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Is it worth buying an 802.11ac router?

When details on the new 802.11ac wireless protocols began to trickle out, this new but not-yet-ratified standard captured the interest of the Wi-Fi world, thanks to promised speed jumps and reduced Wi-Fi interference. Now that there are plenty of 802.11ac routers on the market, everyone wants to know: Will being an early adopter of the technology pay off?

Designed to provide faster throughput at a greater distance, 802.11ac operates only on the 5GHz band. With 802.11ac, devices are required to support 20, 40, and 80MHz channels. The use of 160MHz channels is optional but supported. 802.11ac advances channel bonding, a technology introduced with the 802.11n standard to improve bandwidth by combining channels to provide better range. 11ac's channel bonding range improvements are touted as huge, but I'm not quite seeing that yet in testing – although I have seen throughput speed gains.

I've had the chance to do hands-on testing on just about all the pre-draft 802.11ac routers currently available on the market. If you're wondering whether now is the time to buy an 11ac router, read on for my thoughts on the issue.

It's all about the adapters

First off, the excellent speeds I get from these 11ac routers are only evident when they are configured in 802.11n mode or 11ac Mixed mode – a combination of 11ac and 11n. The Linksys AC1750 EA6500 router displayed a throughput of 133Mbps in 11ac mode (an excellent throughput in my RF-heavy test environment). It did even better in 11n mode, turning in a surprising 194Mbps. Western Digital's My Net AC1300 also clocked in at 190Mbps in 802.11n mode, but produced a rather disappointing 80Mbps in 11ac mode. Every 11ac router I've tested has followed the same pattern: Great performance in 11n and mixed modes, but only mediocre in pure 11ac testing. Why?

It's all about the adapters. There aren’t really any compatible adapters to handle 11ac throughput rates yet, and most vendors have shipped a compatible 11ac bridge or a second 11ac router configured as a bridge to reviewers of their products, so they have two 11ac endpoints to test. The problem is even that setup does not give the true throughput of an actual 802.11ac wireless adapter integrated in a laptop.

D-Link is the only vendor so far to have an 11ac adapter on the market. I've tested with D-Link's adapter, but unfortunately it’s a USB adapter, so it's already at a disadvantage over an integrated wireless adapter because the speed limitations of USB slow the wireless throughput rate compared to an integrated wireless adapter on a laptop.

Another reason I see incredible speeds from these routers is because I test with Intel's Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 AGN 3x3 integrated wireless adapter on two notebook endpoints. A 3x3 adapter can handle the three data streams from higher-end routers with three transmit and three receive antennas. These adapters can support up to 450Mbps of throughput from dual-band routers.

Most client adapters are 2x2, however. Unless your client device has a 3x3 adapter, you won't get the maximum performance that a 3x3 router like the Linksys EA6500 may be capable of. (Later this year, we should start to see 4x4 capable routers and adapters capable of even better performance!)

If you check your wireless client's adapter specs and discover they only have 2x2 adapters, you can purchase a 3x3 USB adapter which will give you a performance gain over a 2x2 adapter (although not as much of a performance jump as an integrated 3x3 adapter in my experience).

Range not there yet

You may want to hold off on buying an 11ac router because 11ac is not a mature technology. The 802.11ac standard is still being drafted (it's currently in draft version 4). Many will remember it took a while for 802.11n to fully ripen, and for the market to produce both the routers and adapters that can produce the excellent throughput the 11n standard has currently achieved.

One of the touted advantages of 11ac is better performance at greater range. Just as the performance level currently lags behind what the standard will no doubt eventually offer, I'm not yet seeing throughput sustained at greater distances with the pre-draft 11ac routers I've tested.

How long will it take for 11ac routers to come into their own? The 802.11ac standard is expected to be ratified this year; from that point it can take a year to see really robust products that take full advantage of the technology, if you go by the experience of the implementation of past standards.

Benefits of pre-draft 11ac

The technology clearly has a long way to go. But what about all these 802.11ac routers currently on the market? What are the advantages of going with a pre-draft 11ac router? Well, in 802.11n mode, with a compatible 3x3 adapter, you'll definitely see impressive performance, according to my tests. If you do a lot of multimedia streaming across a home network, you should see a boost in performance, provided all of your clients have the right adapters.

With an 11ac router, even pre-draft, you will of course have the latest in wireless router technology and will not have to upgrade your router for a few years. Some routers may even be upgraded to ratified 802.11ac level with a firmware upgrade, although this will not be across-the-board for all routers.

Finally, there is not much price difference between some of the top-tier 802.11n routers and many of the pre-draft 11ac routers. For example, Buffalo's 802.11ac router, the AirStation 1750 (WZR-D1800H), is listed on Amazon for £105. Buffalo's 802.11n router, the AirStation Nfiniti Dual Band High Power Gigabit Router (WZR-HP-AG300H) is priced at £80.

So you’re getting a better throughput with the 802.11ac model for just £25 more, not much of a difference. It’s certainly worth looking at the various networking vendors 11n and 11ac offerings, and comparing their respective prices.

To buy or not to buy?

So, what's the short answer to the question: Should you upgrade to an 802.11ac router right now? If you're an early tech adopter and Wi-Fi enthusiast, definitely check out 11ac. Everyone else is better off waiting until the technology matures.

What if your old router dies and you're not upgrading so much as replacing hardware? The same applies: If you're comfortable with tweaking settings to get the most out of your router, by all means check out the 802.11ac routers on the market. At the very least, you shouldn't lose any performance; in certain cases, you might see improvements. If you're more of a plug and play user, however, play it safe and stick with 802.11n for now.