, I'm not optimistic. Considering the quality of draft-n hardware and software, the ease of installation and configuration, and the fact that this is the third or fourth time most of these vendors have done this, I don't see them fumbling the handoff. As one manufacturer confided: "Any time a customer-service call lasts more than six minutes, it costs me $80." He gets less than that for most of his Wi-Fi adapters, so he can't afford to ship things that don't work.
But just because draft-n adapters work doesn't mean you should buy one. It depends on your networking situation.
Buy or Wait?
First, if you administer a large network in a company that buys everything under an RFP, you don't care what anyone says. You aren't going to buy 802.11n equipment until the specification is finalized and you've tested it. Likewise, if your business has upgraded to 108Mbps MIMO--or even straight 54Mbps 802.11g--hardware recently, the benefits of adding draft-n adapters are not compelling. Draft-n connections to older adapters fall back to legacy speeds. You'll probably get better coverage quality, but it's a toss-up.
But suppose your router did break, or you're still puttering along on an older 802.11a, b or g network, or you need to connect new workers or a new project group right away? What if you routinely upgrade to the biggest, baddest technology in search of productivity?
Exaggerated performance claims by vendors have, at times, prompted overly rigorous testing designed to address the concerns of multiple-unit buyers. Those tests don't always speak to the more immediate, if prosaic, needs of onesie-twosie buyers.
How big are your data files? I regularly transfer large spreadsheets and 300-page documents. At 1MB to 2MB, they just blip across the network. I had to borrow some jumbo videos and PowerPoint presentations just to generate transfers I could put a stopwatch on. And after "squeezing" through my wider-than-average 4Mbps internet connection, web pages travel to my outbound PCs only marginally faster at 100Mbps than at 54Mbps.
No, we won't actually need the 300Mbps 802.11n offers until all the other pieces are in place for streaming TV-quality video around home and office. But what the heck, by then, your draft-n hardware will have paid for itself--one second at a time. At only $150 for a router and $100 for a PC card, it's not that hard to do. (See "What's Your Downside?" below.)
As for product compatibility and longevity, they're nice-sounding things. And it would be great if they mattered to purveyors of Wi-Fi, cellular, ultra-wideband, DVDs or consumer electronics products. But today, IEEE task group sessions are just pre-fight weigh-ins where warring camps trash talk each other's specs in the run-up to open-market competition. That's where standards are set--just in time to be made obsolete by the next version.
That's OK. Not a problem. That suits the entrepreneurial temperament and approach to buying just fine. Entrepreneurs recognize what technology has become: just a roll of paper towels. Buy some, sop up as much productivity as you can, then replace it with the next softer, more absorbent generation.
Slow down to amortize your computer equipment over three to five years, and you may fit in great at some big corporation. But you might be leaving a little productivity on the table. Can you really afford that?
What's Your Downside?
What if you buy a draft-n router and PC card and you end up tossing them a year from now because they're not quite compatible with the 802.11n spec? That's $250 for the hardware and an hour for installation, and say your time is worth $100 an hour--so $350 total.
But what if your draft-n hardware saves you just one minute a day in downloads and transfers? That's five minutes a week, 250 minutes a year (if you work 40-hour weeks). That's a $417 return (at $100 per hour) on a $350 investment. Gee, what if it saves you two minutes a day?
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.