As I said at the beginning of this piece, there are many reasons for changing the design of a product and I'm not criticizing that practice. But it's time that all consumer networking manufacturers gave consumers a better indication of what they are buying.
Despite what manufacturers would like us to believe, there are differences in wireless chipsets...especially in a technology as new, unfinished and complex as 802.11n. Hell, chipmakers spend a lot of marketing money and even buy expensive booth space at shows like CES to convince potential customers of the difference! And even when the same chipsets are used, hardware design, firmware and driver differences can produce products with noticeably different performance.
Some vendors, such as Belkin, D-Link and Trendnet, already clearly indicate product hardware revisions on their product packaging. So at least at retail, where you can pick up the product box and read it, you can tell that something is different. However, others, such as Linksys and Netgear, do not.
A very simple solution would be for manufacturers to add the FCC ID to product boxes and on-line marketing material. Manufacturers must resubmit products to the FCC whenever they make component changes. Minor changes ("Class II Permissive Changes") don't require a different FCC ID. But more significant changes, such as chipset changes, require a new FCC ID.
Unfortunately, most manufacturers don't put the FCC ID anywhere in their marketing information or on the product box. It must, however, be indicated on the product itself, and is usually found on or near the product's serial number label.
If manufacturers did provide FCC ID labeling, consumers who cared about the specifics of the wireless products they buy could visit the FCC ID database and enter the product FCC ID. The internal photos and test reports would tell them all they need to know to make an informed buying decision.
But information on the product box doesn't help if you are buying online, since the product model number and SKUs are the same for different-rev products. It's unlikely that manufacturers will ever change model numbers or SKUs to reflect hardware revisions, since that would probably play havoc with inventory management. And since all e-tailers now charge restocking fees (typically 15%), buying online is not the way to go if you need a specific revision.
Change is inevitable and even required to compete in today's world of razor-thin margins. Let's just make the process more transparent so that consumers can make more informed purchase decisions.