Belkin has announced the launch of their N1 range of next generation wireless routers based upon a new WiFi standard that could extend the range of existing ‘wireless-G’ solutions by a factor of 4, and speeds by as much as 12. This might bring out the excited little geek in me, were it not for the fact that there isn’t any standard yet, no guarantee it will work properly with other 802.11n kit (even from the same manufacturer) now or in the future, and most damning of all: nobody really needs it.
OK, so when has need ever stopped an early adopter? Good point, but even the usual desire to own the latest technology is dampened by the realisation that you’re getting absolutely no practical benefit whilst still paying over the odds for the privilege of testing the product line. Being an early adopter you’ll no doubt already have invested in Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) enabled kit if you really required the extended range on offer. The test reports I’ve read so far would suggest that MIMO, which is also a key part of the emerging 802.11n specification, is just as effective on existing 802.11g devices anyway. Which just leaves the speed issue, and let’s face it that’s the real hard sell for Wireless-N isn’t it? The marketing blurb makes for moist reading: up to 600Mbps throughput claim some vendors. But a claim is all it will remain for some time to come, as a closer inspection of the facts reveals.
First of all the 802.11n draft specification (did I mention that it’s unlikely to be ratified for at least another year?) actually specifies a 300Mbps throughput, not 600Mbps. And the reality, as anyone who has been foolish enough to invest in the early Wireless-N kit will have discovered, is that ‘real world’ speeds max out at around 150Mbps if you are lucky. This inflated figure is being used for marketing puffery because it looks good and invites consumers to dig deeper, quicker. In fact the 600Mbps claim is only theoretically possible when taking into account the use of channel bonding. Unfortunately this process is already frowned upon, and existing 802.11g routers with a ‘turbo’ bonding mode either have it switched off by default or when other WiFi networks are detected in the locality. The reason being that channel bonding hogs available bandwidth within an already overcrowded airspace. Indeed, in Japan the practise is actually illegal! There are those, mostly with a vested interest it has to be said, who argue that while the 2.4GHz airspace is indeed crowded, the 5GHz one less so and there’s no reason why these shouldn’t be used. But there is one good reason why channel bonding shouldn’t be used at all: nobody needs that kind of throughput in the consumer space.
Yes, you read that right. Unless your middle name is nerd and you happen to have money to burn on ISP-alike Internet connectivity and run a Gigabit Ethernet network at home, any increase in throughput over the 54Mbps (real world translation = 25Mbps max) of 802.11g is a waste of money because you can’t do anything with it. Oh, and only Netgear is even offering routers that support Gigabit Ethernet at this early stage and the new Belkin router just comes with a standard four-port 10/100 switch. If you really think that you need 150Mbps on a home network, even one with multiple computers doing relatively high bandwidth things such as serving up digital media and VoIP, then you have fallen victim to the marketing hype my friend. Worse still, you’ll have bought into a pre-standard, non-standard solution that carries with it no guarantee that the firmware and software can be upgraded to work with the final, ratified specification nor even future equipment from the same manufacturer. The chances are that upgrades will be made available, but why take the risk for so little reward? It’s not for nothing that all these pre-N products are only being released for the consumer market. Business buyers wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole, and nobody will be releasing Enterprise ready kit until the standard has been ratified, the bugs ironed out and interoperability issues sorted all at the expense of the gullible consumer.
The problem here is that the networking hardware companies want the brand edge in an emerging space that’s already crowded with ‘first to market wannabee hardware’. They want to make their mark on your mind, a mark that says ‘innovative, market leader’. They want to tie you into their proprietary solution before you get a chance to try the (almost certainly better) competition later on. Unfortunately none of this is what the average consumer wants, or with what the high end geeky consumer wants for that matter: real world functionality. What they, what we, want to buy is improved performance. We don’t want to buy into a specification, and certainly not a draft one.
Of course if you don’t mind paying over the odds for an under performing, unproven solution to a problem that doesn’t yet exist then go ahead and spend my friend. To the remaining, sensible IT buying population of the world I say: 802.11n just say, no, NO, NO!