IEEE 802.11n is the most interesting wireless network standard since the original development of 802.11-based wireless networking several years ago. Here are a few reasons why:
The base 802.11n standard is backwards-compatible with the mainstream 802.11g 54Mbps wireless network, while offering the ability to run at much faster speeds. This is possible because both 802.11n and 802.11g use 11 channels in the 2.4GHz radio band.
An optional part of the 802.11n standard also supports 5GHz frequencies, enabling dual-band 802.11n hardware to also be backwards-compatible with 802.11a wireless networks.
Dual-band 802.11n routers, such as the Linksys WRT600n, enable a single router to support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless networks at the same time.
802.11n offers potential speeds of up to 300Mbps, and even though real-world speeds are much slower, 802.11n blows the doors off the established 802.11a and 802.11g standards (11Mbps 802.11b is long overdue for replacement due to slow speed and very weak security).
802.11n 5GHz offers many more channels (with no overlap) than 802.11g or 2.4GHz 802.11n, and also offers wide channels for better throughput.
Since there are two different "flavors" of 802.11n hardware on the market, how can you tell what the best choices are? Read on to find out more.
When a "Standard" Isn't Really a Standard
Although you can still find a lot of 802.11g (both standard and proprietary speed-improved versions) on the shelves of your local computer store, 802.11n hardware is rapidly taking shelf space away from its predecessor. And, with most of the latest laptops on the market, along with the forthcoming ASUS eee Box, offering 802.11n adapters in either their standard or custom configurations, you'll probably be using 802.11n wireless networking sooner rather than later.
This is ironic because, as we told you about last year, the 802.11n standard is still in its draft stage, with final certification expected in 2009. However, by certifying 802.11n hardware as being Draft 2.0 compliant, the Wi-Fi Alliance is telling users that it's safe to start using 802.11n now - and manufacturers and users alike are responding.
Start With the Router, then Build Up from There
If you're planning to upgrade to 802.11n, start by choosing a router that has 802.11n support. I chose the Linksys WRT600N router for a couple of reasons:
It supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies
It has an integrated Gigabit Ethernet switch
These features enable me to run two different wireless networks if I want, and support the integrated Gigabit Ethernet ports found in many recent computers at full speed. Even though my home wireless network is a mixture of 802.11n and 802.11g clients, I'm already seeing a big boost in network performance.
Getting the Best 802.11n Hardware for Your Money
One of the strengths of 802.11n is the ability to support both the crowded 2.4GHz radio band and the uncrowded 5GHz radio band. Unfortunately, many integrated and add-on 802.11n adapters and routers support only 2.4GHz frequencies.
Wi-Fi Draft 2.0-compliant 802.11n hardware that supports only 2.4GHz frequencies has the following certification mark:
While virtually any 802.11n hardware provides a great speed boost over 802.11g (and even improves performance on a mixed 802.11g and 802.11n network), you'll be better off in the long run to go with dual-band hardware. Look for the Wi-Fi Alliance ABG+Draft N certification mark if you want dual-band hardware:
If you're shopping for a new notebook computer, keep in mind that most of the clearance-priced models being blown off store shelves this summer don't include 802.11n support. If you want maximum speed today and tomorrow, you'll want to pay a bit more for an 802.11n radio in your notebook (preferably dual-band). Similarly, be sure to use the custom-configuration tool when you order a notebook computer so you can choose an 802.11n radio in place of an 802.11g radio.
Finding the Mother Lode of 802.11n Draft 2.0-compliant Products
Over 300 products have been certified as meeting 802.11n Draft 2.0 standards. See the listing here.To learn more about Wi-Fi 802.11n Draft 2.0, see the Wi-Fi Alliance website.