SALINAS, Calif. - With a fast Internet connection and wireless access point at home, I can take a notebook PC and surf the Web in our closets, bathrooms and garage. But the signal fades where I want it most - in the living room.
This common headache is about to be cured with the adoption of the next Wi-Fi flavor, 802.11n. But the standards process is slow, and wireless equipment vendors aren't waiting. A number of "Pre N" products promise tomorrow's technology today.
To see if the equipment lives up to the hype, I borrowed Linksys' Wireless Broadband Router with SRX ($199) and Netgear's RangeMax Wireless Router ($149). Both are considered to be "Pre N" equipment, though neither claim it on their boxes or marketing material.
Both are more expensive than older gear but provided greater range and speed than my existing 802.11g network. Both also conversed with older wireless adapters. But each worked best, as you'd expect, with the vendor's own wireless networking cards.
In the living room, my TiVo is connected to a bargain-bin 802.11b wireless adapter but the signal strength usually hovered around 20 percent with the 802.11g router I'd been using.
When I switched it with the Linksys "Pre N" device, the signal strength jumped to around 80 percent. When I switched it with the Netgear RangeMax, it fluctuated around 60 percent.
The coverage-area enhancement was even more impressive when I tested the devices with a laptop into which I'd alternately inserted networking cards designed for each router. (There's a price premium here, too: Linksys' runs $130, while Netgear's is $100 at Circuit City.)
With the Linksys card wirelessly connected to the Linksys router, I walked outside one evening until I lost the connection. I passed seven houses. Configured with the Netgear equipment, I made it past six. In both cases, I ran home to encrypt the signal.
Both results were a considerable boost over my previous setup, which lost contact after slightly more than three houses.
To see how the various devices might speed up file transfers, I stored a 2.5-gigabyte video file on my PC in a folder that's shared on the home network.
Using the standard 802.11g equipment, it took 30 minutes to transfer the video from the living room, which is about 75 feet from the wireless router. That compares with 13 minutes when I swapped both the router and networking card with all Linksys SRX gear. And 20 minutes with the Netgear Rangemax equipment in its default configuration.
I then enabled a speed-enhancement mode on the Netgear access point and transferred the file. It took just 10 minutes. But all my other devices, including the TiVo's wireless adapter and my wife's standard 802.11g notebook, could not under these conditions connect to the router.
Finally, I tried transferring the files while running the microwave - which generates interference that killed wireless connectivity with the older equipment. The transfer continued while we used both the Linksys and the Netgear devices, but they slowed to a crawl.
All the new devices sport unique looks. The Linksys router, for instance, has not one, not two but three antennas jutting from it.
The Netgear RangeMax's seven antennas are all internal, but very bright blue lights flash from a clear blue dome as a reminder. (I found that a piece of dark tape fixes this annoyance.)
Despite the promising results, I won't be rushing out to update my network equipment anytime soon: There's no guarantee that any of these devices will be compatible with true 802.11n gear once it's finally certified. Plus, nobody knows what benefits the final standard will offer.
As far as speed, I only noticed a benefit when transferring large files within the local network, not while surfing the Web or even downloading files from the Internet.
That's because like most residential broadband services, my connection is capped well below the actual capacity of both my older equipment and the new devices. It might be a different story in 2007.
Today, the biggest selling point is the extended range, but there are other, less expensive fixes. I could have bought a repeater that would boost the reach of the network or I could even have crafted a more powerful antenna with an empty Pringles can.
In fact, I solved the problem simply by buying a spool of cable and hardwiring the living room.
The result? The 2.5 gigabyte file transfers in 5 minutes, roughly half the time of my best wireless test.
And the range is only limited by the length of the wire.