Over the course of the weekend my trusty lil’ Belkin F5D7230-4 Wireless G router started making a small electronic screeching noise. It was the kind of noise that’s indicative that a capacitor will soon erupt, so it was time to retire her. She was around 4 or 5 years old, so I can’t complain.
I figured now was the time to upgrade to a wi-fi router with Wireless N. After all, I have a Dell mini 10v netbook that has a Draft N wi-fi card in it, so why not.
After two wi-fi N routers bought and returned, I have a Linksys WRT54GL ordered from Newegg on its way to me now because Wireless N simply wasn’t worth the hassle.
Here’s wi-fi N in a nutshell and why I’m choosing not to use it:
What is Wireless N?
The technical name for N is 802.11n. It is the fifth version of the spec. The first was 802.11, then 802.11a, then B, G and finally (for now) N. The indoor range of N is 70m/230ft, outdoor range is 250m/820ft – however in practical application those numbers are much lower due to obstruction/interference/etc.
There are four things about N that make it distinctively different from B and G.
- Four MIMO (multiple-input/multiple-output) streams instead of one.
- A raw data rate of 600 Mbit/s.
- Two bandwidth frequencies, 20Mhz and 40MHz, instead of 20MHz alone.
- Two GHz frequencies of 2.4GHz and 5GHz, instead of 2.4GHz alone.
How can you get the fastest possible data rate with N?
This is where the frustration begins with N.
While it’s true you can operate on 40MHz bandwidth with 2.4GHz, doing that takes up 82% of the unlicensed band. In other words, it most likely won’t work because of network congestion, so you’re more or less required to use 5GHz just to use 40MHz bandwidth.
Let’s say for the moment you configure your N router to the configuration where it will only accept incoming connections @ 5GHz using 40MHz bandwidth. Will you get 600 Mbit/s? No, because that’s the raw data rate. The practical data rate will be under 300. You can consider this the difference between gross and net. When you get a paycheck from your job, there’s the gross amount and then what you’re left with after tax which is net. With wi-fi routers, "raw" is "gross", and "practical" is "net".
The ridiculous nature of N routers at present
You would think there’s only one type of N router, but there are actually three "major" types:
- Up to 150Mbps, single band
- Up to 300Mbps, single band
- Up to 300Mbps, dual band
The 150 and how stupid it is.
I hate the fact the maximum-150Mbps wi-fi N router even exists, because none of them as far as I know are fully Draft N certified, and you literally cut the maximum data rate you can achieve with your Draft N wi-fi card in half. The 150 exists only because these type of wi-fi routers are cheap to produce. As such, they’re junk. I know – I bought two of them before I realized this. The second one bought was a storied brand, a Linksys WRT120N – a router that barely qualifies as N. If you were expecting blazing N speeds, well.. just read that article for yourself and you be the judge. It states more or less every reason why a maximum-150Mbps wifi-N router is garbage.
And yes I was thoroughly disgusted that Linksys could even consider making let alone selling such a piece of junk.
At all costs you should always avoid purchasing a maximum-150Mbps wi-fi N router. Do not buy one, you will regret it.
The up-to-300Mbps single-band trap.
If you are in a wi-fi environment that is N-only by your design, you’ll get along just fine with a single-band 300Mbps wi-fi N router. However most of us, yours truly included, have other devices that require G. One such example is a Nintendo Wii which does G but not N. Or maybe you have another laptop or desktop with a wireless NIC that only supports B/G. Or maybe you have a smartphone that only supports B/G. You get the idea. Most of us have mixed wi-fi environments.
What you run into is a trap because the single-band N router won’t accept 2.4GHz and 5GHz at the same time. Remember, it’s single-band. You either configure for 2.4GHz or 5GHz and have to deal with it. This means that in order to connect up your wi-fi devices that require G and your other devices that are N-capable, you must use 2.4GHz and the result from that are awful N speeds. Yes, you’re connected via N, but are absolutely not taking advantage of the greater data rate 5GHz with 40MHz bandwidth has. In some instances you will be no better off with N than you were with G.
In a mixed wi-fi environment, a single-band wi-fi N router is just a bad idea. Sure, you’ll get great G speeds, but the N speeds will barely be able to outrun G in most instances.
The up-to-300Mbps dual band saves the day – if you know how to configure an N connection in a mixed wi-fi environment properly
The dual-band wi-fi N router is the one that does it all, but the way to ensure a proper 5GHz with 40MHz bandwidth connection is wholly dependent on software.
If you set up your dual-band wi-fi N router to operate as a mixed environment that accepts B, G and N (you can’t configure to operate only G and N for whatever reason), there is usually no option that says, "N connections must operate on 5GHz with 40MHz bandwidth only". What occurs is a mix between 20 and 40MHz, and it has to happen because B and G only use 20MHz bandwidth. A tradeoff is that your N connections will also most likely be watered down to 2.4GHz using 20MHz bandwidth.
