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How is 802.11n different than current generations of Wi-Fi?

The 802.11n standard uses some new technology and tweaks existing technologies to give Wi-Fi more speed and range. The most notable new technology is called multiple input, multiple output (MIMO). MIMO uses several antennas to move multiple data streams from one place to another. Instead of sending and receiving a single stream of data, MIMO can simultaneously transmit three streams of data and receive two. This allows more data to be transmitted in the same period of time. This technique can also increase range, or the distance over which data can be transmitted.

A second technology being incorporated into 802.11n is channel bonding, which can use two separate nonoverlapping channels at the same time to transmit data. This technique also increases the amount of data that can be transmitted.

A third technology in 802.11n is called payload optimization or packet aggregation, which, in simple terms, means more data can be stuffed into each transmitted packet.

802.11n Antennas

Xtreme N 2.4GHZ Indoor Antenna
802.11n Antenna

What are the benefits for consumers?

The increased range of 802.11n will mean fewer "dead spots" in homes served by a single Wi-Fi router. It also will open the way to high-bandwidth applications such as streaming video from, say, desktop computers that store video to Wi-Fi-enabled televisions. The new standard will also be more reliable for voice-over-IP and, in general, for multiple users doing multiple things over the network.

802.11n Routers

Apple MB053LL/A AirPort Extreme Base Station (Mac computers and Windows-based PCs)

AirPort Extreme Base Station tech specs:

  • Three Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports for connecting computers or network devices
  • Wireless networking router based on the 802.11n draft standard
  • Interoperable with Wi-Fi Certified 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g
  • Up to 5 times faster and twice the range of 802.11g routers
  • USB port turns external hard drives, printers, and other devices into network resources

Belkin N1 Vision Wireless Router

Belkin N1 Vision wireless router
Belkin N1 Vision - Wireless router + 4-port switch - 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n

Compared with most routers, with just a few blinking lights, Belkin's N1 Vision wireless router gives you alot of information about your home network – including who's using it. With an interactive LCD panel on the front, the router shows the number of connected users and devices, the speed of your uploads and downloads and even how much network bandwidth is being used. The N1 Vision router features a “plug and play” setup that doesn't require the use of a software CD, and it's compatible with most common network-security standards.

The N1 Vision router uses the current draft version of the 802.11n networking standard, which has yet to be formalized. None-the-less, it's compatibile with older wireless-network cards and devices, so in addition to working with the current 802.11n version, the router works with 802.11g and 802.11b wireless equipment as well. It also comes with four ports to connect wired devices to the network as well.

Reality Check

802.11g products, which have a theoretical maximum throughput speed of 54Mbit/sec., typically provide real-world speeds of 22Mbit/sec. to 24Mbit/sec. The theoretical bandwidth of 802.11n is 300Mbit/sec. although current real world rates are at 100Mbit/sec. to 140Mbit/sec. The coverage range for 802.11n is 300 feet. There may be issues of speed reduction due being hampered by existing 802.11b/g clients.

The official standard for 802.11n – the technical specification of how the technology works – is still in the draft stage. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the organization that sets these standards, isn't expected to ratify the final version until 2009. If you're shopping for a router, it would be good to get one with this latest version of the technology, which should be closest to the final standard. The Wi-Fi Alliance tests and certifies wireless hardware for the 802.11n standard.

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Revised: 09/17/2007