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Which of these N adapters is the star performer?

One of the great mysteries man has pondered since the dawn of time (ok, maybe not that long...) is whether there is a wireless adapter that can turn a flaky, weak connection into one capable of streaming Blu-ray video in 5 GHz. And I feel your pain, since I get asked to recommend wireless adapters on a regular basis. So I finally managed to get caught up enough to attempt to put the question to rest, or at least provide some data where there has been none.

I gathered together the collection of single and dual-band 802.11n adapters shown in Table 1 that are representative of what's available today.

Product Type Driver / firmware Chipset FCC ID
Intel WiFi Link 5300 Mini PCIe Intel PD9533ANH
Linksys / Cisco WUSB600N (v2) USB Ralink RT3572L Q87-WUSB600NV2
NETGEAR WNDA3100 (v2) USB 1.2 Broadcom BCM4323 PY308300091
D-Link DWA-160 (B1) USB 2.2 Ralink RT2870F / RT2850L KA2WA160B1
Linksys / Cisco WUSB300N USB Marvell 88V8362 / 88W8060 Q87-WUSB300N
NETGEAR WN111 Wireless-N 300 USB Adapter (v2) USB 3.0 Atheros AR9101 / AR9170 PY308100079
NETGEAR WNHDE111 Bridge V 1.2.7_1.0.1 Atheros AR5416 / AR5133 PY307300070
D-Link DAP-1522 Bridge 1.2 Ralink RT2880F SoC, RT2850L 2T3R Transceiver  KA2AP1522A1
D-Link DAP-2553 Bridge 1.0.6 Atheros AR9132 / Atheros AR9106 KA2AP2553A1
Table 1: The Products Tested

The collection was chosen based on popularity and, in some cases, what I had sitting on the SmallNetBuilder shelf. I believe all are the latest versions, so you should be able to buy one if you like what you see in the tests.

The list includes one mini PCIe adapter, made for internal lap/note/net book applications, six USB 2.0 adapters and three bridge products that attach via Ethernet. All are dual band, except the Cisco - Linksys WUSB300N (chosen to see if its flip-up antennas make a performance difference) and the NETGEAR WN111 (because I had it).

The Testing

With nine adapters and plenty of other work to do, I limited the amount of testing so that I could complete it in a reasonable time. I originally was going to cut down the number of test locations from my usual six to perhaps three. But I thought better of it and decided to run tests in all six locations and instead reduce the number of tests run. The test locations and distances are described in How We Test Wireless Products - Six Location Open Air Method.

I used a NETGEAR WNDR3700 router [Gentlemen, Start Your Buying: NETGEAR WNDR3700 RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router Reviewed] with both radios enabled and running V1.0.4.35NA firmware as the reference AP / router. The 2.4 GHz radio was set to Channel 11 and 20 MHz bandwidth mode (Up to 130 Mbps in WNDR3700-speak). I chose 20 MHz because that's the "out of the box" default state and the one most everyone should be using so as to not be a bandwidth hog.

The 5 GHz radio was set to Channel 36 and to Auto 20/40 mode (Up to 300 Mbps in WNDR3700-speak). I chose 40 MHz bandwidth on the 5 GHz radio, since many routers default to it and most people want to use it even though it actually reduces range.

I used WPA2 encryption on both radios for all tests, because, again, that's what most people will be running if they want security and highest throughput. I didn't mess with any of the WNDR3700's Advanced Wireless settings and left WMM enabled, lest I screw up performance [Don't Mess With WMM!].

I ran an IxChariot test at each location with one upstream and one downstream throughput.scr running simultaneously. This simultaneous run is the main departure from the way I normally test, which is one direction at a time. But running uplink and downlink simultaneously allowed me to save time. And it's typically the way that people use wireless anyway, isn't it?

At each location I oriented the test notebook, a Dell Mini 12 running XP SP3 the same way. USB adapters were plugged into the same port on the left front side of the Dell. When testing with the bridges, I placed them in the same spot and orientation at each location.

If an adapter required installing an application (I'm looking at you, NETGEAR...), I ran system restore after testing. But otherwise I just unstalled the adapter using Windows Device Manager.

For the Cisco / Linksys WUSB300N, I raised both its little antennas to vertical and for the D-Link DAP-1522, I used the supplied stand to vertically orient it.

I found that adapter orientation generally didn't matter, except at the lowest signal test locations E and F. So in those locations I did a test run while moving the adapter to find best performance, then ran a full test. In some cases this helped raise the average throughput. But it never turned a failed connection into a working one.

Finally, note that the results shown don't necessarily represent the highest speeds that you can obtain. But they are as apples-to-apples a comparison as I could make and the results are valid at least as a comparative measure of product performance.

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