What do you do to compensate for this? You specifically configure the wi-fi connection on the desktop or laptop to force a 5GHz/40MHz connection to your router and then you’re finally getting the N speeds you want – assuming the signal is strong to begin with.
This begs the question: How is anyone supposed to magically know you’re supposed to force a 5GHz w/40MHz bandwidth freq connection to get the best N data rate?
On top of that, most wi-fi cards (particularly on laptops and netbooks) have independent configuration admin programs, and none of them work the same. There is no simple 1-2-3 way of doing it and never has since N has been in existence.
Things that need to change about Wireless N
The "up to 150Mbps" Wireless N router needs to be taken off the market and not come back
This has everything to do with wi-fi router manufacturers. All of them need to pull those craptastic routers off the shelves because they’re not Draft N certified, they don’t deliver the best speeds for an N data rate, and most importantly there are already certified Draft N 300Mbps wi-fi routers that cost less. This one is a no-brainer.
Single-band wi-fi N routers should all come with a warning sticker
The sticker would say this: "Warning! Setting your router to 5GHz-only connections will prevent Wireless B and G devices from being able to connect to this device."
This sticker should be big, red and and slapped right on top of every single-band wi-fi N router made so consumers are made very aware of what happens when you go 5GHz-only. And when I say sticker I mean sticker and not some quick pop-up screen in the router setup program that everybody would ignore. This is something that really needs to be seen and understood.
Some of you are probably thinking it might be better if all single-band wi-fi N routers were removed from the market along with the "up to 150Mbps", but I disagree with that because single-band does offer a low-cost option for the budget-minded. I think it’s fine to offer single-band N as long as all of them support up to 300Mbps or higher.
Draft N wireless card admin programs need to explain themselves better
If you have a Draft N wi-fi card and have explored its configuration program, you saw the 40MHz connection option (most likely a checkbox), but had absolutely no idea what it was for or even what it did. And why would you? Your admin program probably doesn’t explain the option at all, so you’re left in the dark as to what it does.
Things like this need to change, even if it’s just one sentence that says, "40MHz is for Wireless N connections only and increases data rate." That little blurb would help out immensely for many folks. It says up front that the 40MHz bandwidth option is only for N connections and also states what it does.
Why do I hate Wireless N?
What I hate about Wireless N is the fact as to how utterly stupid it is in practical application. How is anybody supposed to know that:
- Your wi-fi N router must be Draft-N certified in order to achieve 300Mbps or higher connectivity.
- Your wi-fi N router must be dual-band if you intend to use it in a mixed wi-fi environment.
- You’re supposed to know the difference between 20MHz and 40MHz bandwidth – and how to apply it in your wi-fi card’s configuration program.
If you’re technically inclined when it comes to wi-fi routers, then sure, you know this stuff well. But what about Joe or Jane Consumer? How are they supposed to know this stuff?
If after reading this you’ve made the decision to stick with G, don’t worry, I don’t blame you. G is not going to go away any time soon. Heck, we haven’t even been able to get rid of B!
What’s a good use for Wireless N?
A good use for N is speed when connected properly. When you’re surfing at 5GHz at 40MHz bandwidth, then oh yeah, life is good. It’ll be so fast you’ll think you’re on a wired connection. Sony PlayStation 3 users particularly appreciate this.
A bad reason to use N is for extended wi-fi range, because to be blunt honest, it’s a crapshoot as to whether that will actually work or not per your specific environment. Wireless N is not a guaranteed solution to a wi-fi range problem and never has been. While it is true that N does have better range than G does, you’d be far better off using two decent G routers (like the Linksys WRT54G or WRT54GL), with the second one as acting as a Wireless Access Point, a.k.a. WAP.
Also be very aware that "dual-band" absolutely does not mean "better range". All dual-band means is that the N router will accept both 2.4GHz and 5GHz connections at the same time.
On a final note, I’m not saying Wireless N itself is bad. Not at all. But how to get the most out of N requires way too much assumed knowledge, and I don’t believe anyone would disagree with me on that point.
If you elect to use it, at least you now know what to buy.
What’s your recommendations for Wireless N?
Wireless N is something where many people are still riding the fence trying to decide whether to go with it or not. If you use N currently, please feel free to post a comment as to what wi-fi router you use, how its performance compares to G and so on.
For those of you out there that routinely use 5GHz N connections in mixed wi-fi environments that also use G – your comments would be especially helpful. How has that been working for you?
Yes, it is 100% OK to list brands and particular models by name, because some N router models are junk while others are great.
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