Draft-N wireless solutions

Which 'Draft-N' wireless networking equipment should you buy? Should you, in fact, buy it at all? We examine the issues, test the kit and come up with the answers.

Enterprises are now warming to it, but small businesses and home users can’t get enough of it. Wireless that is, the development of which has been driven by demand from those willing to take risks with things like security and compatibility for the convenience that wireless can give. However, when it comes to the latest high-speed solutions there are good reasons why a wait-and-see approach might be the best policy.

What’s coming
The next big hike in wireless bandwidth comes with the introduction of 802.11n, which will support wire-like transmission rates. The bad news is that the standard governing the new technology is unlikely to be ratified until 2008.

Not that there’s anything spectacularly new in 802.11n, as the technologies involved have been around for some time. The most important being MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output), where multiple antennas are used to transmit/receive several wireless signals simultaneously. Another is the bonding of the current 20MHz channels used by 802.11b/g to create wider 40MHz pipes, with WPA security and QoS (Quality of Service) also involved.

However, there’s a lack of agreement as to whose implementation of these technologies to standardise on, and it’s those arguments that are holding things up.

That, though, hasn’t stopped wireless vendors rushing out so-called 'Draft-N' products. These, as the name implies, purport to meet the requirements of the first draft proposals. Some vendors even claim interoperability with other Draft-N products, but this is not guaranteed. Neither is future compatibility with 'real' 802.11n products when they do, eventually, start to ship.

What we tested
Still, Draft-N products are flying off the shelves and ending up on business networks, so we decided to put five of the more popular products to the test. Three are based on the Draft-N wireless chipset available from Atheros, while the other two use Broadcom and Marvell chips respectively.

Naturally we started out by seeing how a matched router/adapter pair from the same vendor would perform. However, we were equally interested in how well they worked with other vendors' Draft-N kit and legacy 802.11b/g equipment.

The results were, to say the least, disappointing. Even at close range we got nowhere near the headline rates claimed by the vendors. Indeed in some cases we got better results using ordinary 802.11g MIMO solutions. The best of the bunch was the Netgear RangeMax Next, but even that struggled to get up to 100Mbps. And when we connected other adapters, the rates just plummeted.

Interoperability was patchy too, with the best results achieved with products based on chipsets from the same vendor. We also felt as though we were beta testing a lot of the time, with numerous firmware updates required to get everything working as it should.

To buy or not to buy?
So what are our recommendations? Well, if you’re a business buyer you’re probably better off sticking with the current crop of MIMO-enhanced 802.11g products. They may not be quite as quick, but they’re cheaper and you’ll find implementations better suited to business use than the mostly consumer-focused Draft-N products. You also get guaranteed interoperability no matter who you buy from.

However, if you’re prepared to forgo that compatibility for performance, then the Netgear RangeMax Next will undoubtedly deliver the best results. The drawback is that you'll need an all-Netgear setup, with the understanding that guest users with legacy adapters could slow everything down.

Otherwise, wait until the 802.11n standard is properly ratified. Then, hopefully, all concerns over performance and interoperability should simply evaporate.