The market is crammed with mainstream 802.11 routers—we'll help you find the best one
In our last router roundup, way back in November 2007, we wrote, “We’re months away from a final IEEE 802.11n standard.” We never imagined that months would stretch into nearly two years before that standards body would finally finish ironing out all the details. But now that the spec has been ratified, 802.11n routers abound—and their prices have dropped dramatically.
Back then, the average price of the 802.11n Draft 2.0 routers that we reviewed—all of which had single-band radios—was $130. The average street price of the six single-band 802.11n routers in this batch has dropped to less than half that. The even better news is that the cheapest router in this roundup also delivered the best real-world performance.
You’ll want to consider features as well as benchmark numbers, of course. If you have complex routing requirements, you’ll want a model with tweaker-friendly firmware. And if you rely on VoIP for telephone service, play online games, or stream video over your wireless network while downloading files using BitTorrent, you’ll want a router with robust quality-of-service features. One of the models we tested allows you to share a printer over your network; another boasts advanced parental-control features.
And then there’s the certification issue to consider: Each of the routers in this roundup implements features of the IEEE 802.11n standard, but not all of them carry the Wi-Fi Alliance’s 802.11n certification logo. We’ll go into more detail about this in our buyers guide.
Read on for our full review of six of the latest mainstream 802.11n routers on the market.
What to look for in a Wi-Fi router
Wi-Fi Alliance Certification
Any router with an “n” in its name is capable of delivering raw data rates of 300- to 450Mb/s, right? Wrong. The Wi-Fi Alliance awards 802.11n interoperability certification only to routers that support two or more spatial streams (each stream is capable of a raw data-transfer rate of 150Mb/s). Single-stream client adapters can be certified as 802.11n, but the Wi-Fi Alliance awards only 802.11a, 802.11b/g, or 802.11a/b/g certification to single-stream routers. Any product that previously qualified for 802.11n Draft 2.0 certification can be automatically certified to be in compliance with the final standard. When in doubt, check which logo appears on the box.
Nearly every wireless router has an integrated switch for making hardwired Ethernet connections. You need to move upscale to get a gigabit switch, though; each of the devices in this roundup has WAN and LAN ports that are limited to 100Mb/s speeds. A narrow WAN port isn’t a big deal (even screaming-fast FiOS connections top out at 50Mb/s downstream), and you probably won’t miss a gigabit switch unless you’re running a NAS box or a server.
Quality of Service
Quality of service (QoS) refers to the router’s ability to assign different priorities to the various types of traffic moving over the network. Wi-Fi Multimedia (WMM) is a QoS baseline because the router must have it in order to be certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. WMM is designed to prioritize network traffic passing through the router according to four criteria (provided the appropriate bits are embedded in the packets before they’re put on the network). Voice traffic receives the highest priority, followed closely by video traffic. Packets carrying a “best effort” flag come next, followed by packets identified as “background.”
Better routers include more robust QoS features. They might let you prioritize traffic by application (so that packets related to an online game are favored over BitTorrent downloads or web-browsing activity, for instance), or by IP or MAC address or Ethernet port (so that a specific device gets higher priority than anything else on the network).
An increasing number of routers support USB storage devices. Some models support true NAS (network-attached storage) functionality, so that computers on the network can access the drive just like any other storage device. Others provide access to the storage only through a built-in FTP server.
Some routers can function as a printer server, allowing you to share a single USB printer with every PC on your network. Support for multifunction printers is elusive, however; you can typically share the printer function over the network, but not the scanning or fax features.
We’re not big fans of this feature (we believe it affords a false sense of security because kids will figure out how to circumvent it anyway), but parental controls do at least allow you to put temporary roadblocks in front of unsavory websites, and they make activities such as peer-to-peer file sharing more difficult to pull off.
