I have been thinking about routers lately. I know, it is not the most sexy thing to think about, but I recently moved and I don’t have a wired connection in my upstairs room. This means I need a Wi-Fi router in order to get Internet in my room. As usual, I like to make simple things complicated, which means I went on the Internet to do some down and dirty research.
Over the past year or so, I have been trying to get more technical, learning about computers and how they work and how to use all the technology I find myself dealing with – whew, it is a full time job!
For Wi-Fi routers, I started looking for a simple solution, and came to realize that a router is not just an internet connection for your computer, but it is now becoming a portal to connect everything (your computer, your phone, TV, DVR and other home electronics) that needs internet access.
How a router deals with all these things, and with the fact that all these things are trying to access the internet at the same time, is what defines a good router.
GO SPEED RACER, GO
When it comes to routers, speed is not just on my mind, but everyone else’s as well. A wireless router is in essence a radio transmitter and receiver, and like all transmitting and receiving devices – they have a limit to how much information they can send/receive at any given time.
In the USA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determines which parts of the radio frequency spectrum are used for the different types of technologies. How various electronic technologies use these frequency bands is controlled and defined in various standards by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
These IEEE standards are important, because they make it so that every ones wireless products can communicate with any other product based on the same standard. For wireless networks, these standards are known as the 802.11 standards.
In 1999, the 802.11b standard which uses the 2.4GHz frequency, was used in the first mass market wireless routers. The 11b routers had data transfer rates of about 11 Mbits per second (Mbit/s). As Wi-Fi began to take off, people needed some way to know that different brands worked together. The Wi-Fi Alliance was created to “certify” products from different vendors, so consumers wouldn’t be stuck buying one brand of wireless equipment for everything.
A couple years later in 2003 the IEEE issued the 802.11g standard, which use the 2.4GHz frequency, but offered data transfer rates that were five times faster than 11b. The 11g routers have a data transfer rates of about 54 Mbit/s.
11g was good for the first few years, but with the rapid growth of wireless devices and the demand of better wireless internet connectivity; the industry was clamoring for more speed and better coverage. So in 2007 the first 11n routers became available, even though the IEEE 802.11n standard actually wasn’t approved till 2009. The 11n standard uses multiple antennas and operates on both the 2.4 and 5GHz radio bands. Depending on the number of antennas they use, 11n routers can have a data transfer rates ranging from 150 Mbit/s to 600 Mbit/s.
This year (2012), the IEEE is in the process of developing and finalizing the 802.11ac standard, which makes 1 gigabit data transfer rates possible (again, depending on the number of antennas, width of the channels, and other factors). Depending on the number of antennas they use, 11n routers can have a data transfer rates ranging from 500 Mbit/s to 1 Gbit/s.
Basically, 802.11ac routers should be about 4 to 8 times faster than 802.11n routers.
8 times faster!! Wow!!
Well, not exactly. You see here is where reality and theory meet, sit down and have a coffee.
You see, to get the maximum transfer rates, your 11ac router must talk to another 11ac device. It can still work with the other components in your current system (most of which use the slower 802.11n standard), but you certainly won’t get gigabit speeds.
Say, you install an 802.11ac router in your house. Well your 1 year old laptop will only be able to send and receive data at the 11n rate of about 150 Mbit/s – NOT the 1 Gigabit per second of 11ac.
Of course, if you buy a 802.11ac router now; later when you get a new laptop or phone, they will probably have 802.11ac chips in them and they will get very fast data transfer with your router. On the other hand, who knows how much 11ac routers will improve – and how much cheaper they’ll be – between now and then.
IS IT WI-FI CERTIFIED?
This brings us to the second issue with 802.11ac. It won’t be Wi-Fi Certified till Q2 of 2013.
“Wi-Fi CERTIFIED is a program for testing products to the 802.11 industry standards for interoperability, security, easy installation, and reliability. The Wi-Fi CERTIFIED logo is an assurance that the Wi-Fi Alliance has tested a product in numerous configurations and with a diverse sampling of other devices to ensure compatibility with other Wi-Fi CERTIFIED equipment that operates in the same frequency band.”
The Wi-Fi Alliance does this by allowing companies to put the Wi-Fi CERTIFIED logo on the products that have been tested and certified as meeting the various IEEE 802.11 standards.
If you buy a wireless product, it should have a Wi-Fi Certified logo – and if it doesn’t, then you know it was tested and verified that it will work and perform correctly.
This is the problem with the current 802.11ac product that have recent come out – they are not Wi-Fi CERTIFIED, because the testing will not even begin till early next year (2013).
WAITING TO RACE
The process for defining and approving a wireless standard is one that has many steps and seems to take a long time. As a result, the global electronics tends to release wireless products based on ‘drafts’ of the standards, which is a little risky since the final standard may be different then the ‘draft’.
Basically, the IEEE develops the technical specification, and puts this out to its members for comments. In the case of 802.11ac, the 802.11ac draft was released in 2012.
