In the technology sector, one expects the latest generation of products to outperform those they are replacing. Equipment vendors often fuel such expectations by promising their latest toys and tools will deliver much better performance.
So when wireless networking equipment manufacturers began rolling out Wi-Fi routers and PC cards based on a new draft version of the popular 802.11 Wi-Fi standard a few months ago, expectations were high. Wi-Fi technology is now built into virtually every portable personal computer and has helped transform home and small office networking by removing the need for fixed cabling.
The existing 802.11g Wi-Fi standard supports data throughput of 54Mbps (megabits per second) though real world speeds are generally around half this. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has been working on the next generation 802.11n standard – designed to outperform 802.11g equipment in both speed and range.
When it is eventually ratified the 802.11n standard is expected to include smart antenna technology called MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Out) pioneered by Airgo Networks, a US wireless chip company.
Last year Netgear (www.netgear.com) and Linksys (www.linksys.com) launched high performance “Pre-N” routers using Airgo’s proprietary technology. Routers are like electronic traffic cops directing digital traffic around a network and providing the interface between PCs on the network and the internet.
At the time, I tested both the Netgear RangeMax 240 and the Linksys SRX400 Pre-N routers and was impressed with their performance. They both deliver around 100Mbps of throughput when paired with matching PC cards.
Now the leading home networking suppliers, including Linksys, Netgear, D-Link, Belkin and Buffalo, have upped the ante by launching so-called “Draft-N” devices based on the latest revision of the proposed 802.11n standard. They claim these routers have up to 12 times the speed and four times the range of 802.11g.
This latest wireless equipment mostly fails to live up to expectations and in some cases underperforms against the previous generation. Independent lab tests suggest most of these products are slower than equipment already on sale.
That said, Netgear’s WNR834B RangeMax Next router and matching PC Card stand out as the best Draft-N system – billed as improving upon the performance of RangeMax 240 – so I decided to take a closer look.
The RangeMax Next router looks different from its rivals. While most wireless routers feature an array of two or more external antennae, Netgear has concealed the antennae inside the device’s sleek white acrylic casing.
It comes with four standard 10/100 Ethernet ports and has a street price of about $122. The router also easy to set up thanks to colour-coded ports on the back and excellent installation wizards for both the router and the matching PC Card, which costs $100. The installation wizard automatically detects and configures the router for internet service providers.
The router also comes with most of the security and extra technical features that online gamers, telecommuters and power users could want.
Hooked up to my hybrid wired/wireless home network, the RangeMax Next delivered solid results and coped successfully with multiple video and audio streams as well as my Vonage VoIP connection.
My ad hoc speed tests suggested the RangeMax Next performed very well at short distances of up to about 10ft and about as well as the RangeMax 240 at longer ranges – up to about 100ft.
However, in spite of their enhanced range, the RangeMax Next router and the Pre-N routers I have tested still leave “dead” spots in distant parts of my wood-frame home where the wireless signal is either non-existent or very weak.
Since expanded range is likely to be more important than higher throughput, this is disappointing and might put wireless router owners off the upgrade.
One alternative for extending the range of a wireless network is the latest generation of HomePlug or Powerline adapters that plug into standard power sockets and transmit data traffic over a home’s electrical wiring.
I have been testing a pair of Netgear XE104 85Mbps Homeplug Ethernet Switches which cost about $80 each. They are easy to set up and use: you simply plug one into a power socket near the router and run a short Ethernet cable between the router and the adapter, and then plug another adapter into a power socket in the room where you want to add network connectivity.
Each adapter is a self-contained switch that turns any power socket into a four-port home network connection and supports any combination of PCs or other networked device. The switches are a good choice for anyone looking to extend a wireless network and work across most home electrical circuits.
NETGEAR WNR834B RANGEMAX NEXT ROUTER
Pros: Sleek design, good performance particularly over short ranges.
Cons: No real advantages over Netgear Pre-N RangeMax240 router. May not be compatible with final 802.11n Wi-Fi standard.
Paul Taylor tackles your high-tech problems and queries at www.ft.com/gadgetguru