Recap: 802.11ac Wireless Networking

We’ve had quite a few major wireless networking standards over the years, and while some have certainly been better than others, I have remained a strong adherent of wired networking. I don’t expect I’ll give up the wires completely for a while yet, but Western Digital and Linksys sent me some 802.11ac routers for testing, and for the first time in a long time I’m really excited about wireless.

I’m not a good representative of normal PC users, but it has been a long time, relatively speaking, since we first saw Draft-N wireless options—Gary Key (now with ASUS) wrote about it what seems like an eternity ago, and in Internet time I suppose seven years is pretty darn close. Granted, 802.11ac has really been “done” for about two years now, but the first laptops to arrive with 11ac adapters are less than a month old—up until now, 11ac has been almost exclusively used for routers and bridges.

Before I get into a few performance specifics of 802.11ac testing, let me start by saying what is bad with 802.11n. The single biggest issue for me is the lack of quality implementations in so many of our devices. If you look at Apple’s MacBook Pro offerings, they’ve all been 3x3:3 MIMO for several years, offering connection speeds of up to 450Mbps. The problem with that “up to 450Mbps” is that it’s influenced by several factors.

Of course you need to know what sort of signal quality you have, but by far the bigger issue is this: are you talking about 2.4GHz 802.11n or 5GHz 802.11n? If you’re talking about the former, you can pretty much throw any thoughts of 450Mbps out the window. The bigger problem with “up to 450Mbps” is that the vast majority of laptops and routers don’t offer such support; Apple's 3x3:3 dual-band implementation is better than 99% of Windows laptops (and yes, I just made up that statistic).

About a year ago, I reviewed a router and repeater from Amped Wireless and found them to be good if not exceptional products. Compared to most of the wireless solutions people end up with, they were a breath of fresh air and I’ve actually been using them for the past year with very few complaints. On the other hand, I’ve had dozens of laptops come and go during the same time frame. Can you guess what the most common configuration is, even on more expensive laptops? If you said “single-band 2.4GHz 1x1:1”, give yourself a cookie.

We’re thankfully starting to see more laptops with dual-band 2x2:2 implementations, but even when you get that there’s still a big difference in actual performance, depending on notebook design, drivers, and other “special sauce”. We’ll see this in the charts on the next page, and it’s often more a statement of a particular laptop’s wireless implementation as opposed to representing what you might get from a particular wireless chipset.

In my opinion, the great thing about 802.11ac then is that any product claiming 802.11ac compliance is automatically dual-band. 11ac actually only works on the 5GHz channels, so for 2.4GHz support it’s no better than existing 802.11n solutions, but it’s fully backwards compatible and, as we’ll see in a moment, you really don’t want to use 2.4GHz wireless networking unless you’re primarily concerned with range of the signal. This is a shorter introductory piece, so don’t expect a full suite of benchmarks, but let’s just cut straight to the chase and say that there are a lot of situations in which I’ve found 802.11ac to be substantially faster than 802.11n.

A Quick Test of Real-World Wireless Performance
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  • lmcd - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Yeah, it doesn't take that much more space to put GHz instead of G...
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    I think we're all smart enough here to know that 2.4G and 5G are referring to GHz, and personally I already think the text is too long (it's half the width of the graphs!) Sorry if that bothers you.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    "...middle of an enormous house..." That's basically why 5GHz isn't as big of a deal for you, as 2.4GHz likely isn't getting much interference from other networks. Generally speaking, big home = big yard = 2.4GHz is fine.
  • andrewaggb - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    I did a double take when I saw 5G on the graphs, only took a second to realize what you meant but I agree it's mildly confusing.

    I enjoyed your comment about your wireless routers being unstable. I've used a lot of wireless products, indoors and outdoors, and it's very hit or miss. I've brand hopped, bought expensive, bought cheap, it's just not predictable at all. I consider stability the most important factor and would love some tests showing stability over the course of at least a month or two, including if the device recovered itself (reboots on it's own or whatever it needs to do), or you had to go reboot it.
  • bobbozzo - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    IME, lockups are often caused by overheating (add ventilation holes and/or heatsinks), or flaky firmware (replace with DD-WRT).
  • Yuriman - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    I'd like to see some testing done at greater distances - 40ft or more, if that's possible. How does it perform at the edge of its range?
  • seapeople - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    I don't understand this "40ft" measurement you used. Are you trying to say femto-teslas? A unit of charge? That doesn't make sense to me, I only understand logical units that sensible people like me use.
  • wbeyda - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    >>Apple's 3x3:3 dual-band implementation is better than 99% of Windows laptops (and yes, I just made up that statistic).

    Quit reading right there. I'm not gonna tolerate ignorance or bias in a tech review. Last time I checked Windows doesn't make laptops either. Windows is an operating system. Not a tyrannical software/hardware combo for brainwashed zealots.
  • lmcd - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Sorry but Windows OEMs tend to cheap out on WiFi. It's common, particularly outside of gaming laptops. And they're Windows OEMs. They aren't OS X OEMS or Linux OEMS (sadly), so Microsoft takes ownership.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    I don't use Apple laptops, but I've tested so many Windows laptops and do you know how many actually had 3x3:3 dual-band WiFi adapters? TWO. Two laptops in the past seven years. So you'll pardon me for saying that the Windows vendors are being totally cheap. Sure, you can custom order something better from some OEMs, but the vast majority of Windows laptops purchased by consumers come pre-built with single-band, single-antenna solutions.

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