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Super-Charge Your Wi-Fi: Upgrading to N

Upgrading to N
A reader asks: I recently got a new laptop that supposedly has super-fast Wi-Fi, but I honestly don't see any difference from before, which is a disappointment. I've been googling around and discovered that maybe I need to upgrade the device thingie that my DSL service provides. I honestly don't understand all this, but I really feel the need for speed, so Just Tell Me What To Get!

Dear Reader:
You aren't the first person to contact us befuddled by the intricacies (and pitfalls) of Wi-Fi. Despite the leaps and bounds that engineers have made in simplifying things for consumers, setting up a Wi-Fi home network can quickly get technical and frustrating. But, with a little background info and a few recommendations, you won't need to become a network IT guy or HAM radio enthusiast to get a handle on these wireless wonders.

At the risk of presuming some of our readers are complete newbies, we'll start at the very beginning. (We've heard it's the best place to start.) So, if you're already a networking wizard, feel free to skip ahead for our specific recommendations.

Wi-Fi refers to a wireless system for computers and other devices connected to each other, and a modem, forming a network. In practical terms, most people have a broadband Internet connection to their house. That connection plugs into a modem, and then connects to a Wi-Fi router or base station. (Sometimes, the modem and Wi-Fi are a single device). This configuration will pump glorious 'Net access to the furthest reaches of any happy home. For obvious reasons, it's a wonderful alternative to stringing cable all over the abode.

Since the wireless standards behind Wi-Fi (or 802.11, as dubbed by the international board of experts, IEEE) have evolved over the years, there are now several available flavors; most consumers will only encounter ones labeled 802.11B, 802.11G and 802.11N. In practical terms, the B, G, and N standards refer to the different speeds with which data can be sent back and forth between Wi-Fi devices, with B being the slowest and N the fastest. The speed differences between them are rather pronounced; G is five times as fast as B, and N clocks in at three to six times as fast as G (or up to 30 times as fast as B). So, upgrading older machines with N -- or even G -- Wi-Fi cards can make a monumental difference to your home network.

In theory, Wi-Fi routers are supposed to have a range of 300 feet or so in any direction, but it turns out that this rarely occurs in real-world situations. Wi-Fi transmissions are radio signals, and, like the FM radio in your car or home, they are subject to a couple crucial laws of physics. The range is frequently disrupted by human-environmental factors, like brick or thick plaster walls, but also by interference from other devices that operate on the same radio frequency.

This interference is a surprisingly common circumstance, as it turns out that older versions of 802.11 (that is, B and G) operate only on the 2.4 gigahertz radio frequency. (Stay with us here.) This happens to be the frequency that a ton of regular household items use, as well -- including cordless phones, microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, and wireless game controllers. (And that's not to mention the other computers and Wi-Fi devices being used by your neighbors.) Just like tuning into a radio station and getting a scratchy signal, Wi-Fi devices are affected by interference, inevitably leading to dramatically slower data transmission speeds. This is one reason why a city-dweller who lives within range of literally dozens of Wi-Fi networks can hold a laptop within a few feet of a Wi-Fi router, and only get pokey or irregular data speeds. In fact, most of us living in densely populated areas probably experience this constantly without even realizing it (and will thus benefit by getting it fixed). Read on!

To combat interference, Wi-Fi access points can use 12 sub-channels within the 2.4GHz frequency, and can be set to auto-switch to whichever channel isn't being used by a nearby device -- or, they can be manually selected. (Think of 2.4 as a decimal; 2.41, 2.42, 2.43 etc. are still accessible.) It's an imperfect solution, especially for those who are bombarded by competing Wi-Fi networks on every one of those 12 channels. Enter the latest crop of dual-band 802.11N devices, which have two or more antennas built-in, and can transmit on both the 2.4GHz frequency and the far less cluttered 5GHz frequency. The idea is that the router figures out whichever band offers the highest transmission speeds, and connects accordingly. Dual-band transmitters also allow for older B and G devices to get on the network, and can mitigate one other potential pitfall of Wi-Fi networks: what we'll call The Weakest Link Syndrome (or WLS).

