A promising start for 802.11ac, but with few compatible devices, it won’t revolutionise your home network.
The transition from 802.11g to faster 802.11n Wi-Fi was among the most drawn-out upgrades in the history of technology. It was only officially ratified by the IEEE in 2009, but before that, we had years of unofficial “pre-n” and “draft-n” products released as manufacturers and consumers lost patience.
Thankfully, it looks as if its successor – 802.11ac – will go through the process far more quickly. Although still at the “draft 2” stage, it’s predicted the standard will be finalised by the end of 2012, with manufacturers already delivering new hardware. The industry has learned the lessons of 802.11n and this time around all the hardware announced to date features Broadcom silicon, which ensures that different brands of hardware will be compatible. This Netgear R6300 router was the first supporting the new standard to be released.
The 802.11ac standard is intended to boost wireless speeds and range. It only operates in the 5GHz band but is backwards-compatible with 802.11n devices, which means if you buy an R6300 now you’ll be able to connect any dual-band laptop, smartphone and tablet over 5GHz just as you would any regular dual-band 802.11n router. The Netgear R6300 also sports a 2.4GHz radio, allowing concurrent 802.11n and 802.11ac connections.
Over 802.11ac, the potential speed gains are significant. This Netgear R6300 router has a theoretical maximum throughput of up to 1300Mbits/sec, almost three times the 450Mbits/sec claim you’ll see on the fastest 802.11n routers, and there’s also headroom in the standard for speeds far in excess of this.
These speeds are achieved in two key ways. First, the 802.11ac has support for wider channels. While 802.11n supported a maximum channel bandwidth of 40MHz, 802.11ac goes right up to 160MHz. Second, the standard supports the use of more MIMO (multiple input and multiple output) spatial streams, up to eight from four in 802.11n. With a single spatial giving a maximum possible throughput of 433Mbits/sec on an 80MHz channel, there’s potential for throughput of up to 6.93Gbits/sec.
That’s the theory, but as we’ve found over the years, such figures are rarely achievable in real-world use. So we set about putting the R6300, which supports 80MHz channels and three simultaneous streams, through our usual battery of wireless tests.
Unusually, Netgear didn’t supply us with an 802.11ac adapter, as these aren’t available as yet; instead, we received a pair of R6300 routers, set up for use in repeater mode. We hooked up our regular pair of test laptops to each one via Gigabit Ethernet, then transferred a series of large and small files back and forth across the 802.11ac link.
At close range it was lightning quick. Large files copied across in an average of 41.5MB/sec and small files at 27.5MB/sec, giving an overall average of 34.3MB/sec. The fastest router in our last routers Labs – the Asus RT-N56U – achieved figures of 26MB/sec, 21.5MB/sec and 23.8MB/sec in this test. Overall, the R6300 with 802.11ac was faster by a factor of 1.4. At long range – over a distance of 40m – speeds fell significantly, as you’d expect. Once again, though, it was considerably quicker than the Asus RT-N56U, achieving an overall average of 7.4MB/sec. That’s 5.3 times the speed of the Asus’ 1.4MB/sec, and almost 1.45 times the speed of the fastest router we’ve seen in this test, the Netgear WNDR4500.
It’s a blisteringly fast router, and it’s quick over standard 802.11n connections as well. Running the tests over 802.11n 5GHz, it achieved an overall average of 25.2MB/sec in the close-range tests, and 7MB/sec in the long-range tests.
So the new standard is clearly quick. The question is, should you invest in an R6300 now? On the one hand, why not? You could replace your current router with the R6300 and enjoy the same level of connectivity as your old router – even ignoring 802.11ac, it’s rapid thanks to Netgear’s use of top end componentry in the router.
On the other hand, it’s expensive, and with no laptop adapters, let alone compatible smartphones or tablets available yet, it will be some time before you fully reap the benefits. As such, unless you absolutely need a new router we advise you hold onto your cash for the time being; however, as soon as the first 802.11ac laptops begin to arrive, we’ll be beating a path to Netgear’s door.