Draft N-Type Wireless Routers Fail to Deliver

 
 
By Oliver Kaven  |  Posted 2006-06-16
 
 
 

If you follow Wi-Fi technology developments, you're doubtless familiar with the new kid on the block: 802.11n, the next-generation wireless standard following 802.11g. And you no doubt expect 802.11n routers to exceed 802.11g routers in speed and range. But after a promising round of "pre-n" products based on a chipset by Airgo, the first "draft-n" routers from Buffalo, Linksys, and Netgear fail to deliver.

What does it mean that "n" is a "draft" standard? The new "n" standard is currently undergoing a grueling ratification process at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)—a hurdle that took 802.11g almost two years to clear. Products now rolling out that are based on the latest draft of the standard are commonly marketed as draft-n products. As with the preratification 802.11g products, there's no guarantee that draft-n devices will be upgradeable to the final 802.11n standard. However, the draft 1.0 status should mean that future changes will be minor and that draft-n hardware could be upgradeable to the final specs via firmware updates.

Though this sounds pretty reasonable, I'm beginning to have some concerns about the scope of future changes to this draft. I was severely disappointed by the performance of the draft-n routers in my testing. PC Magazine, as you may know, runs a standard battery of wireless tests that has remained unchanged for years. In the place where PC Magazine Labs tests wireless gear, which sits 40 feet underground (to avoid wireless interference), I've used the same equipment configuration to test wireless routers and access points since the introduction of 802.11g. I have made minor updates to our Ixia IxChariot test apps and updated my testing hardware. But the basic tests and environment have remained unchanged, which lets me make direct performance comparisons between technologies such as pre-n and draft-n.

Prior to this roundup of three draft-n products, the highest performing routers were based on the third-generation Airgo Networks chipset, known as pre-n. These routers were the first to break the 100-Mbps speed barrier at close range and consistently achieved throughputs of 85-95 Mbps at shorter distances (10-60 feet) and up to 30 Mbps at the very long range (160 feet) in our test environment. With the hype and excitement surrounding draft-n products, I expected to see them outperform the pre-n routers, or at the very least equal the earlier devices.

To my dismay, it wasn't so. Unfortunately, it took me some time to arrive at this conclusion, as the draft-n products I tested not only seemed overly sensitive to changes in antennae positioning, they also required numerous firmware and driver upgrades. Some vendors even needed to replace the hardware multiple times until I had a fully functional setup. Buffalo Technologies' router was the only one that worked right out of the box; it's the only one that, on the first try, achieved results usable in a review.

There was worse to come. Once I had a functional router (with two client cards each for my test laptops), I was floored at the mediocrity of the draft-n products' performance. Yes, the Marvell-chipset–powered Netgear RangeMax Next WNR854T is the fastest router I've seen at 10 feet and scores respectably at 60 feet. But its results at greater distances are far below those of pre-n routers such as the Linksys SRX400—and even Netgear's own RangeMax 240!

The new draft-n routers from both Linksys and Buffalo are based on Broadcom chipsets, and both were disappointing in overall performance. They were outperformed by the older Airgo-based pre-n models at every distance, and neither one reached the 160-foot marker in our lab—a less-than-impressive result.

Future software updates to the routers and client cards may help performance. It's also likely that some vendors will release updated hardware. I'm not, however, a proponent of releasing products to manufacturing just for the sake of being the first to market and then treating consumers as the quality-assurance group.

Read the full story on PCMagazine.com: Draft-N Fails to Deliver