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Ask the Editors: Why does my laptop's Wireless-N speed cap at 130Mbps?

CNET's Dong Ngo answers frequently asked questions about wireless networking.

Like most editors at CNET, I often receive questions from CNET readers about specific problems. Here are a few that were brought up to me in the last month.

It's probably time I went wireless myself. Dong Ngo/CNET

Q: My laptop's Wireless-N adapter only caps at 130Mbps even though my D-Link DIR-855 can offer 300Mbps speeds. What can I do to boost the wireless speed of the laptop?

A: That might already be the best you can get. Wireless-N (802.11n) comes in different "tiers" with different amounts of streams (also referred to as antennae). Each stream offers a throughput speed up to 150Mbps.

While most routers are dual-stream and cap at 300Mbps (future ones can even support multistream, offering speeds up to 450Mbps or even 600Mbps), a lot of adapters built in to laptop and notebook computers to conserve the battery life use the single-stream standard. This means they cap at 150Mbps (which translates into something around 130Mbps, which is plenty fast, by the way). Also note that the throughput decreases as you increase the range. Generally the optimal range for the Wireless-N is between 15 feet and 70 feet away.

Q: Does my laptop have to have a dual-band adapter to take advantage of dual-band routers, such as the Linksys WRT610n, the Apple Airport Extreme or theD-Link DIR-825?

A: No, it doesn't matter how many bands an adapter supports; wireless networking devices only connect to one another in one band at a time. Having a dual-band router only means that regardless of what band your adapter is (or your friend's is), the router can support them all. A true dual-band router can support virtually any existing consumer wireless networking devices. Also, the 5GHz band tends to have less interference, so when applicable, you should use this band for better throughput speed. The 5GHz band supposedly offers longer range than the 2.4GHz band, too. In our testing, however, this has never been the case--the 5GHz, so far, actually offers shorter range than the 2.4GHz.

Q: I have a small office and need to have a network storage device to store and share data. Should I get the D-link DIR-685?

A: This depends. While routers with built-in network storage capability, such as the DIR0685 or the Apple Time Capsule, can come in handy if you want to quickly back up or share data between computers, they always come with a weak processor and therefore have very slow network storage performance compared with an NAS server. This means it's OK if you just want to store and casually share small files such as Word or Excel documents. If you frequently want to share a large amount of data, or share a large database, such as Quickbook files, you need to get a dedicated NAS server.

Q: Now that Wireless-N has been finalized, do I have to replace my Draft N router and adapters with the final versions?

A: No, chances are not at all. The final version of the N standard only adds more options to the Draft N 2.0 specs. This means all existing Draft N products will continue to work with future final N versions. However, this very much depends on how a particular company makes its products. If your equipment is certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, it is guaranteed to work with future N products. It's predicted that most existing Draft N products will be able to be upgraded to the final N specs via a firmware update. Currently there's no final N product on the market yet.

Q: I currently have an old Wireless-G router. I am thinking about upgrading to Wireless-N, do I need to change the adapters on my laptop and desktop computers, too?

A: Wireless-N is backward-compatible with Wireless-G so you don't need to change the adapters to get your computers connected to the new router. However, if you want to take advantage of Wireless-N's higher speed--up to 300Mbps as opposed to 54Mbps of the old Wireless-G--then you need to change them, unless they already support the Wireless-N standard. Also, note that in most cases, 54Mbps is fast enough to get on the Internet and for casual networking needs. Even when you use Wireless-G adapters with a Wireless-N router, you can still take advantage of the longer range.

Q: What's the best router to use with Xbox 360?

A: Generally, a good wireless router is good for all networking purposes. So just get a decent Wireless-N router. However, in my personal experience, the settings of D-Link and Netgear routers are highly customizable and also come with a Web interface that makes it easy to optimize the router for certain purposes, including gaming.

Q: My laptop has a great signal and fast speed to my wireless router; why is it so slow for me to get on the Internet?

A: Because the connection between your laptop and the router has very little to do with the connection between the router to the Internet. Normally the router is connected to the Internet via its WAN port, which, if you use a broadband service, is connected to the broadband modem. Make sure the modem is in good working condition and check with the service provider to make sure you get the right speed for the plan you pay for. Also, viruses or spyware can severely change the way the computer connects to the Internet. If your computer is the only one in the network that's slow to get online, have it checked by a professional.

Q: What is da best router? (This is the most frequently asked question.)

A: It depends on what you are looking for. Keep reading CNET reviews and you'll find out yourself.