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Wi-Fi consumers cautioned to wait on new gear

Testers unhappy with new Wi-Fi equipment that complies with the draft version of 802.11n standard.

Two different groups testing new wireless products based on a draft standard of next-generation Wi-Fi technology caution consumers against buying pre-standard gear.

On Monday, the Farpoint Group and the technology trade publication eWeek released results of tests conducted on new products using draft versions of the 802.11n standard. While eWeek's assessment is not nearly as negative as the analysis of the testing from the Farpoint Group, both groups said they felt it was still too soon for consumers to buy products using 802.11n.

"I've always been a harsh critic of selling equipment that is compliant with a draft," said Craig Mathias, an analyst with Farpoint Group. "But besides that I was reasonably underwhelmed in terms of the throughput and range of the draft compliant products."

eWeek was also critical of the new products.

"It is not advisable to invest in these products lock, stock and barrel," eWeek said in its article. "Enterprise-grade WLAN manufacturers continue to wait for the standard to fully bake, and enterprise customers should do the same."

The new 802.11n standard, which is expected to be finalized later this year, will allow notebook users to connect to wireless access points at much faster speeds than currently available with 802.11g technology. 802.11n will use a technology called MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out) , which should improve the range and throughput of 802.11n products so that it can be used as a replacement for Ethernet cabling in an office and as a way to transmit video around a house without interrupted playback.

In January, the IEEE approved a draft version of 802.11n, after much controversy and infighting among chipmakers. In the last few months, several products have emerged on the market claiming to comply with the 802.11n draft.

Problems with the technology
But now that products are out in the market, groups testing draft 802.11n are finding that the technology has some problems. The Farpoint Group compared the performance and interoperability of Buffalo Technology's AirStation Nfiniti router and client, which use Broadcom's draft 802.11n Intensi-fi chipset, and both versions of Netgear's RangeMax Next client and routers, which use draft 802.11n chips from Broadcom and Marvel, with Linksys' Wireless G and SRX400 equipment.

What the Farpoint Group found during the testing was that the Linksys SRX400, which uses Airgo's third-generation MIMO technology that isn't compliant with the draft version of 802.11n, offered higher throughput at longer distances than all three of the other products tested, which used draft N technology.

The report also indicated that the "draft compliant" products did not connect at any faster speed or across any greater distance than existing 802.11g products, which typically transmit data between 20 and 24 mbps.

eWeek tested Linksys' new WRT300N Wireless-N Broadband Router and the WPC300N Wireless-N Note-book Adapter, which both use Draft 802.11n chip technology from Broadcom. The article said Linksys' draft 802.11n gear was the fastest wireless equipment at short distances the magazine had tested to date, "besting even a pair of products based on Airgo's Gen 3 True MIMO chipset."

But when it came to long distances, a key reason for developing the 802.11n standard, eWeek, like the Farpoint Group, found gear based on the draft standard fell short. eWeek said that performance at 50 feet lagged considerably when compared with the products using Airgo chips.

"I wouldn?t read too much into these early tests," said Bill Bunch, director of marketing for wireless LAN for Broadcom. "The testing we have done has gotten results more like the eWeek test."

Bunch said the true value of Broadcom's draft 802.11n technology is that it interoperates with equipment from other draft N suppliers. But the Farpoint Group found in its testing that this was not the case. Mathias said that he was unable to get equipment from Netgear and Buffalo Technology to talk to each other. What's more, he wasn't even able to get the two versions of the Netgear products to work together.

Bunch said the Farpoint Group's results are flawed.

"I can guarantee you that it's a problem with the test," he said. "I have tested this myself at home, and it works. I look at these results and can see right away something was wrong with this test."

Mathias said that companies such as Broadcom are overhyping the capabilities of their products.

"These products have not been verified by the Wi-Fi Alliance," he said. "It's all marketing right now, and it's marketing out of control."