Upgrading to Wireless N on a Budget

So you want to upgrade your Wi-Fi network to 802.11n (or Wireless N, as we’ll call it) to get better performance and range in the office, but you’re afraid you’ll have to spend hundreds of dollars? Don’t be.

True, when we priced some brand-name combos — an 802.11n wireless router, a PC Card to upgrade a notebook, and a PCI adapter for a desktop — that meet the current Draft 2.0 spec of the IEEE’s ubiquitous-but-still-unratified standard, we found it easy to spend $220 or more. But if you find the right deals, you can upgrade for about $100.

We’re going to Buy.com to discover two sets of Wireless N networking gear that you can pick up for just over or under $100. We’ll see what the differences are between these and more pricey products, and what we’ll sacrifice to save money. Plus we’ll note a few tips and tricks to consider when making the upgrade to Wireless N. Let’s get started!

The TRENDnet $93 Bundle

The cheapest set of Wireless N gear I found when scouring the net is a product line from TRENDnet that includes the following:

Adding these three products to a Buy.com shopping cart brings the total to $93 with free standard shipping, yet the gear wears the same 802.11n Draft 2.0 certification and touts the same maximum data rate of 300Mbps as more famous-name hardware.

The no-thrills router offers the usual features, such as four wired 10/100Mbps ports, a NAT and SPI (stateful packet inspection) firewall, WEP and WPA/WPA2 security support, and network filtering. Like other Wireless N products, it uses smart MIMO antenna technology, but relies on two antennas instead of the three that more expensive products use.

The Zonet $116 Bundle

The next-lowest-priced Wireless N bundle we found is by Zonet. It’s made up of:

Using Buy.com again, this order comes to about $116, which includes $7 for shipping on the router sold by a reseller partner. Picking this bundle over higher-priced, more full-featured, products could save you more than $100. We’ll see if it’s worth it.

As with the TRENDnet router, Zonet gives its Draft-N router a maximum data rate of 300Mbps with two MIMO antennas. However, it also supports multiple wireless modes: AP, Station-Infrastructure, Wireless Bridge, and Universal Repeater. Plus it offers quality of service (QoS) to better control Internet bandwidth.

What You’re Giving Up

By now you may be be wondering what the catch is. Well, due to having the one fewer antenna and a maximum data rate of 100Mbps for the wired Ethernet connections, you’ll see lower file transfer speeds compared to the routers that sport three antennas and Gigabit Ethernet (1,000 Mbps).

These value-priced, two-antenna routers can give you maximum wireless throughput of about 70 to 80 megabits per second (in 40MHz mode), whereas more expensive models manage from 85Mbps to 120Mbps. In terms of real-world throughput, however, you’ll likely see only a 10- to 20-percent increase when using the default 20 MHz mode. Depending upon the performance of the particular model you pick out, going with a higher-priced router may not give you enough additional speed to justify its price difference.

There’s a much bigger difference in routers when talking about wired-to-wired connections. Lower-priced routers like the Zonet and TRENDnet hit the wall at 100Mbps maximum, while routers with Gigabit Ethernet support up to 1,000Mbps. Though you won’t really see a full tenfold increase, a router with Gigabit Ethernet will certainly provide much faster file transfers among wired computers. Remember, however, that you’ll need to upgrade your PCs with Gigabit Ethernet cards as well.

In addition to performance, there may be differences in feature sets. Some of the more ritzy routers, for example, may include a USB 2.0 port to attach and give network users access to an external hard drive. Additionally, they have better QoS features to better support demanding, high-bandwidth voice and video applications. You might also find other miscellaneous enhancements, such as a separate guest SSID.

(Please Continue to Page 2 for more information on Wireless-N Tips and Considerations)

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