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Selecting the best Wireless 802.11N Router

As the 802.11n draft continues to move forward there have finally been some routers that now are able to do pretty darn good speeds and are at the $100 or less price target. It is time to take a look at what is out there and note some good resources.

First off lets talk about requirements. When it comes to Wifi there are a few requirements that people need to consider. The requirements I am going to go over here are for the more advanced user.

1) Router functionality. Dont get a wireless bridge, you need NAT (Network Address Translation) which offers you a nice basic level of security from the internet even if you do not really need it. Make sure the router has a stateful packet inspect (SPI) firewall. This firewall is much more robust and does additional checking that other non-SPI firewalls wont do.

2) Wi-Fi Protected setup (WPS). This is the nice one-touch easy and secure way to connect new devices to your network with going through the least hassle. I am going to prefer this to make things easy and secure.

3) Single-band router instead of dual-band. While it is nice to have 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz, the fact is many of the high speed routers are single band now (2.4Ghz). Only consider a dual-band if you are clogged up with other devices within this spectrum, otherwise stick with only 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz and move your home phone over to DECT 6.0 (1.9Ghz) to free up the spectrum.

4) Wi-Fi Alliance certification (wi-fi.org). In mid-2007 the alliance started to certify 802.11n draft 2.0 (we are up to draft as of this article). This means that the router you buy will meet all of the requirements for 802.11n draft 2.0 so you know you are getting what you are paying for. One of the requirements for draft 2.0 is the ability to do bonding that bonds two 20Mhz frequencies together to give you a total of 40Mhz.

5) Gigabit Ethernet wired switch. If you are doing gigabit speeds over wi-fi you certainly do not want to be constrained with only 100Mbps on the LAN ports.

6) USB interface. This allows you to hook up a USB storage device and have the router directly use it for storage. This is very useful.

7) BitTorrent client. Use this in conjunction with your USB storage device and download movies, music, tv shows, etc without the need to have a computer on. (also see dd-wrt)

8) Wi-Fi Security. Almost all of the WEP security methods have been cracked, except for probably the 256-bit WEP that only the old D-Link 802.11b routers had in them. The way to go is WPA2 these days so make sure it supports this. If it is Wi-Fi certified then it will have this.

9) Consider High Power. Some routers will over high power models that transmit over 800mW of power instead of the usual 100mW of power that most routers transmit at. The legal maximum is 1000mW of power.

10) dd-wrt support. dd-wrt (dd-wrt.com) is a linux based open source firmware replacement for routers. This package has many nice features and allows you to run services like torrent servers, hotspot support, VPN integration, SSH server, TX power adjustment, QoS bandwidth mgmt, and much more.

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Now since speed is one of the top criteria here we need to see what we need to work with. Small Net Builder is one of the defacto places that does various performance tests including Wi-Fi. Check it out here:

Since we want 40Mhz bonding (faster speeds) we will run the query that matches the fastest units with 2.4Ghz (more units out for this freq than 5Ghz) and 40Mhz. Here is the link:

http://www.smallnetbuilder.com/component/option,com_wireless/Itemid,200/chart,71
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At the time of this article the new Buffalo units the WHR-G300N and WZR-HP-AG300NH were not tested on smallnetbuilder. What does make their top spot is the D-Link DIR-685. What is interesting is apparently the new Ralink chipset is showing to be one of the fastest setups at the moment. We suspect since the D-Link DIR-685 uses the Ralink 2880 that the new Buffalos that have the newer and faster Ralink chips the 3052s will be even faster. Here is the breakdown:

* D-Link DIR-685         (Ralink 2880 - 266Mhz MIPS4KEc  CPU)
* Buffalo WHR-G300N      (Ralink 3052 - 384Mhz MIPS24KEc CPU)
* Buffalo WZR-HP-AG300NH (Atheros CPU)
NOTE: The WHR-G300N does not support Gig-E LAN ports.

NOTE: It appears there is no dd-wrt support for the WZR-HP-AG300NH.

NOTE: Buffalo unfortunately encrypts their firmware and dd-wrt requires special versions of dd-wrt to get them to work properly.

http://www.ralinktech.com/ralink/Home/Products.html

The next fastest unit has a Metalink chipset in it:
Linksys WET610N              (MtW8171/MtW8151 chipsets)
The next is Broadcoms latest chipset:
Linksys WRT310N/WRT320N      (BRCM4785)
NOTE: It is important to note the 310N has no Gig-E LAN ports.

NOTE: Keep in mind that dd-wrt was really designed to work best with Broadcom chipsets. However this new chipset also requires some serious game playing to get dd-wrt on it.
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To wrap this up currently the recommendation is the WRT310N. It is not the fastest unit in the tests here is why it is the best.

* Has Gig-E LAN ports. This is a MUST, because you will need to access a NAS/SAN or some network device. It will be rare that you will only be doing Wi-Fi -> Wi-Fi traffic. If you look at NAS performance they max out at 85Mbps on 100Mbps links and go over 600Mbps on Gig-E links.

* Supported for dd-wrt, so you can get your torrent, VPN, etc services and has the Broadcom chipset legacy of support.

* The D-Link is the fastest but it is $300, the 310N is < $100.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: As of the last month or so Linksys put out some new hardware. It is the WRT310Nv2 which does not work with DD-WRT.

I went to a local Best Buy that had a good stock of units. Nothing on the box will tell you directly if it contains v1.0 or v2.0 hardware. The only option was in the serial number.

I did not find anything on the net currently that defines this since it seems like a new set of hardware. Using the past way Linksys/Cisco did their serial numbers on the WRT54G units I looked at the store and struck gold.

The way you tell is the starting of the serial number, first 5 characters:

S/N: CSF11 = v2.0 HW
FG : 1000-06134

S/N: CSF01 = v1.0 HW
FG : 1000-05508
I have informed the dd-wrt community of this information so it will assist others as well on their forums.
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