The theory goes that the draft is reviewed, feedback is given to the IEEE, and then they vote to make revision and changes based on many technical considerations. This process can be painfully slow (it took 3 years for the 802.11n standard). But after a few rounds of revisions, the draft specification is considered fairly stable, and manufacturers feel confident that there won’t be any more significant changes – so they begin building products and race to be first with the new draft standard.
The second part to all this, is that the Wi-Fi Alliance needs time to develop the testing procedures, so that they can test the products to make sure they will be fully functional can compatible with the other product for that standard. For 802.11ac, the test procedure and testing is expected to start in the beginning of 2013.
The certification issues here were really brought out in 2006 with the launch of 802.11n. Almost all the world’s largest manufacturers quickly launched product from the 802.11n draft, and even before Wi-Fi Certification had started. As a result, many of these products did not perform well and had lots of compatibility issues.
This resulted in manufactures having to do a lot of returns, firmware updates and PR damage control. It resulted in consumer feeling ripped off, and losing trust in the wireless brands who products they bought.
For 802.11ac, several manufacturers have launched their 11ac routers in the last couple of months. But what is positive, is that some are waiting for the Wi-Fi Certification to start before launching their 11ac products.
Qualcomm is a chip manufacturer who provides the wireless chips to the router companies, and they have stated that they are using a more mature product strategy for 802.11ac:
“For the 11ac launch, Qualcomm Atheros is taking a more mature approach. Certainly we played our part in the industry hubbub that surrounded the launch of 11n, but it seems the vibe is different this time around. With the development of 11ac (in which we’re playing a large role), there is a spirit of collaboration that didn’t exist with the launch of 11n. The process is more open and transparent, which allows many voices to be heard, making 11ac a much better, cleaner and implementable standard than 11n.”
At least some people have learned from their mistakes, and I have no idea why a few companies are willing to repeat the mistakes of 11n, by launching 11ac product now.
Most of all buyers beware!! For 802.11ac, it is better to wait to buy an 802.11ac router, laptop, tablet or phone – till the beginning of next year when Wi-Fi Certification starts. The Wi-Fi Certification logo is your friend, and the best way to assure you that your hard earned money is not wasted on inferior products.
WHAT TO DO NOW?
So, for my own situation, after looking at the whole 802.11ac thing, I have decided to wait till next year for 11ac.
To solve my current problems, I started looking at mainstream consumer 802.11n routers. These range in price from $20 (no, not kidding) to $300 – and there is significant difference in features, range and performance between the low-end and high-end 11n routers.
After looking at several of the more popular 11n routers, I narrowed it down to two routers:
Western Digital My Net N900 HD Dual-Band Wireless-N Router – about $150
TP-LINK N750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router – about $100
Why these 2?
Well, I wanted to look at two price points at around $100 and $150 – to see what I get for the difference, and when looking at all the routers at these 2 price points. I felt these two wireless routers had the best features for me, good reviews and great value for the price point.
WD My Net N900
Western Digital is new to wireless routers, but it makes sense for them to get into the router game, since wireless data storage is becoming a critical part of many home networks. The new Western Digital My Net N900 routers offer some of the latest wireless technology and features, with two of the three models sporting 1 Terabyte or 2 Terabytes of storage. These storage oriented routers are perfect for downloading movies, and accessing them from any wireless device in range of the router.
For me, the WD My Net N900 routers had several features that I felt made them stick out from the crowd:
1) Dual Band – transmits on both the 2.4 and 5 Ghz frequency’s – this means that it can ‘talk’ to most wireless devices
2) 450 + 450 Mbps – This means the router can transmit at data rates of 450 Mbps on both bands, doubles the bandwidth
3) FasTrack technology – monitors your incoming traffic and instantly detects the services that need more bandwidth and prioritizes them automatically – it is this kind of smarts that I like:
4) 2 USB ports – makes it easy to add external storage, shared printers and scanners
You might not be familiar with T-Link, but this $1 billion networking company is looking at expanding their consumer line of routers in the US market (http://www.tp-link.us/ ), and the N750 offers a lot of features for it’s price.
The N750 features:
1) Dual Band – transmits on both the 2.4 and 5 Ghz frequency’s – this means that it can ‘talk’ to most wireless devices
2) 450 + 300 Mbps – This means the router can transmit at data rates of 450 Mbps on the 5 Ghz, and 300 Mbps on the 2.4 Ghz band
3) External detachable antennas allow for better alignment and stronger antenna upgrades
4) 2 USB ports – for easy file sharing
In the end, I decided the extra bandwidth, the FasTrack technology and cleaner looking design was worth the extra $50 and chose the Western Digital My Net N900 HD Dual-Band Wireless-N Router.
I was just about to buy it, when a friend offered to give me his old 802.11g router. I really wanted the WD N900, but what I really want is a Wi-Fi Certified 802.11ac router next year. The free 11g router isn’t fast, but it works and it’s… well, free.
So, I will wait till next year and buy an 802.11ac router when the Wi-Fi Certified ones hit the market, and then I will be a 1 Gbps speed freak!!