Virtually all older Wi-Fi access points (and even many newer ones without multiple antennas built-in) suffer from WLS. In short, your typical single-antenna Wi-Fi router can only transmit at the speed of the slowest device on the network -- the weakest link, that is. So, if you buy a spiffy new desktop with 802.11N capacity, and connect it to your brand new N Wi-Fi router, the instant you pop onto the network with your old laptop with a B card, your network will only run at pokey B speeds. (Remember: you obviously have to have an N router for N-enabled devices to work at N speeds in the first place.) Yeah, it sounds baffling, but that's the cruel reality. Fortunately, there is a solution in the form of dual-band routers. Unlike single-band routers, dual-band ones let N devices party on a dedicated 5Ghz band, while giving condescending looks to the slow-poke B or G devices stuck behind the velvet rope on their separate 2.4Ghz band. It may not seem egalitarian, but it's certainly meritocratic.

To get in on this 802.11N superhighway you'll need to upgrade to an N router, so we've come up with two surefire dual-band winners that will allow your N devices to zoom along at their righteous speeds, while still leaving room for your old-school B and G devices to tag along.

Apple Airport Extreme Base Station

Airport Extreme

Apple's Airport base stations have always been a confounding mix of pros and cons. They're all blissfully simple to set up, and the included Airport Utility software has been streamlined even further to make it all but Grandma-proof. In our experience, they're rock-solid. They rarely require that you restart, or poke around in byzantine interface menus for some mysterious setting. Yet, those benefits have usually been overshadowed -- at least in the eyes of the network admin community -- by the lack of geekier functionality common among the competition. Still, the latest edition of the Airport Extreme is a well-rounded machine, and we'd recommend it to Windows or Mac users, with a few exceptions.

The Airport Extreme can be configured as mixed-use (allowing B, G and N all at the same time but using different antennas), or as just a dedicated N router at 5GHz. It also allows you to set up a separate "guest" network, with or without a password, so that visitors (or passersby on the street) can hop on and use your service without having access to all the other devices on your network. Furthermore, the Extreme has three LAN ethernet ports (for communicating with wired computers and devices on your home network), and a USB port, which can be used for connecting a printer or a shared hard drive. While this is extremely handy, two USB ports would be even handier.

Our only misgivings with the Extreme are that, compared with lesser-priced and equally featured routers, we've heard regular complaints that it doesn't have a top-of-the-line wireless range -- perhaps, because its antennas are stashed inside its pretty case. Certainly it's good, and will work wonders for most homes and users, but it's not even close to being the best of its class, despite its high price. Users with lots of computers who regularly fiddle with settings will also be annoyed at the inability to use a Web interface to control the Extreme -- again, a standard feature of virtually all other routers. Plus, changing even the most simple item requires resetting the router. Still, these are relatively minor complaints; if you've got the cash, it's a solid choice.
Price: $179

Cisco Linksys E3000 High Performance Wireless-N Router


One of the welcome changes Cisco made after buying Linksys a few years back (besides cleaning up the arcane product naming systems) was including the excellent Cisco Connect software. This makes setup a breeze for the technophobic. Still, what really gets our sparks flying is the six burly antennas in its slick little body, making the E3000 the equivalent of Nigel Tufnel's amp. Although it may be semi-overkill, this means that the E3000 is capable of pumping wireless juice deep into the crevices of virtually any ordinary-sized home at a consistently high speed. Like the Extreme, it can be configured for mixed use or dedicated bands, and comes with four ethernet ports and one USB port -- good for a shared drive.

Our only knocks against the E3000 are that the USB port currently doesn't support a shared printer -- an odd bit of missing functionality -- and that, like the Extreme, it requires that you install Cisco Connect on every computer in order to access all of its Settings menus. We've heard some complaints that the shared drive may suffer from some slowness, especially when using it to stream large files and video, but, in terms of offering high speeds and ease-of-use (with the option of extensive advanced settings) at a good price, the E3000 has little competition and is highly recommended.
Price: $180 (or as low as $100 on Amazon, and other online resellers)

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