Q. I am ready to upgrade my home wireless network router, which is an older 802.11b unit, and am wondering if 802.11n is something that I should consider? - Pete
A. It’s rare these days to visit a home that does not have a wireless network installed, and the popularity of this convenient technology is not lost on the industry. As with all technology, various entities in the industry are constantly working on improvements in speed, reliability and security in wireless networking gear.
The confusing standards developed by the IEEE for wireless networking were initially introduced before the turn of the century (doesn’t that make 1999 seem like a long time ago?) with 802.11a & b as the first versions. 802.11b was the cheaper of the two technologies, which gave it greater market appeal and propelled it into the mainstream, while 802.11a - which was much faster and more expensive - was primarily used in corporate settings.
In 2003 a faster version of the wireless standard known as 802.11g was introduced, which allowed information to be transferred between computers four to five times faster than 802.11b. Both standards were still faster than any residential high-speed Internet service, so those who primarily surf the net wouldn’t notice any difference. The difference was very noticeable for those who transferred large files such as music or video from PC to PC across their home networks - if all of the computers were upgraded to the 802.11g level of wireless networking.
This brings us to the next generation of wireless that is being called 802.11n, which is a standard that has not yet been finalized. As of this writing, the IEEE is targeting the fall of 2008 as the time frame that they will ratify the 802.11n standard, but in the interim they have published a “Draft 2.0” standard.
The reason this is important is because interoperability (technology that plays nice with others) and backward compatibility are going to be keys to helping the world move to the 802.11n standard, and the Draft 2.0 standard covers those issues.
Prior to Draft 2.0, I would have simply told you to stick with 802.11g or wait until next year when 802.11n is finalized so you didn’t run the risk of buying technology that isn’t “fully cooked.” Now the issue is a little more complicated.
If you are not a big consumer of digital media like music and video that you need to move around your network, the only reason to consider any of the “pre-n” or “draft-n” products is because you want to extend the range of your wireless network. In our tests of the current crop of pre-n devices, we were able to connect at a significantly farther distance, but it did little in close areas where the signal was not getting through thick walls or other obstructions.
In other words, if you are struggling to get signals into certain parts of your home or building, don’t expect 802.11n to be any better at overcoming your physical obstructions. It will, however, allow you to be hacked from a further distance, and it has been reported to be causing users of the older standards within range to experience connection issues.
If your neighbor decides to be the first on the block with 802.11n, it could cause your older 802.11b network to become unstable because it has some overlapping frequencies. As a precaution, anyone who has an existing wireless network should consider being proactive and make sure that their home network is not broadcasting on channel 1, 6 or 11. If it is (these are the default channels for most manufacturers), change it to decrease the chances of being bounced off by a neighbor who decides to install an 802.11n router. Every system is different, so consult your users manual or the manufacturer’s Web site for the specific directions for your hardware.
The real key to making your decision is based on how much money you are willing to spend. Your older 802.11b computers will work fine with an 802.11g router, but in order to get the speed increase from the “g” standard you will also have to buy 802.11g network interface cards for all your computers. The same holds true with 802.11n, but the cost difference can be significantly higher.
If you don’t really care about the computer-to-computer speed and you just want to buy a new router, an 802.11g router is your best bet - and preferably from the same manufacturer as your network cards so your encryption options are better.
If cost is less important and you want the maximum speed and distance you can get at this moment in time, make sure you buy products that have the “802.11n Draft 2.0” certification (more than 70 products as of this writing), and make sure you buy everything from the same manufacturer just to play it safe.
If this whole column is too technical and causes your head to spin, consider hiring a professional (especially if you are a business) to evaluate all of your needs, install the new gear and secure it so wandering souls can’t gain access to your network.
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the “Computer Corner” radio show, which can be heard at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org