What WiFi Standard Wireless Router to Buy?

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There are several versions of the 802.11x WiFi standard, so before you buy WiFi gear, you should know what you’re paying for because some are much faster than others.

The 802.11b standard was the first one to be ratified, and equipment that adheres to it is the least expensive. (This is the standard commonly used by public wireless hot spots in coffee shops, airports, hotels, and other locations.)

It operates in the 2.4GHz part of the spectrum and its maximum throughput is 11Mbps. Vendors like Cisco often prefer using these frequencies to lower their production costs.

Being unregulated, 802.11b gear can incur interference from appliances like microwave ovens, cordless phones, and other appliances using the same 2.4 GHz range. However, by installing 802.11b gear a reasonable distance from other appliances, interference can easily be avoided.

The newer standard, 802.11g, operates in the same part of the spectrum and has a maximum throughput of 54Mbps, significantly faster than 802.11b. You won’t pay much extra for 802.11g gear compared to 802.11b, so if you’re buying all your equipment from scratch, it’s the best bet.

802.11b and 802.11g equipment work with each other, although with one “gotcha” that you need to watch out for. If you mix and match 802.11g and 802.11b equipment, the entire network will operate at the lower 802.11b speed.

So, if you have an 802.11g router and 802.11b adapter, the network will run at the slower speed. In fact, if you have an 802.11g router, three 802.11g adapters, and one 802.11b adapter, the entire network will still run at the lower speed, even between the 802.11g adapters and the 802.11g router.

The upshot: if you’re going with 802.11g, make sure every piece of your equipment is 802.11g, not 802.11b.

You also might come across 802.11g routers and adapters that promise speeds far greater than 802.11g, commonly at 108Mbps. That works only when you buy all the hardware from the same manufacturer because they use proprietary protocols to reach those speeds. If you mix and match components from different manufacturers, you’ll get normal 802.11g speeds.

The newest IEEE standard in the Wi-Fi category is 802.11n. It was designed to improve on 802.11g in the amount of bandwidth supported by utilizing multiple wireless signals and antennas (called MIMO technology) instead of one.

When this standard is finalized, 802.11n connections should support data rates of over 100 Mbps. 802.11n also offers somewhat better range over earlier Wi-Fi standards due to its increased signal intensity. 802.11n equipment will be backward compatible with 802.11g gear.

The upside of 802.11n is that it has the fastest maximum speed and best signal range; more resistant to signal interference from outside sources. The drawback is that this standard is not yet finalized and it costs more than 802.11g.

So as of now, your best bet is 802.11g since most likely the laptop that you will buy today supports this standard.

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LAST UPDATED 8/20/2009