Home networking has always been confusing for most people. Draft N (of the upcoming 802.11n standard) is the latest in wireless home networking, and while 802.11n is not finally ratified, it does promise better speed, throughput, range and dependability. Is it worth its current premium price? CNET.com.au explores its promise and reviews the latest Draft N gear on the Australian market.
Wireless networks -- when they work -- are marvellous things, especially in the home environment, but they do have their limitations. While they're often criticised about lax security, there's a bigger problem for most home users: they're simply not fast enough for applications such as media streaming or heavy duty file transfers. 802.11g currently rules the roost, but the new kid on the block in home wireless terms is 802.11n. 802.11n promises a much greater overall throughput -- a theoretical top rate of 540Mbps, compared to 802.11g's 54Mbps -- and an improvement in range, to boot. The only problem is that you can't buy 802.11n equipment anywhere at all. What's more, you probably won't be able to until sometime in 2009. What you can do right now, however, is buy wireless networking equipment that uses what's known as "Draft N" -- that being a draft version of the 802.11n standard that's still yet to be finalised.
Why is it "Draft" N?
The process for ratifying a standard is a long, tedious and oft-times painful one -- if you don't believe us, check out the timeline for the 802.11n specification here. The first round of 802.11n specifications led to what are commonly referred to as "Pre-N" products, many of which are still available on store shelves right now. The problem with Pre-N networking products is that each vendor used slightly different applications of the standard as it was then, leading to theoretically quick wireless systems -- but only if you used networking gear from that one vendor. Mix in a third-party card or adaptor, and you'd lose all the benefits of early 802.11n adoption. Draft N equipment is different, in that all cards, adaptors and routers should work towards the Draft N standard, and should therefore be fully interoperable with a minimum of speed loss.
Will Draft N be compatible with "final" 802.11n?
That's the money question, right there. 802.11n has taken a lot longer to ratify than most thought it would, and there's a solid push amongst vendors to get Draft N equipment out there, in effect making the draft standard into the real standard. Even industry heavyweights such as Apple and Intel have jumped the "official" gun. Apple will, for a nominal fee, sell owners of newer Macs an update to enable 802.11n performance from existing compatible AirPort equipment, while Intel recently declared that upcoming revisions of the Centrino chipset will come with Draft N support built in. Both decisions do increase the chances -- but don't entirely guarantee -- that the Draft N standard may be partially or fully interoperable with "full" 802.11n equipment. So far, however, only Asus has guaranteed that its products will be upgradeable to the full specification when it becomes available, whether that's in the form of firmware upgrades or hardware changes.
Does Draft N really deliver?
Every vendor in the market will happily emblazon their router and adaptor boxes with promises of enhanced throughput, but what they won't tell you is that those figures are theoretical maximums that you're unlikely to see outside of a lab environment, from within a Faraday cage. There's not too many consumers who live in Faraday cages -- or at least not that many we know of -- and in the real world, throughput figures are generally much lower. That's especially true if you're using a mix of 802.11g and 802.11n equipment -- the Draft N specification includes what's known as "Greenfield" mode, which is a pure 802.11n high speed mode, and what vendors often quote are the figures for this mode alone. Where Draft N (and Pre-N before it) does benefit in real-world terms is signal propagation (increased range), thanks to the use of multiple antennae (MIMO) arrays on most Draft N equipment. Many 802.11g routers use a single antennae with fairly weak signal performance, and in that respect, most Draft N routers are a step up.
There's a lot of promise in the 802.11n standard, but in its draft form, where products are still only claimed at around half the full specification rate, we've yet to see a router and card combination that truly knocks our socks off compared to 802.11g. Most of the 802.11 Draft N products we've tested are faster than their 802.11g counterparts, and many do manage better throughput than 802.11g, but critically not at the rates that they should be based on the specification claims. Thankfully, Draft N pricing isn't quite as ludicrous as that of most of the Pre-N products, so it's not out of the question to buy a Draft N router to replace existing equipment, as the costs for routers aren't quite as high as they used to be. 802.11n cards and adaptors, on the other hand, continue on the expensive side, and given that they may not be fully compatible, they're a riskier bet. If you must have the fastest right now, there's no doubt that Draft N is the way to go, and if you're replacing a dud router, the improved signal strength alone can make it worthwhile.