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Tech Lab

New Wi-Fi delivers more data faster, but at a cost

Remember when Wi-Fi wireless Internet seemed like magic? Not so much these days, partly because our wireless networks are often too slow to handle the volume of videos and music we download. Gear makers are responding with a generation of routers that deliver a massive speed boost to the computers, phones, game consoles, and other devices that connect wirelessly to the Internet. The only question is whether the extra speediness is worth the additional cost. As is often the case, the answer is: It depends.

If you think Wi-Fi is a goofy name, the technology’s real name is worse — IEEE 802.11. Behind these numbers you find more letters that identify the version of Wi-Fi that you use. Most of us now rely on 802.11 B, G, or N routers. The new standard is called AC, like the famous brand of spark plugs. Good choice of name, because an AC router will give your home network quite a jolt.

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Up to now, the N routers were the fastest available, capable of transmitting and receiving data at up to 450 million bits per second. While that might seem pretty decent, lots of users are finding it inadequate for several reasons.

For one, the frequencies used by N routers have gotten pretty crowded because so many of us have Wi-Fi. All those radio signals interfere with each other, forcing routers to retransmit data packets. The result, of course, is everything slows down. In addition, many older routers broadcast on a frequency also used by cordless phones and even microwave ovens. That adds more noise to the network, further reducing speeds.

Meanwhile, there are multiple Wi-Fi devices in many of our homes. If several are in use at the same time, things can start to crawl, especially if one or more users are trying to watch online videos. Suddenly, even an N router starts to seem inadequate.

Enter AC. This new system uses a frequency that carries much less traffic. In addition, the new routers include a technology called “beamforming” that electronically aims the radio signal at each device on the wireless network, for improved reception.

Do the changes make a difference? Oh, yes. I checked out two AC routers, the AC1800 DB from Belkin International Inc., and the R6300 by Netgear Inc. They were a major improvement over the obsolete G router I’ve been using at home, even though they did not measure up to their lavish promises. They are also relatively pricey — about $200 each compared with the $50 or so an N router costs.

Both products claim to deliver “gigabit Wi-Fi.” That would mean performance comparable to the one-billion-bits-per-second speed of a wired ethernet connection. But even wired ethernet often falls short of that standard, and neither of these two Wi-Fi routers got close. For instance, I tried shifting five gigabytes of files over my home network. With gigabit ethernet, the transfer took about a minute. With the new AC routers, it was more than five minutes. But the same transfer would have taken my old router about an hour, and even the fastest N router would need about 15 minutes.

So yes, the speed is there. But a new router by itself will not make the Internet faster. If your provider gives you 10-megabit downloads, you will still get 10-megabit downloads.

Still, if you use Wi-Fi to watch Internet videos, a speed boost could provide a sharper picture with less stuttering and buffering. An AC router also helps if lots of people use your home network at the same time, or if you work with a lot of large files.

My wife does freelance photography, so the speed boost would matter when she shifts files from her PC to our backup server.

Too bad her computer’s Wi-Fi chip is not AC-compatible. Neither are the Wi-Fi chips in today’s laptops, phones, or tablets. The new routers will work with older Wi-Fi devices, but only at the slower speeds.

It will be a year or so before AC becomes commonplace. Even then you would have to buy new devices, or add-ons like the USB Wi-Fi AC receivers I used for my tests.

Still, there is that beguiling speed boost, and the promise that all future Wi-Fi gadgets will adopt the new standard. AC routers will not make Wi-Fi quite as magical as it once seemed. But sooner or later, they will make our old wireless equipment disappear.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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