Our Testing Methodology
We tested the routers in this story at Maximum PC Lab North, a 2,800 square-foot single-family home in a rural area of Northern California. Each router was paired with the vendor’s matching USB wireless client adapter plugged into a laptop client. The router was placed on a shelf in one of the bedrooms, and we used the freeware benchmark utility IPerf (with the Jperf Java front end) to measure TCP throughput between two end points, with the client end point placed at three locations inside the house and three outside it.
Trendnet's TEW-639GR single-band 802.11n router, reviewed in our Holiday 2009 issue, delivered the best throughput in four of our six test locations, so we used it as our basis for comparison.
We configured each router to operate in 802.11n-only mode (if that option was available). We used WPA2 security with AES encryption and enabled channel bonding. The home is located on a 10-acre parcel and is well isolated from any neighboring wireless networks that might be operating nearby. We retested Trendnet’s TEW-639GR single-band 802.11n router, which scored a solid 8 verdict in our review in the Holiday 2009 issue, and used it as our zero point. You’ll find a raft of additional details about our testing methodology and environment here.
Don’t toss your existing router in the trash when you bring home a bright, shiny new model; convert it into a wireless access point, switch, or bridge.
Plug a PC into one of the old router’s LAN ports. Open a web browser, type in the router’s IP address, and log in. Your network must have only one DHCP server, so disable the server on the old router. Now, assign the old router an IP address that’s outside the new router’s DHCP server range.
You can convert most wireless routers into a wireless access point by turning off the DHCP server in the firmware.
Unplug the computer, place the old router where you need it, and connect it to the new router with an Ethernet cable (use the LAN ports at both ends). If stringing Ethernet cable isn’t convenient, consider using power-line networking modules. You now should be able to connect to the new access point by typing the access point’s IP address into a web browser on any computer on your network. In addition to having a new wireless access point, you can also use the old router’s remaining LAN ports as a wired switch.
If you have a device that depends on a wired Ethernet connection, but dragging Cat5 cable to it isn’t practical and you don’t want to use power-line modules, convert your old router into a wireless bridge. This will most likely require third-party replacement firmware (DD-WRT, Sveasoft, and Tomato are the most popular options). Install and configure the firmware and position the router where needed. You’ll be able to make wired connections this way, but clients will not be able to make wireless connections to the bridge.
How to Boost TCP Throughput
If your environment is crowded with wireless access points or your client is at the extreme edge of your router’s range, you might be able to increase the router’s throughput by reducing its fragmentation threshold. The router will slice up any frames larger than that threshold and send the fragments separately. Since any lost fragments will be smaller than the entire frame, resending them will require less time.
Any changes should be matched by a change to its RTS (Request to Send) threshold. The router will send an RTS signal to the client before sending any frame that’s larger than the RTS threshold. The router will then wait until the client sends a CTS (Clear to Send) signal before transmitting the frame. This RTS/CTS exchange minimizes interference and reduces the need to retransmit frames by informing all the stations on the network that a frame exchange is about to occur.
Finding the sweet spot is a trial-and-error process. We significantly boosted TCP throughput from a D-Link DIR-615 router to our client (with 60 feet, one insulated interior wall, and two insulated exterior walls in between) by making incremental changes to these values until TCP throughput stopped increasing and began to go in the other direction.
We eventually increased the router’s TCP throughput to the client at that location from 4.4Mb/s to 15.2Mb/s by changing the RTS threshold and fragmentation threshold from their default values of 2,346 bytes to 1,200 bytes each. Bear in mind that settings and results will vary by router. You should also know that changes benefiting a distant client’s throughput can be detrimental to the throughput of a client operating closer to the router. When we moved the client back to our kitchen location, for instance, its TCP throughput dropped from 71.4Mb/s with the router’s default settings to 21.5Mb/s after our tweaks. That’s still plenty fast for web browsing.
One alternative to tweaking the router’s settings is to use a high-gain wireless network adapter, such as Hawking Technology’s dish-shaped HWDN1, at your distant location. Read our review here.