Superfast Wi-Fi standard 'n' official: consumer FAQs

Everything a consumer needs to know about 802.11n

A new standard for Wi-Fi communication, 802.11n, is now official paving the way for faster, more reliable, and more efficient wireless networks. That means improvements to streaming of HD content, better performance for applications running on a Wi-Fi network such as VoIP, and longer laptop batter life given 802.11n chips use less power.

Ratification of the standard was by the iEEE wireless standards organization. Industry experts say the first official 802.11n products will be available by this holiday season, bringing to an end a ratification process that began 7 years ago. Of course, any tech topic that deals with data transmission can get filled with jargon in an awful hurry. With some invaluable input from Kelly Davis-Felner, of the trade association Wi-Fi Alliance, we've put together an 802.11n FAQ for consumers.

What's new in 802.11n?

There are three key improvements in the new standard. The heart of wireless n standard is the addition of more "spatial streams," which are like lanes on the wireless highway, letting you transfer data faster.

There's also "channel bonding" that lets users combine two wireless frequencies for better performance and reliability. Finally, a "packet aggregation" feature squishes down the amount of overhead data needed to transfer files, allowing more room in the pipe for the files themselves.

How much faster is 802.11n compared to older standards?

Theoretically, 802.11n can reach speeds of 600 Mbps, and even that assumes you're using wireless n's maximum four spatial streams. For now, the Wi-Fi alliance will be testing products with three streams, putting the maximum at 450 Mbps. By comparison, the old 802.11b/g standard reached 64 Mbps, and the wireless "a" maxed out at 11 Mbps, so wireless n is considerably faster.

How will I know what features are included on the Wi-Fi device I'm buying?

First off, Davis-Felner recommends looking for the Wi-Fi Alliance's 802.11n seal on routers and adapters to make sure you're getting a certified device. She estimates about 10 per cent to 15 per cent aren't certified and will not work at top efficiency. For other features, scan the back of the box or search the Wi-Fi Alliance's database of certified products for a feature list.

I already have an 802.11n router. What gives?

Your device is actually using a draft form of wireless n. The alliance formally approved the draft standard in 2007, and since then the discussion has focused on additional features to make Wi-Fi faster and more reliable.

Can I get a firmware update for my draft n wireless router?

That's up to your product's manufacturers, Davis-Felner said. They could offer you an update, or they could hold out for a new product line. On the bright side, Davis-Felner says any certified draft n product will work just fine with future wireless n products.

I'm still using a wireless b/g router. Should I run out and upgrade?

Well, first of all, you want to wait until the holidays, when the first final wireless n products should start to arrive. And of course, you've got your Internet service provider's bandwidth limitations to consider. Beyond that, Davis-Felner says you should think about upgrading if more sources (such as children) start tapping into your router, or if you find yourself passing videos and other media around the house.

Additional Reading

New 802.11n Routers: The Best Wi-Fi Yet

Timeline: 802.11n Development Milestones

How to Improve Your Wi-Fi Network's Performance

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Jared Newman

PC World (US online)
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