NETGEAR announced that beamforming will be soon be turned on in their draft 11ac routers and Linksys said their upcoming draft 11ac routers will ship with beamforming too. Both companies claim beamforming will improve performance. But, as it usually the case with Wi-Fi, reality is not so simple.
As I've mentioned before, both router and client must support the same flavor of beamforming in order for there to be any performance enhancement. The good news is that a beamforming spec is part of 802.11ac. So once beamforming is implemented in draft 11ac routers and clients, it should actually work.
But an additional little tidbit that I picked up during my CES chats is that beamforming does not extend wireless range. Instead, it can boost throughput primarily at mid-range locations. It doesn't do anything at close range, nor does it help the Wi-Fi signal reach further.
So beamforming might be able to reduce streaming hiccups in locations where you have a decent signal. But if you think it's going to let you reach that back bedroom or garage that you currently can't get a connection in, it's unlikely that it will help.
I plan to write a more complete story on this soon. In the meantime, don't let the presence or absence of beamforming in a draft 11ac router influence your purchase.
The Rise of Powerline-Connected mini-APs
If you're going to go whole-hog into draft 11ac, you're going to find some shrinkage of your wireless coverage. 5 GHz signals just don't travel as far as 2.4 GHz signals and ramping up power on the router doesn't fix the problem.
Manufacturers have tried to address this with "range extenders" that operate by receiving, then retransmitting Wi-Fi signals. But this "repeating" method has a built-in 50% throughput penalty because of the retransmission technique.
As a result, buyers can find themselves with a case of diminishing returns as they try to find the right spot for the repeater. Place it too close to your primary router and you may not reach your dead zone. Place it too far away from the router and you may "light up" your garage or patio, but with much-less-than-desired throughput.
The simultaneous dual-band range extenders that are appearing (like NETGEAR's WN3500RP below) are one attempt to solve the problem. If one radio can be used to connect back to the main router, i.e. the "backhaul", and the other used to transmit the data received by the other radio, you won't get the 50% throughput hit. Unfortunately, you then are stuck deciding which radio to use as the backhaul. If it's the 5 GHz, then you again have the limited range issue.
WN3500RP Universal Dual Band WiFi Range Extender, Wall-plug Editio
One manufacturer I spoke with is working on a dual-band extender that automatically and in real-time switches the radios between backhaul bridge and AP modes, depending on client needs. While this sounds attractive in concept, the implementation is not going to be a trivial exercise. So we'll just have to wait and see if anything ever hits the market.
I've always been an advocate of using (or at least trying) powerline networking to deploy additional APs to improve wireless coverage when Ethernet connectivity isn't available. Unfortunately, product makers haven't made this easy in the past. Prices for powerline adapters have been relatively high and, with a few occasional exceptions, small wall-plugged access points needed to make it easy to build hybrid networks have not been produced.
But this is changing. 200 and 500 Mbps HomePlug AV adapters have gotten a lot smaller and a lot cheaper. I was told a pair of 200 Mbps adapters was selling for $30 in a special promotion this past holiday season! And even more help is on the way.
Picture tiny wall-plugged 1X1 dual-band draft 11ac APs with 500 Mbps powerline built-in. Hell, they may even include a heat-activated air freshener built in to help increase WAF. Hopefully, these will be inexpensive enough so that you can afford to install a few of them and small enough that they take up only one outlet and don't draw attention.
While this hybrid network isn't going to provide enough bandwidth for streaming uncompressed Blu-ray rips, it will provide more than enough to ensure that all your household's tablets, smartphones and other Wi-Fi devices stay reliably connected. From what I heard, these powerful little wall-warts could appear this year.
Speaking of powerline, I've gotten queries about when to expect HomePlug AV2 products. Qualcomm-Atheros announced the first AV2 SISO chipset a few months back, so products using it should be appearing later this year. Products might even include the powerline-connected APs I hinted at above.
AV2 SISO products hit only a 500 Mbps maximum link rate, so don't expect them to perform much differently than current "AV 500" products. But when MIMO AV2 products appear at CES 2014, you'll be seeing "AV 1000" or something similar on their boxes to tout their 1 Gbps maximum link rates.