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« St. Cloud Gets Tarred with Free-Doesn't-Work Brush | Main | Commuter-Fi: New Mexico, Melbourne (Australia), Cinncinnati (Ohio) »

April 24, 2006

Editorial: Don't Buy Draft N

[Please note: This editorial was written in 2006. In 2007, I changed my advice when Draft N was finalized into version 2.0, with changes incorporated into shipping hardware. Then the Wi-Fi Alliance added a pre-ratification certification process. I fully recommend Draft N gear now. –Glenn Fleishman, 2009.]

I am going to make myself extremely unpopular this morning by suggesting that no one buy so-called Draft N Wi-Fi gear that is pouring into the market: Buffalo and D-Link say they've been shipping wireless equipment based on the current draft of 802.11n, the higher-speed cousin to existing Wi-Fi, for at least two weeks. Linksys entered the fray today with a new router and PC Card. Other manufacturers who have not yet announced will follow in May and June. And it's a bad idea.

These companies are shipping Draft N devices for the bragging rights to be first out of the gate and to try to brand their Draft N products' identities on consumers' minds. There's no good technical reason to release these products this early. Lest someone point to 802.11g's early release before ratification by the IEEE, it's important to note that 802.11g was several drafts further along when Broadcom pushed out its first chips.

I came around to the idea of early multiple-in, multiple-out (MIMO) equipment more than a year ago because MIMO gear, once it started to drop in price, offered the significant advantage of dramatically increased coverage and range even while using older Wi-Fi adapters. For specific purposes in which you needed more throughput for a wireless link, purchasing all new MIMO gear also made sense as a limited investment with no path to ensure that the higher speed of that equipment would work with any future standard. So far, so good.

But Draft N gear makes no sense for consumers because the actual standard is close enough at hand that buying pre-standard equipment has little benefit and a possibility for disruption given manufacturers' current guarantees and claims. Here's the lay of the land.

No guarantee for upgrade. There's still a small but significant risk that equipment shipped today will contain chips and firmware that cannot be upgraded to provide full compatibility with the final standard. Buffalo was brave enough to say in an interview two weeks ago that they are not guaranteeing that their Draft N equipment will be upgradable, although they believe it almost certainly will. Other manufacturers are not so brave, but they are also not offering a replacement guarantee.

With no hardware replacement guarantee from a manufacturer, why buy today? If manufacturers are willing to step forward and provide explicit offers with their products that they will have the same compliance with the gear they shift today as with the gear they ship in six months, up to and including replacing the hardware you purchase today, then that argument goes away.

No agreed-on, tested plan to avoid interfering with older networks. A more significant concern is that chipmakers and the IEEE task group working on 802.11n haven't agreed on a single approach to mitigate interference with existing legacy Wi-Fi networks, nor are the individual methods well tested ina real-world environment or with each other.

Over a month ago, I wrote about Airgo's self-motivated concerns in pressing this point, but I'm now convinced that they're generally correct about the issue, although they certainly overstated some of the particulars. Without agreed-upon methods of avoiding interference, many different chipmakers and equipment manufacturers devices will be contending with an inevitable variation in success.

The idea that consumers will apply several firmware upgrades to solve problems that emerge from this contention is a little ridiculous. Although early adopters will likely buy this Draft N gear, there's a lot of evidence to suggest that a device, once deployed, is rarely patched unless someone is advised to do so by technical support or they're a fairly technical user to begin with.

Testing of the first Buffalo and NetGear devices by Craig Mathias of the Farpoint Group, showed poor interoperability, security model problems, and performance. Mathias also recommends avoiding this wave of draft products. ( picked up this story and pointed to eWeek's evaluation showing poor range in a test device and legacy network problems, too, but praising the potential. They also noted that Linksys will release the same product with Atheros, Broadcom, and Marvell chipsets depending on availability. Hello, tech support nightmare.)

Gigabit Ethernet is necessary for the full benefit. If you're planning to buy 802.11n equipment for coverage area, this isn't an issue, but if you're not buying it just for range, you need a gateway that has Gigabit Ethernet (1000 Mbps) built in. Only NetGear is offering models that support this speed in these early stages. GigE has become less expensive, but it will take market interest and some months before it's available for a reasonable price.

