Group test: 12 dual-band routers reviewed
Unhappy with your wireless network performance? With the 2.4GHz frequency band becoming ever-more congested, the best way to give your Wi-Fi the boost it needs is with a dual-band router.
When wireless first came along in the 1990s, it was a brave, exciting new world. But in the many years since, as the availability of wireless has steadily spread, the number of devices jostling for attention in the frequency band used by most laptops and mobile devices has exploded.
The result is heavy congestion, and if you’re still using a single-band 2.4GHz-only router, the likelihood is that, at one time or another, your wireless router has had its performance compromised by the activities of neighbouring wireless networks, microwave ovens, video and TV senders, Bluetooth devices and even baby monitors. TWIN TURBO
If you want smooth HD video streaming over your wireless network, snappy backups and a reliable, steady connection, you need a dual-band router. Dual-band routers operate in a different radio frequency band – 5GHz – that’s far less congested, and can offer faster speeds and more reliable operation.
That’s why 11 of the 12 routers we’ve reviewed this month are dual band. But before you dive into the meat of the Labs, there are a couple of crucial things you ought to know. First, all dual-band routers are not made equal. Some have only one radio inside and that means choosing between running either a 2.4GHz network, or a 5GHz one.
As some wireless devices only operate in the 2.4GHz band, you’ll either end up running a router like this in 2.4GHz mode, thus wasting all its 5GHz potential, or running two routers at once – a rather unsatisfactory compromise, and not very green. If a router doesn’t offer concurrent or simultaneous dual band, then it’s probably best avoided. SPEEDY STREAMS
Some of the more expensive models also offer a 450Mbits/sec top speed, where routers have previously been limited to 300Mbits/sec. This claimed throughput figure depends on the number of 150Mbits/sec streams a router supports and how many antennae it has.
A standard 300Mbits/sec router supports two streams, with two antennae for transmitting and two or three for receiving data (also referred to as 2x2 and 2x3 configurations). The Cisco Linksys E4200 on the other hand, supports three 150Mbits/sec streams, in this case with three antennae for transmitting and three for receiving data (a 3x3 configuration).
Many routers also offer one or two USB ports for sharing storage, printers, and even 3G dongles, which can be useful if your ADSL or cable ever goes down.HOW WE TEST
|The Wi-Spy DBx allows us to monitor the RF output of neighbouring networks and other devices|
Assessing the performance of a dual-band wireless router is complicated. Not only do we need to provide an idea of how fast it can go, we also need to indicate how well it performs at long range, and we need to test these aspects of performance in both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands.
To test these elements, we use two laptops running Windows 7, one connected to the test router via Gigabit or 10/100 Ethernet (whichever is available), the other connected via wireless, using the 3x3 stream-capable Intel WiFi Link 5300 chipset. We then set up the router to use WPA2 security with AES encryption and, where available, enable channel bonding to ensure maximum performance.
To assess speed, a series of small and large files is copied to and from a Windows share on the wired laptop. We run these tests in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands at a range of 2.5m to assess top speed. Next, we run the tests in each frequency band with the wireless laptop placed at a distance of 40m from the router, with one 19mm-thick wooden wall and a double-glazed window in the way. This test indicates how each router performs at range. You’ll find a full breakdown of speed figures at the bottom of the feature table, and graphs on the Results page at the end of this Labs.
During testing, we monitor the airwaves using another laptop equipped with a Wi-Spy DBx radio frequency spectrum analyser. Supplied to us by MetaGeek
, this allows us to ensure each router is using the optimum channel, and that no other devices in the vicinity are causing interference during testing.
Finally, where available, we also test the speed of a router’s USB shared storage feature. This time using a portable USB 3 hard disk as the source, we connect a laptop to an Ethernet port on the router to disc over the the maximum speed of USB transfers.Wireless Routers - Feature Tableclick to enlarge
Looking for the reviews of the 12 routers? They're in the sidebar at the start of this story (scroll up).
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This Group Test appeared in the Jan, 2012 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine