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Wireless Basics

{mospagebreak toctitle= Introduction, 4 Types, Bands}

Which WLAN to choose?

There is a newer version of this article here.

Introduction

Like the good engineer that I am, I sometimes tend to overexplain things. I'm also big on having shoppers understand their requirements so that they can buy a product that best suits their needs. So it's probably not a surprise that my How To Choose the Right Wireless LAN for You may have been a bit much for some readers, especially folks whose first interest is not home networking.

So this time, I'm taking a different approach. I'm going to skip the why and how and get right to the who and what of wireless router buying. If you don't want (or care) to get into the details behind what makes a wireless router tick and just want a short list of candidates to consider, then this article is for you.

The Four Types of Wireless Routers

There are four basic types of wireless routers.

  • Single-band "G"
  • Single-band "N"
  • Dual-band, single-radio "N"
  • Dual-band, two-radio "N"

The main variation within each type is whether the WAN and LAN ports are Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 Mbps) or just 10/100 Mbps. Unless you have an Internet connection capable of > 100 Mbps up and/or download speed, you don't need a Gigabit WAN port.

Gigabit LAN ports are good to have, if you have devices with Gigabit Ethernet ports. But you can always buy a router with 10/100 ports and pick up a 5 port Gigabit Ethernet switch later (~ $35) if you upgrade your wired network.

Note that If you have a wireless device that uses the old 802.11b standard, you can rest assured that all the four types above can get it connected.

End of the Draft
It's been a long time coming. But by the end of 2009, the 802.11n standard will be finalized. So, in the interest of keeping things simple, I'm dropping the use of "draft" when talking about "N" routers.

The key technical features of 802.11n were decided years ago and the finalization of the standard primarily resolves long-standing arguments among warring camps. So there is no need to hold off buying "N" type routers until after year end.

The list above is in approximate order of cost from cheapest to most expensive. Specials, coupons, close-outs, etc. can greatly affect what you'll pay. But if we're talking list, non-sale price from most brick-and-mortal retailers, the cheapest routers will be the single-band "G"s and the most expensive, the dual-band, two-radio "N"s.

At the risk of being out of date the second I publish this, here are approximate ranges for the four types:

Router Type Price Range
Single-band "G"
$30 - $60
Single-band "N"
$70 - $100
Dual-band, single-radio "N"
$100 - $130
Dual-band, two-radio "N" $130 - $250
Table 1: Wireless Router Types and Prices

You will find exceptions to every one of these price ranges, particularly if you're ok with buying refurbished and discontinued close-out products.

Note: I am not including the emerging class of "N150" routers in the primary router types. I can't think of a situation where they are a good choice. Read Buyers Beware! Single Stream Draft 802.11n Products Bring Back Spec Spin for my reasons why.

Frequency Bands

G and single band N routers operate in the 2.4 GHz radio band. This is the same frequency band that many other wireless devices operate in, including some cordless phones, intercoms, baby monitors and microwave ovens. It's also where most wireless networks operate, at least in the U.S..

The more of these devices that are in range of your wireless network, the lower and less consistent your speed will be. In really crowded areas, you may find your laptop or other wireless device constantly dropping connection to your router, or speeds wildly swinging from fast to snail-slow.

The 2.4 GHz band has 11 channels (in the U.S.), but only three of them (Channels 1, 6 and 11) don't overlap, as shown in Figure 1. Channel overlap is bad, because it's another form of interference, which reduces your wireless LAN's speed and reliability.

Although there is nothing stopping you from tuning your router to any of the other channels, for best performance, use only channels 1, 6 or 11. Contrary to what you might think, using the other channels doesn't improve performance. That's because your signal looks like interference to networks on 1, 6 and 11 and vice versa.

2.4 GHz band channels

Figure 1: 2.4 GHz band channels
From Wi-Fi Hotspots: Setting Up Public Wireless Internet Access
(Cisco Press, 2006) by Eric Geier , used by permission

Dual-band routers operate in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Single-radio models make you choose one band or the other. Two-radio models (also called "simultaneous") allow you to support devices that connect in both bands at the same time.

The primary benefit of using the 5 GHz band is lower interference, which can improve your wireless network's speed and connection reliability. But the downside is that the 5 GHz signal is reduced more than the 2.4 GHz signal when passing through walls and other obstacles. So a router operating the the 5 GHz band may not be able to provide a usable connection in the same location that it can when switched to the 2.4 GHz band.

The 5 GHz band also has more non-overlapping channels than 2.4 GHz. So where the 2.4 GHz band has only three usable channels out of 11, routers that support the 5 GHz band usually support eight channels, which are all usable. So this increases your chances of finding a channel that doesn't interfere with neighboring networks.


Speed

Wireless speed is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of wireless networks. Most consumer wireless manufacturers have moved away from prominently featuring speed and range numbers in their product descriptions and advertising and sometimes even in their specifications. Instead you'll see relative terms like "Good, Better, Best" and "1X, 2x, 4X" used to describe both speed and range.

Part of the reason is the effect of some quiet, but effective past lawsuits challenging manufacturers' wireless performance claims. But manufacturers have also decided to pass on educating consumers about what wireless "speed" numbers really mean and their relation to actual performance.

The main thing you need to know is how to match up a number that you might see on a box or spec sheet with the type of wireless technology it indicates. So Table 2 contains a little decoder you can use.

Maximum "Speed" Marketing Terms Type
11 Mbps
B, Wireless-B
B (802.11b)
54 Mbps
G, Wireless-G
G (802.11g)
300 Mbps
(draft) N, Wireless-N
N (802.11n)
150 Mbps
N150 Not Standard
Table 2: Wireless Speed vs. Wireless Type

The relationship between this number and your actual wireless throughput is explained here.

Choosing Your Type

This is primarily a cost vs. flexibility decision. So if price is no object and you're the type who likes to keep his or her options open, by all means go for a dual-band, dual radio model. As I write this, the most expensive dual-band, dual-radio N router is around $250, with others hovering around $150.

On the other end of the scale, if you already have a wireless LAN with all G devices and you're happy with its performance, there is no reason to change to "N". "Upgrading" to an N router won't increase your range or speed up your G devices. On the contrary, it could end up causing problems with very old gear. So if your G router has given up the ghost and you need to get a new wireless router, I'd shop for another G router vs. messing around with N.

The toughest choice is for folks in the middle, with mostly G devices and perhaps a new notebook or two that came with an N adapter. First, there is no reason to rush out to buy an "N" router if you're happy with the speeds and range that you get with your G router. Your new N notebook will work just fine at G speeds. You only need an N router if you want to try for higher speeds.

However, whenever there are G and N devices connected to the same N type router, they both will operate at slower speed, but only when both are active. So if you do a lot of long wireless downloads, file transfers or backups or watch a lot of online video via wireless connections, you will want to segregate G and N clients onto separate networks, for optimum performance of both types.

If you don't plan on using the N notebook much, most of your wireless traffic is web browsing, email, or other traffic that consists of short data transmissions, or you won't often use the N and G devices at the same time, then you can leave the devices mixed.

The easiest way to separate the client types, especially if you already have a G type router, is to add an N type router. See Add, Don't Replace When Upgrading to 802.11n for more details.

Another way to separate the client types is to use a dual-band, dual-radio N router. You would connect your G devices to the 2.4 GHz radio and your dual-band N devices to the 5 GHz radio. But this has the downside of shorter range for the 5 GHz band devices.

The two-band method is also an option only if the new N devices are dual-band. To tell, look for "agn" or "802.11a/b/g/Draft-N" in the notebook or device's wireless spec. The "a" indicates 802.11a, which is the earlier wireless spec for the 5 GHz band. The use of "N" by itself does not tell you if both bands are supported!

You may have to dig deep into the spec to determine 5 GHz band support. I just did a quick check over at Dell to see how they were spec'ing notebook wireless adapters. I found an Inspiron 15 listed with Wireless Networking Cards: Intel WiFi Link 5100 802.11 Wireless-N Mini Card. But nowhere could I find a reference to the fact that the Intel WiFi Link 5100 does, in fact, support 802.11a/b/g/Draft-N. I had to check Intel's description to find out.

So when would a single-radio, dual-band N router be a good choice? Actually, not that often. One case would be if you just want to experiment with 5 GHz and want to limit your expense. The other would be if you are just looking to add 5 GHz support to your existing WLAN, by configuring the router as an access point.

Example Products

So for those of you who just skipped to the end, hoping to find a list a "recommended" products, I'm sorry to disappoint you. The products listed below are not intended to be a "best product" list. If you want "best", then you need to go through the whole process.

However, these products are representative of the four product types and are reasonable choices that general consumers with typical wireless networking needs should be happy with. I have also tested most of the products and have linked to their reviews for your reference.

I've stuck with the "big three" vendors because they are what you're most likely to find on store shelves. So please, no whining because you don't see other vendors listed here.

Single-band G: Cisco / Linksys WRT54G2, NETGEAR WGR614, D-Link WBR-2310
Comment: G technology is pretty mature and any of these products should serve you well. All have 10/100 Ethernet WAN and LAN ports

Single-band N: Cisco / Linksys WRT160N, NETGEAR WNR2000, D-Link DIR-655
Comment: These aren't the cheapest choices. But they represent the mainstay products from these manufacturers in this segment. The DIR-655 is the only one having Gigabit WAN and LAN ports

Dual-band, single-radio "N": Cisco / Linksys WRT320N, NETGEAR (none) , D-Link DIR-628
Comment: NETGEAR has not had a decent dual-band offering that I would feel comfortable listing. The WRT320N has Gigabit ports; the DIR-628 has 10/100.

Dual-band, dual-radio "N": Cisco / Linksys WRT400N, NETGEAR WNDR3700, D-Link DIR-825
Comment: I debated adding the WNDR3700 since it's just hitting the market as I write this. Proceed at your own risk and I'll update this once I test it. The D-Link and NETGEAR have Gigabit ports; the WRT400N has 10/100.

Do Not Buy

I'd be remiss if I didn't include a list of the "N150" routers that I warned against earlier. These are the "single stream N technology" routers that are being marketed as "N150" products.

As I have said before, these are a marketing experiment aimed at luring unsuspecting shoppers who think they are buying something that will make their G devices work faster and / or go farther (they will do neither). They are pitched as cheaper alternatives to real N routers, but, in the end they aren't a good deal.

So listed below are products that you should stay away from:

Single-stream N technology / N150: Cisco / Linksys WRT120N, Cisco Linksys WRT110, NETGEAR WNR1000, D-Link DIR-600, Belkin N150
Comment: The Cisco / Linksys WRT120N is particularly bad, since it is named "Wireless-N Home Router" with no mention in its marketing material of its 150 Mbps maximum "speed". I also included the Belkin N150 because I reviewed it.

That's about it. Happy Shopping!

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