Time for faster wireless? 12 latest 802.11n routers reviewed
We put 12 of the fastest 802.11n routers through our real-world tests to find out which performs best
Not getting the range, speed or reliability you want from your wireless router? Well, you’re not alone.
One of the most frequent complaints coming into our inboxes at PC Authority is about how routers aren’t doing the job they’re supposed to; they’re slow, unreliable or just plain incompatible with existing kit.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s time to upgrade. The 802.11n standard has finally been settled and, after a few years of turmoil, the router market is finally back on track.
Where in previous tests ADSL users have lost out, there’s now a wide selection of 802.11n routers catering for both ADSL and cable broadband.
The technology keeps getting better, too. Routers that operate not only on the crowded 2.4GHz band (along with your microwave, baby monitor and cordless phone), but also on the cleaner, interference-clear 5GHz band, are becoming cheaper and more common.
Most routers now offer useful features such as USB sockets, which let you share storage across the network. Plus, range and speed is improving all the time.
For these reasons we’ve concentrated on each manufacturer’s flagship models and, where possible, selected dual-band routers and ADSL models. But there’s life in the good old single-band router yet, as you’ll discover by reading on. Inside our testing: find out how we torture test Wireless routers
Buying a wireless router can be tricky. Manufacturers offer a multitude of models, each with a slightly different set of capabilities.
If you’re after a fast router, there are a few things to look out for. The first is the rated speed. While these aren’t representative of the real-world speeds you can expect, they’ll give you a rough idea of how quick they might go.
A router rated at 150Mbits/sec, which communicates on one of thirteen 20MHz channels, has less potential for speed and range than a 300Mbits/sec router, which can use two 20MHz channels “bonded” together.
Gigabit Ethernet ports are another thing to consider, because they remove the bottleneck that 10/100 ports impose. In our tests, the Gigabit routers invariably performed better than their standard 10/100 counterparts.
|Test results: click on image for larger size|
Other routers offer performance benefits via the use of the 5GHz frequency band, which is less polluted with RF interference than the 2.4GHz band.
The 2.4GHz band can be so cluttered – not only by neighbours’ wireless networks, but also noise from microwave ovens, baby monitors and DECT phones – that wireless performance is hit.
Opting for a dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz router gets around this interference problem, both because there isn’t much kit in circulation right now, and because it has more non-overlapping channels to choose from than 2.4GHz. This means neighbouring 5GHz wireless networks are less likely to interfere with one another.
|Test results 5GHz transmit speed: click on image for larger size|
It’s important to realise that results in the graphs above right won’t necessarily reflect the results you may see at home or in the office; there are a number of factors that can influence performance, and dramatically affect speed and range.
For the best performance, for instance, you need to have not only a good router at one end, but also a powerful wireless chipset. All of our tests were carried out using Intel’s top-end WiFi Link 5300 to give each router the chance to reach its maximum potential.
To measure speed, we use a laptop with a Gigabit wired adapter hooked up to one of the router’s Ethernet ports, and another laptop with the Intel WiFi Link 5300 wireless card. We then transfer files wirelessly from one to the other.
We use a batch of 356 1MB files and three larger 128MB files and record transfer speeds over a period of ten minutes to ensure any minor variability in signal strength doesn’t unduly affect the result.
To check signal consistency, we also stream a three-minute long, 12Mbits/sec Full HD video clip.
Each router was tested in two locations: at a range of 2m to establish fastest speed, and 30m to establish range. At each location, the routers were tested in both 2.4GHz and 5GHz modes, where available.Reliability
This is impossible to assess fully within the confines of a comparative test such as this but, where available, we’ve factored in the results of last year’s reader survey results to boost those manufacturers with good scores for reliability, performance and support.
We’ve also put each of the award winners through a soak test in order to catch any obvious problems. We connected three laptops to each award winner – two over 802.11n, one over 802.11g – plus a media-centre PC connected over a 10/100 wired connection, an internet radio, smartphone, NAS drive, and VoIP phone.
With everything connected, we carried out a variety of simultaneous tasks, from hooking up to our office SSL VPN and performing a file transfer, to streaming iPlayer video and making a VoIP call.Star ratings
As usual, we assess features, awarding marks for hardware VPN support, dual-purpose ADSL and WAN connection, simultaneous dual-band operation and USB storage support, for example.
Some routers also offer features such as web content filtering by category and hotel-style guest access.
Value for Money is a weighted sum of Performance and Features combined with the price. Finally, the Overall rating is a straight average of the other three, although it may appear higher or lower than expected due to rounding.
View from the labs
|Feature Table: Click on image for larger size|
The one thing that’s become clear from this wireless routers Labs is that there’s a broader range of devices than ever for the discerning networker.
Not only do we have standard 802.11n models available, but also dual-band routers – and there are several different types of these available as well. We have dual-band routers with one radio, giving users the choice of connecting in either 2.4GHz or 5GHz mode.
We have concurrent dual-band routers that allow the connection of many different devices on each band simultaneously.
And we have one router this month offering a poor man’s concurrent dual band: with one 802.11g radio and one 802.11n, the idea being to keep costs down. Those who need the reliability that 5GHz can offer, for streaming HD video and wireless backups, are spoilt for choice.
Despite this influx of products, however, what this Labs also reveals is that the dual-band router market is still in its early stages.
Not every manufacturer has a dual-band router in its portfolio and the feature still commands a premium. In addition, many manufacturers still haven’t perfected the art of extracting decent range out of the 5GHz band; two of the dual-band routers on test were all but unusable over 5GHz in our long-range test.
Others were significantly slower than their 2.4GHz counterparts. For these reasons, we haven’t handed the overall Labs Winner award to a dual-band router.
It’s clear, however, that dual-band and 5GHz Wi-Fi are the future. In towns and cities, where connected homes are closely clustered together, the 2.4GHz band is now incredibly cluttered, with wireless networks and other devices operating in the same band.
Getting a reliable signal for streaming or fast file transfers with a single-band 802.11n router is becoming increasingly difficult as a result. As more 802.11n routers filter into homes and cheap electronics continue to leak interference, dropouts, interruptions and disconnects will reach epidemic proportions.
In crowded urban areas, the move from 2.4GHz is inevitable. It isn’t quite with us yet, as this month’s Labs proves, but with many laptops already equipped with 5GHz adapters, it will be soon.
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This Group Test appeared in the July, 2010 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine