Round-up: 802.11g-based USB 2.0 Adapters

By Joseph Moran

January 20, 2004

It took a while, but 802.11g-based USB adapters are now readily available. In this mini-roundup, we'll look at USB 2.0 offerings from five major vendors--Buffalo Technology, D-Link, IOGear, Linksys, and Netgear.

It took a while, but 802.11g-based USB adapters are now available from most vendors. In this mini-roundup, we'll look at USB 2.0 offerings from four major vendors--Buffalo Technology, D-Link, IOGear, Linksys, and Netgear.

USB-based WLAN adapters obviously make a lot of sense for desktop machines since they save the hassle of opening the computer and installing a PCI card. In a desktop situation, USB adapters also offer more antenna flexibility than most PCI cards which have fixed antennas.

Needless to say, a USB adapter is equally useful in any device with a USB port, and it can come in handy when attempting to network notebooks, game consoles like the PlayStation 2, or a DVR device like TiVo.

With the exception of the IOGear device, the USB adapters I looked at are not as small as the current crop of 802.11b adapters which have same form factor as a USB flash-memory storage key. Still, all are a good deal smaller than the first generation of 802.11b USB clients of yesteryear, and will easily fit in a cramped computer bag or even a pocket.

Another characteristic that the products have in common is that as USB devices, none of the products require external power supply. However, all of them must plug into a powered hub or directly into a computer's USB port to operate -- a pass-through USB hub will not let it work.

None of the USB adapters tested supported WPA natively yet, though all were expected to add it via driver updates by early next year. In the meantime, you can use Windows XP or an external WPA supplicant.

One thing to take into consideration before choosing to purchase a USB 802.11g adapter is that you'll need USB 2.0 (a.k.a "Hi-Speed" USB) ports to take full advantage of the performance. By necessity, these adapters are USB 2.0 devices, because the 12 Mbps bandwidth of USB 1.x is considerably less than the throughput 802.11g can provide. Of course, these devices are backward compatible and thus will work with older USB 1.x ports, but your throughput performance will suffer considerably.

Since the USB 2.0 specification has been around for a couple of years now, just about any desktop or notebook currently on the market has 2.0- compliant ports. On the other hand, if your existing computer is between one and two years old, you'll want to verify that it supports USB 2.0. If not, you can buy upgrade PCI or PC cards for about $50. In fact, that's what I had to do, since none of my machines (including a Compaq notebook purchased only about 18 months ago) had USB 2.0.

A few caveats--about midway through my testing, and for no apparent reason, the throughput of all of devices suddenly began to plateau at a mere 8-9 Mbps (with the Chariot graph looking like an EKG) when connected to the aforementioned USB 2.0 upgrade card. After adjusting almost every variable short of the relative humidity, and swapping out the notebook, access point, and various cards, the problem was still occurring without any indication as to why.

My belief is that the problem was caused by power fluctuations on the USB bus, and my recommendation would be that if you're using a notebook with USB 1.1 ports, you're better off going with a Cardbus WLAN adapter in the first place than adding ports (which will have to be plugged into AC power anyway).

Before installing any of these adapters, Windows XP owners would do well to download a USB software update from Microsoft (Knowledge Base article 822603). Not having it installed on a test system caused various problems--ranging from a lack of IP connectivity to intermittently dropped connections (even at close range) with some of these products.

The Buffalo, D-Link, IOGear, Linksys, and Netgear products are similar in many respects, and differentiate themselves mainly in terms of physical design. Read on to determine which one might be right for you.

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