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The 802.11n Reality Check

Understand that the new, higher-speed Wi-Fi protocol, known as 80211.n, hasn’t been approved yet. Instead, what you have now are “draft” standards, which simply means it’s a work in progress, something akin to beta software. That hasn’t stopped companies from selling computers and routers that support the new technology. Yet maybe it would be akin to selling a new DVD player before a new standard is final. Of course, some of you might think that’s already happening what with those duelling high-definition disc standards.

In releasing its new AirPort Extreme, Apple promised speeds that were up to five times greater, twice the range and several significant new features, such as the ability to set up a USB hard drive as a network storage device. Cool.

The published test results have shown that the new “n” standard can be temperamental, however. There’s no assurance you’ll get even twice the speed of the existing 802.11g standard, let alone the higher figure claimed by Apple. Transmissions are carried on either of two channels, 2.4GHz, same as the older standards, or 5GHz. In theory, the higher frequency ought to get you greater range, or maybe not. Turning on the most secure WPA2 security feature may cause a drop in performance — or maybe not.

As I said, performance is not entirely predictable. In addition, if you have other devices using the same frequency bands, such as a cordless phone, it may cause interference. Thus, another potential source of speed problems.

Your location can also cause reception difficulties. Thick walls, with lots of metal, for example, may serve as a huge impediment to even being able to network with a computer or router in another room. So you have to consider other options to expand the range, such as an external antenna, or additional base stations, which act in the fashion of a cell phone tower, where your Mac or PC communicates with the nearest signal source.

Then there’s the question of interoperability with other items that allegedly support the “n” protocol, particularly if they are made by different manufacturers. As most of you know, mixing and matching existing Wi-Fi hardware usually works, except when it doesn’t. The best chance for compatibility is when the chipsets are built by the same makers, but how do you know? It’s not as if the parts list and the source is listed in the manual.

The first generation of “n” devices were particularly impacted by such incompatibilities, not to mention the inability to achieve those soaring wireless speeds that were promised.

When all is said and done, the real question is whether it’s all really worth the bother right now. Regular 802.11g hardware at least adheres to a final standard, not one in flux. Even if there are only minor changes when “n” is complete, will the changes cause more troubles or eliminate them? In theory, existing hardware, such as the new AirPort Extreme, should be easily upgradeable via a firmware update, but will your hard-won installation have to be reconfigured as a result? Maybe, maybe not.

A lot of it depends, of course, on what kind of computer you have now. And, yes, I realize a lot of you exist in both platforms, and not all of you prefer Macs. If your Wi-Fi hardware is already compliant with the “n” draft standard then it’s understandable that you might want to stretch the limits or at least use your existing potential to the fullest.

In addition, if you need a new router, I suppose it makes sense to want to get the latest and greatest, even if your computer isn’t compliant just yet. It won’t make things run any faster right now, but I suppose the modified or improved  antenna structures might get you better range. At least it won’t be any worse.

In saying all this, let me lay my cards on the table. I don’t have any hardware that’s compliant with the new standard, so I’m not about to rush into a store and buy an AirPort Extreme or comparable device. My present router, a Buffalo Technology Wireless G, offers decent range and performance. At worst, it has to be restarted from time to time when my MacBook Pro can’t connect, but that’s not an unusual symptom with such gear.

I suppose, however, that I shall one day have new Macs, with the faster Wi-Fi chips. The final standard may even be approved by then, and then I’ll reconsider my options. As for you, gentle reader, I really don’t think you need to rush into things just yet.