Wireless LANs: Speeding along the wireless route

Walk into an office, or an airport, or a conference centre these days, and chances are you’ll discover a wireless network. Even home users can surf the Web from the back yard.But today’s wireless networks suffer from one disadvantage compared to wired connections: they’re slow. The standard 802.11b chugs along at a maximum of 11 Mbps, while the newer (backwards compatible with 802.11b) 802.11g can manage 54 Mbps, as can 802.11a (not compatible with anything else). But it’s shared bandwidth — the more people using a connection, the slower it becomes for each. Contrast that with the 100 Mbps for each wired user and you see why there’s a push to jack up wireless speeds.
The nascent 802.11n standard promises to do just that. Based on a technology called MIMO (pronounced my-mo, it stands for Multiple Input/Multiple Output), it uses multiple antennae to send several data streams over the same radio frequency without interference, improving throughput. The standard is expected to call for a minimum of 100 Mbps throughput, though much higher speeds are ultimately possible. As an added bonus, MIMO wireless has a greater range than existing products, so you can stretch the distance between wireless access points without slowing to a crawl or losing signal entirely.
However, as usual, the standard is hung up in disputes between factions who believe that their implementation should become the standard. That means vendors are busily releasing pre-N MIMO products, trying to capture the hearts and wallets of consumers. Unfortunately for the buyers, these units may or may not be upgradeable to the ultimate standard.
Four vendors sent us their versions of MIMO wireless (the fifth vendor with MIMO products, D-Link, doesn’t offer them in Canada yet), all cable/DSL routers that also sport multi-port switches. Most can also be plugged into existing routers as just switches.
When we asked U.S. Robotics if they offered the technology, they said no, but sent a standards-compliant 802.11g unit that they say is just as fast. Since they threw down the gauntlet, we were happy to test their claims. Each vendor was also asked for a compatible PC Card NIC — you can’t get MIMO speeds without having multiple antennae at each end of the connection.
We tested with a fast computer to make sure it wasn’t a bottleneck: a ThinkPad R52 from Lenovo. Since it has an integrated Intel 802.11g wireless NIC, we could also evaluate backwards compatibility. The test environment was over three levels, so walls and floors provided plenty of opportunities for MIMO to prove itself.
Buffalo AirStation MIMO DSL Router

Buffalo’s plain silver box provided the least trouble of any in our roundup. Router setup was painless, the unit played nicely with an existing router, and the NIC installed seamlessly. There’s even a one-button setup to associate the router and Buffalo NICs: you choose AOSS (AirStation One-Touch Secure System) in NIC setup, press a button on the router and the two devices configure themselves, even working out security.
Throughput ranged from 108 Mbps to a low of 24 Mbps when it had to negotiate several brick walls, but the signal strength remained quite acceptable and the connection was rock-solid.

Belkin Wireless Pre-N Router

Belkin’s Pre-N offering looks very much like its normal equipment, but sports an extra antenna. It is quite happy to act as an access point only — in fact, it can be configured to do so.
Installation of the router was straightforward (the NIC install was a major pain, however — it kept locking up the ThinkPad), and performance good. Throughput did drop a bit more than the others at a distance, but the signal remained strong.
As with all of the units we tested, several levels of security were available, but turned off by default, per the standard.

Linksys Wireless-G Broadband Router with SRX

Linksys’s unit sits on its edge, with a windmill of antennae at the top. It has a “smart” installer — open your Web browser while connected to the beast and you’re immediately connected to it. It doesn’t really support manual configuration, but connect to your cable router and follow the wizard and all is happy.
I found I got better performance by enabling the laptop’s standard 802.11g NIC than I did with the special Linksys card. In fact, when I first installed it, it told me it was running at 11 Mbps — 802.11b speed. A driver upgrade fixed that issue.

Netgear RangeMax Wireless Router

If there’s an award for style, Netgear’s got it. It’s a plain white box with a small dome on top and no antenna in sight. Rather dull, actually, until you turn the beast on. Then blue lights sweep around in the dome as the seven internal antenna adjust themselves.
This unit won’t work if attached to another router. Its installation wizard questions you on usage, and if you want to plug the unit into another router, it suggests replacing your existing router with Netgear and exits. Coverage is very good, even in an environment with lots of obstacles. That rotating blue light is a signal that the antennae are shifting to any of 127 configurations to compensate for signal loss.

U.S. robotics Wireless MAXg Router

USR’s non-MIMO router came with security enabled (WPA2), and the installation wizard didn’t let you sneak by without configuring it properly. Its installation is very firm about best practices like that — it also required a user name and password to secure the router from tampering once it was set up. Very sensible.
The NIC setup was clever — it will even configure the router if need be — and it walked through not only installing drivers, but configuring security and connecting to the wireless access point of choice.
Although the NIC reported a speed of 125 Mbps, a test download took 23 seconds — 10 seconds more than on the Buffalo unit. Signal dropped off faster than it did with the MIMO units as well.
Unlike the last time we looked at this genre of wireless, all units were VPN-friendly and supported critical functions such as multiple levels of security.The obstacles of walls, floors and even brick walls provide quite a demanding test. Still, none of them completely bombed out.
Netgear’s funky blue lights, although interesting, would drive me nuts after awhile. I found the unit’s refusal to connect to another router frustrating, too — it wasn’t documented, and took a search online to discover I hadn’t misconfigured the unit.
Linksys’ easy installation is a plus for novices, but would be considered an annoyance to someone experienced with networking who doesn’t need training wheels.
Belkin and U.S. Robotics tied in points for different reasons. Belkin’s lifetime warranty and ease of configuration offset the NIC installation woes, and although its signal strength dropped off sooner than the MIMO units, the USR unit still performed creditably, at an outrageously reasonable price.
I’d never heard of Buffalo products before this roundup, and I was pleasantly surprised by them. Installation was simple, connectivity robust, and the warranty, although shorter than many, should cover the unit until real 802.11n comes along. It is rather expensive, however.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.

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