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Wi-Fi Router Charts

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As CES 2013 fades to black and my annual CES cold ramps up, it's time to share some thoughts on what I heard and saw this past week in Vegas.

First, the general bullets:

  • Phones are getting bigger, but thinner. Samsung's Galaxy Note II "Phablet" with a 5.5" screen appears to have gotten enough traction that it is spawning copycats. So Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE and probably others were showing big-screen phones. Look for more of the same next month at Mobile World Congress.
    After spending a week trying to text, email and manage my schedule on my Republic Wireless Motorola Defy XT with only a 3.7" screen, I definitely see the appeal of a larger screen. Even if it does make you look dorky when making a call.
  • The big CE makers were all pushing Ultra HD TVs. David Pogue's take says it for me: "the sets cost tens of thousands of dollars. There’s not a single cable TV show broadcast in 4K, and not a single movie available on disc in 4K. So what you may watch mostly on your 4K TV is the reflection of your own “I’ve been scammed” expression".
    Yes, of course the demos were gorgeous, but with 84" sizes and $20 - $25K prices, this is TV for the 1%. The rest of us will just have to make do with crappy ol' 1080p HD.
  • TV will continue to be dumb for awhile longer. The rumored gesture / voice / facial recognition "smart" TV sets were not this year's story. I saw only one little pod at the back of LG's booth demoing voice and gesture controlled TV and it was not drawing a crowd. Maybe next year.

Too Many Choices?

In 2012, my advice was to not be in a hurry to jump into buying a draft 802.11ac router. If you waited, your reward in 2013 is routers with lower prices and even USB adapters to go with them so that your notebook or desktop can actually take advantage of draft 11ac link rates.

Unfortunately, it will be harder to choose a router due to the spaghetti strategy (see what sticks) router makers are taking. And making it even harder is that manufacturers have not adopted a uniform naming convention, as they somehow managed to do with 802.11n, i.e. N600, N900, etc.

So I have generated the table below showing what I'm calling the AC "class" designation that some manufacturers have adopted.

"Class" designation 2.4 GHz N Radio
Maximum Link Rate (Mbps)
5 GHz AC Radio
Maximum Link Rate (Mbps)
AC1750 450 1300
AC1600 300 1300
AC1300 450 866/867
AC1200 300 866/867
AC750 300 433
AC580 150 433
Table 1: Draft 802.11ac router class designation summary

In Table 2, I've gathered what I think are all existing draft 11ac routers, plus the models announced at CES into Table 2. New routers are in bold and all prices are MSRP. Where you don't see a price, one wasn't announced. Products are not in any particular order.

AC1750 AC1600 AC1300 AC1200 AC750
Linksys EA6500
Linksys EA6700
Belkin AC1800 DB
D-Link DGL-5500 Buffalo WZR-1166DHP
Belkin AC750 DB
Linksys EA6400   NETGEAR D6200 (w/ ADSL modem)
EnGenius ESR750C
D-Link DIR-865L
D-Link DIR-868L
    EnGenius ESR1200C
WD MyNet AC 1300
    Linksys EA6300  
    D-Link DIR-860L
Buffalo WZR-D1800H
Buffalo WZR-1750DHP
    Belkin AC1200 DB
TP-LINK TL-WDR7500        
EnGenius ESR1750C
Table 2: Draft 11ac router summary

The largest number of routers are in the top-end AC1750 class, with the other biggest group in the AC1200 class. We'll have to see where the prices of the AC1600 and AC1300 entrants end up when they finally are priced and ship. Note that the lone AC1300 D-Link DGL-5500 is the only one in Table 2 to use the new Qualcomm-Atheros "VIVE" chipset.

I need to correct an earlier statement about the StreamBoost automatic QoS feature in the DGL-5500. The VIVE chipset actually uses technology obtained via Qualcomm's 2011 purchase of Bigfoot Networks, not Ubicom's StreamEngine.

The draft 11ac USB adapters announced have either 1X1 (one transmit, one receive) or 2X2 dual-band radios. Since these adapters operate in only one band at a time, it's not really kosher to add the maximum link rates together. But that's what Linksys did in assigning an "AC580" moniker to its 1X1 adapter.

EnGenius and TP-LINK took a similar approach when naming their new 1X1 USB adapters, but rounded up more to get to "AC600". 2X2 USB adapters introduced by Belkin, TRENDnet and EnGenius were awarded an "AC1200" class label. Does you head hurt yet? Mine does.

There were no 3X3 (AC1750) USB adapters introduced and I doubt there ever will be. Three radios and dual-band antennas are a bit much to cram into a USB dongle and keep it small enough to prevent it from being snapped off. If you want the full 1300 Mbps 802.11ac link rate, you are probably looking at a stationary application like connecting up a media center. This is where an Ethernet-connected wireless bridge will be a better choice anyway, with its ability to be flexibly positioned and more room for better antennas and more powerful radios.

The smörgåsbord of draft 11ac routers and adapters that manufacturers have put on the table has generated a minefield for consumers to find their way through. So it will be very important to carefully read product specs when choosing a draft 11ac router and not just take the "AC" number on the front of the box as truth.

And, of course, remember all these numbers are maximum link rates that assume 40 MHz bandwidth mode in 2.4 GHz and 80 MHz ac mode bandwidth in 5 GHz. Also keep in mind that you'll need an N450 class adapter to reach the top link rates on the 2.4 GHz bands with AC1750 routers.

Under The Table and Tweaking?

The consumer wireless industry has never been shy about "enhancing" the 802.11 standards. Remember Atheros' channel-bonding 108 Mbps "Super G"? Or 22 Mbps 11b Turbo? But these efforts were always explicitly revealed and even marketed as product differentiators.

A little birdie told me during the show that some manufacturers may be using undisclosed non-standards-compliant methods to boost performance of consumer routers. Techniques include making packet sizes so large that they run beyond specified time slots and boosting transmit power above FCC limits. Both techniques can negatively effect performance of nearby spec-compliant APs and routers.

Since transmit power is carefully checked as part of FCC certification, I was told that the "tweakers" simply use spec-compliant firmware for certification and then load spec-busting firmware in shipping product.

I am not naming any names and neither did my little bird. The spec-busting techniques require detection know-how and equipment beyond my ability to replicate, so I can't independently verify the claims. But my source is credible enough that I thought that it worthwhile to shine a little light on these alleged practices.

To any chip or product manufacturers who may be doing this: Knock it off! The Wi-Fi airwaves are bad enough without putting gear on the market that purposely can make life more difficult for owners of spec-compliant Wi-Fi products. And same goes for those of you runnning in 40 MHz mode in 2.4 GHz, when you know that your neighborhood airspace is too crowded to support it and your router is too dumb to stop you. Grrrr!

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