Wireless operator

Wander into a typical large PC retailer (you know the one!) and look at its range of wireless networking kit, and how much shelf space it warrants – in my local store, a rough count revealed 75 individual SKUs for wireless products. If I were a typical small business user, I’d be totally confused and, even as a techie, 10 minutes reading the claims on these 75 boxes made my head spin. There are several manufacturers, of course – and nothing wrong with that, as competition is a good thing – but each of them appears to offer at least four Wi-Fi ranges (in fact, one had eight). Each box makes claims about speed, range and throughput, and the price of routers and access point varies from £30 up to £150 or more. Trouble is, even if you buy from the super-fast, super-expensive end, if you pair the wrong two items they may end up talking at the same 802.11g speeds found at the £30 end of the market.

Wireless operator

The wireless world is in a real mess, reminiscent of the bad old pre-Wi-Fi days. I was an early adopter of WLANs; I first set up a wireless home network in 1994 using Xircom kit. If I remember rightly, the access point cost me around £1,400 and the laptop cards were £250 each. Ouch! It ran at 1Mb/sec and seemed quite revolutionary at the time. Then other manufacturers like Lucent, Proxim and BayStack all released their own cards, and speeds started creeping up: 2Mb, 4Mb, 6Mb… But, of course, none of them would talk to one another, so if I’d wanted a faster wireless network I’d have had to throw away my Xircom stuff and start again.

This I almost did, but then a rumour circulated that the various vendors were going to work together to create a common interoperable wireless standard, so I held off until 1999 when the first 802.11b products started to appear. For a while, that worked well; the playing field was level and mix-and-match setups worked well. But that isn’t happening any more; each manufacturer seems to flick through the standards document, then say “how can we improve on this”. They add proprietary bells and whistles to gain extra speed and distance, which usually means vendor A’s products will only work with Vendor B’s at base 802.11g speed.

Draft or daft?

That’s all supposed to change with 802.11n – the new standard currently in draft form – which should be ratified within a year to 18 months. 802.11n tries to take the best of the current speed and range enhancement tricks and turn them into a proper agreed standard. But even before “n” has been fully specified, we’ve got companies releasing products that claim to be based on the draft version. Belkin has actually taken two bites at this cherry, releasing a “pre-N” product range towards the end of 2004 and now a “Draft-N” product set. Both claim to be based on 802.11n, but neither guarantees to be compatible with the final standard or indeed with each other.

Other manufacturers are playing even sillier games. Netgear, for example, has its new RangeMax Next range of products, again based around Draft-N. You need to check the model numbers really carefully, though, as Netgear has two different chipsets in its Draft-N product line-up: Broadcom’s Intensi-fi and Marvell’s TopDog. If the product you pick up has a T in its model number, it’s the TopDog version, whereas N or B means Broadcom. Netgear labels the TopDog kit as 300Mb/sec and the Broadcom as 270Mb/sec, so if you pick up an 854T router you’ll need the 511T PC Card in your laptop rather than the 511B. Confused yet?

A few weeks ago, I bought myself a Netgear 834N ADSL router, and have to report very mixed findings. In some parts of the house, it provides an excellent signal, but in other places (one of which is only two small rooms away from the router) performance is plain awful. The router seems to be directional, so moving it around may help but doesn’t fix it completely. I’ve tried using Netgear’s PC Card (511B) and PCI card (311B), and the PCI version worked significantly better, probably because it has an external antenna, but performance was still nowhere near that promised on the box. My rough tests showed that in around a third of locations the Draft-N kit gave slightly better performance than an old 802.11g device, another third showed similar performance, with the remaining third giving worse performance. It was also more prone to interference from external sources – something 802.11n is specifically designed to overcome and I wasn’t expecting. The previous generation of most manufacturers’ products (802.11g plus bells and whistles, plus MIMO) have tended to work very well, so I was expecting the Draft-N kit to be better still, but from what I’ve seen so far it’s a step backwards.

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