Prices will plummet within months. If you buy Draft N gear today, you're paying too much. Five major Wi-Fi chipmakers will contend for business in Draft N. Airgo said they're waiting a bit longer to release chips and Intel's plans are unknown, but Atheros, Broadcom, and Marvell are already producing silicon. With five chipmakers and dozens of manufacturers, competition will be intense and prices will fall fast.

Wait. Unless you have a very particular, very short-term need for the highest possible speed using a wireless network, there is little reason to suffer through the shakedown that will take place over the next several months. At the very least, wait until after the May IEEE meeting, at which point it may become crystal clear whether any minor changes to the draft of 802.11n will require major changes in silicon. Even if there are no chip changes, you might as well wait for the inevitable firmware upgrades that will chase the standards group meetings and take weeks to appear following those meetings.

I won't recommend buying Draft N gear until almost certainly September or later--later if the prices haven't fallen substantially by September.


This is by far the best article I've read on this issue. I am in just such a situation as I have a wired home lan using Intel's 10m phone line network and want to upgrade to wireless. I need range because I'm going from the basement to a second floor location. I guess I'll have to wait a bit longer, although an associate at Circuit City said he believed will start seeing non-draft product in June. Was he wrong?

[Editor's note: Yes, Circuit City was wrong, but you can buy quite a variety of MIMO gear today that answers the range need. Check out PC World online for their reviews and rankings of MIMO routers. 802.11n adds speed and compatibility among routers, but it won't necessarily have greater range.

The final ratified version of 802.11n probably won't come until spring or even summer 2007. The final draft might be late this year or early next year, so it's probably save to release equipment by then. A further draft in July or September might be close enough to resolving issues to be guaranteed upgradable, too, but that's not yet clear.--gf]

While for general wireless use, it would be foolish to purchase these Draft-N products they do have a very immediate use that justifies purchasing them now.
The immediate need for these faster wireless speeds is for media players like the DSM-320 and DSM-520 from DLink. The 802.11g wireless is not fast enough for HD video streaming and the Draft-N promises to give enough bandwidth to solve the problem. I picked up two of the Netgear WNR854T devices for exactly this purpose. At $149 each at Newegg the are worth it even if I can never upgrade them to full 802.11n. In my situation I can not run a cable easily and having wireless was a requirement. Also, the cost is well worth it to me for a targeted solution such as this.

It is best to wait until the end of this year to purchase draft n products. As a mobile network technician I personally have not experienced the 802.11n (draft) products, but I have had a lot of experience setting up one of Netgear's latest products , Rangemax 240, which boasts True-MIMO and pre-n technology. While it does perform very well with bandwidth and coverage, once you enable data encryption, the bandwidth and coverage decrease signifigantly because of the overhead created, as with any other pre-n and earlier product. I'm not sure how well the new draft-n products perform as far as security is concerned, but if you want a secure wireless setting ( and you should), I would wait untill they've gotten all the bugs and patches out of the way before investing in a product that might not be compatible to devices 1 year from now.

I am using netgear WNR854t. When the first time i purchase this product from the shop, it was a malfunction router, it won't work even connect to internet. I changed the other new one and it was happy with that it can even improve the b/g coverage very much as i found. BUT i may be not stable. I tried to set the router to connect the internet through PPPoe account for 24 hours non-stop BUT it drop the line ocassionally and it won't automatically connect the line again. the only way is to power off and on again. I have already ask the netgear technical support, they cut my phone call or not response to my email enquiry.

you better think twice before you are going to by a new draft n product. I found a lot 802.11g mode clients cannot be recognised by WNR854t. I have already asked the technical support of netgear. Once again they didnot answer or no such informations at all. Anyway if you are using 802.11b or draft n client, then it won't be a problem. Btw i am going to replace that router very soon.

i am testing the third replaced wnr854-t.I found exactly the same problem(s) as i mentioned b4: PPPoe line suddenly drop, no proper ip assignment to some 802.11g clients even all security off. actually i am using the latest firmware 1.4. btw i was using netgear wrt624 before which is a good router coz i did not have any problem at all.