Q: I am in the market for a wireless router and see new terms like MIMO, Pre-n and draft-n. What do they mean, and do I need any of them? — Josh
A: In the world of wireless, the push is always to improve speed and performance. Anyone who has worked with wireless home networking technology knows all of the pitfalls of getting good range and performance from the connections.
The best performing current “standard” is known as 802.11g, which is supported by every manufacturer of new laptops and networking equipment. The “g” standard provides much higher theoretical speeds than the previous “b” standard, but the range issue is pretty much the same.
That’s where these new terms come into play — improving the signal strength and range.
MIMO stands for Multiple Input Multiple Output and generally means that the wireless access point has more than one antenna. By sending information out over two or more antennas, theoretically the multiple radio signals reflect off objects creating multiple paths that will carry more information. These multiple signals are recombined on the receiving side by the MIMO algorithms, potentially improving performance in hard to reach areas. But MIMO does not necessarily improve range, because the primary objective is to increase the saturation of the signal.
Both pre-n and draft-n are part of the alphabet soup of the 802.11 standard. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is working on the next “standard” which will be 802.11n, but it has not been finalized yet.
When you see a “pre-n” product, it is one designed based on the future “n” standard, but is not a standard. It will generally only work with that company’s devices, which means if you buy brand XYZ’s wireless router, you will also need to buy brand XYZ’s wireless networking adapters for all of your computers.
Draft-n refers to the current draft of the “n” standard but is still a pre-standard release of product. In other words, you would still be buying technology that has been released prior to the finalizing of the standard. There is no guarantee that the future standard for “n” will work with anything that you buy today that is either pre-n or draft-n.
In our tests of these kinds of devices, we did experience significant improvement in range, but getting the signal to close-by but hard-to-reach “compartments” of a building was not any better. So if you don’t have many obstructions between your computer and your wireless router, you can extend the range with pre-n or draft-n as long as you use the same brand equipment at both ends.
If you are close by but are having a problem with signal strength, try a unit with multiple antennas. But remember all of these devices are using an unregulated radio frequency that can be impacted by cordless phones, microwave ovens, baby monitors, alarm systems, etc.
There is no “one-size-fitsall” solution for residential wireless, so you may have to experiment in your environment to see what works best for you.
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the ”Computer Corner” radio show Saturdays at noon on KTAR (620 AM). Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org