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Review of Draft-N Hardware

We took today's draft-n hardware out for a spin. See how it performed.

Wi-Fi being so popular, wireless network vendors are constantly pushing the envelope. Last year, their pre-n wave of network adapters delivered the multi-pathing MIMO element of the upcoming 802.11n specification. Since the spec's first draft was approved, they've launched another wave of so-called draft-n hardware using another 802.11n innovation--bonding transmission channels together to get throughput as high as 300Mbps. Draft-n hardware is supposed to make your network 12 times faster than 802.11g adapters and quadruple its range. (For more on Draft-n, see "Not-So-Rough Draft")

Sites vary widely, so don't count on getting those numbers. Still, we got consistently good performances from the draft-n adapters we tested. We started by checking compatibility, and contrary to press reports, draft-n worked just fine with older 802.11g and MIMO hardware. We got better range than normal when mixing 802.11g and draft-n gear, and 54Mbps speeds with only occasional dips to 48Mbps or lower. That means you can upgrade your hardware piecemeal with little chance of complications.

When using all draft-n gear, speeds ranged widely depending on distance and obstacles between router and PC card. Draft-n has two-dozen rollback levels and a tendency to roll up and down among the speed points as the environment changes. We hit 270Mbps occasionally, but a more reasonable expectation is something north of 100Mbps on a regular basis--more than enough for most business applications. The greatest fluctuations came when we mixed hardware from different makers. So if you have a favorite brand, you're probably better off sticking with it for all your hardware.

In terms of usability, Buffalo's AirStation One-Touch Secure System, or AOSS, is a nice extra that lets you connect your AOSS-enabled adapters securely with the push of a button. It doesn't require you to enter encryption settings on every computer you want connected. In related features, Netgear's Touchless Security Wizard also simplifies the process of setting up your Wi-Fi security through the use of passphrase. We tried out the robust gigabit edition of the Netgear router, which will appeal to high-bandwidth users who are already using gigabit Ethernet adapters. The Linksys Small Business Wireless- N Router WRV4400N costs a bit more than the others because, besides a gigabit switch, it's equipped with extensive quality and security features.

Ease-of-use is paramount in network adapters, especially if you can't fob installation off on an IT person. But vendors have done this before, and their step-by-step software wizards should guide you through the setup process. The front panel of the Belkin N1 Wireless Router features light-up icons so you can visually trace your router's connections. Linksys also features well-designed Wireless Monitor software. As hassle-free as setup is, though, you still have to set up network encryption yourself. All the manufacturers offer free phone technical support to help resolve any problems.

Manufacturers are still working on refining these products and can't guarantee interoperability or upgradeability to an 802.11n spec that hasn't been finalized. But they do plan to offer timely firmware upgrades to bring your equipment up-to-date. One of your first recourses should be to check for any available updates.

If you're not in pressing need of a Wi-Fi upgrade, it won't hurt to wait for the next round of improved firmware or even for the finalization of the 802.11n specification. On the other hand, this hardware is affordable enough to use for a year and then upgrade again.

 

Shopping List Need a wi-fi upgrade? If you're looking for faster speeds, more range and better coverage, draft-n might do the trick.
MANUFACTURER/
MODEL
CONTACT ROUTER CARD FEATURES STREET PRICE
Belkin (800) 2-BELKIN,
www.belkin.com

N1 Wireless Router

N1 Wireless Notebook Card

User-friendly design and interface

$150 (router), $100 (card)

Buffalo
Technology
(800) 456-9799,
www.buffalotech.com

AirStation Nfiniti WZR-G300N

Nfiniti Notebook Adapter WLI-CB-G300N

AOSS secure connection system

$129 (router), $100 (card)

D-link (800) 326-1688,
www.dlink.com

RangeBooster N 650 Router (DIR-635)

RangeBooster N 650 Notebook Adapter (DWA-645)

Dual active firewalls in router

$160 (router), $100 (card)

Linksys (800) 546-5797,
www.linksys.com

Small Business Wireless-N Router WRV4400N

Wireless-N PC Card (WPC300N)

Gigabit

$200 (router), $110 (card)

Netgear (888) NETGEAR,
www.netgear.com

RangeMax NEXT Wireless Router Gigabit Edition (WNR854T)

RangeMax NEXT Wireless Adapter Gigabit Edition (WN511T)

Gigabit, preset internal antennas

$160 (router), $100 (card)





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This article was originally published in the September 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Race to the N.

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