How to: Upgrade to 802.11n (Affordably)

By Eric Geier

March 04, 2009

If you want to upgrade your home or small business Wi-Fi network to 802.11n for its better performance and range, but you're afraid you'll have to spend hundreds of dollars, think again.

If you want to upgrade your Wi-Fi network to 802.11n to get better performance and range in the office, but you're afraid you'll have to spend hundreds of dollars, don't be.

True, when we priced some brand-name combos--an 802.11n wireless router, a PC card to upgrade a notebook, and a PCI adapter for a desktop--that meet the current 802.11n Draft 2.0 spec of the IEEE's ubiquitous-but-still-unratified standard, we found it easy to spend $220 or more; but if you find the right deals, you can upgrade for about $100.

At Buy.com, we discovered two sets of 802.11n networking gear that you can pick up for just about $100.

The TRENDnet $93 bundle

The cheapest set of 802.11n gear I found when scouring the Net is a product line from TRENDnet that includes the following:

Adding these three products to a Buy.com shopping cart brings the total to $93 with free standard shipping, yet the gear wears the same 802.11n Draft 2.0 certification and touts the same maximum data rate (300Mbps) as more famous-name hardware.

The no-thrills router offers the usual features, such as four wired 10/100Mbps ports, a NAT and SPI (stateful packet inspection) firewall, WEP and WPA/WPA2 security support, and network filtering. Like other 802.11n products, it uses smart MIMO antenna technology, but relies on two antennas instead of the three that more expensive products use.

The Zonet $116 bundle

The next-lowest-priced 802.11n bundle we found is by Zonet. It's made up of:

Using Buy.com again, this order comes to about $116, which includes $7 for shipping on the router sold by a reseller partner. Picking this bundle over higher-priced, more full-featured, products could save you more than $100.

As with the TRENDnet router, Zonet gives its Draft-N router a maximum data rate of 300Mbps with two MIMO antennas. However, it also supports multiple wireless modes: AP, Station-Infrastructure, Wireless Bridge, and Universal Repeater. Plus it offers quality of service (QoS) to better control Internet bandwidth.

What you're giving up

With one fewer antenna and a maximum data rate of 100Mbps for the wired Ethernet connections, you'll see lower file transfer speeds compared to the routers that sport three antennas and Gigabit Ethernet (1,000 Mbps).

These value-priced, two-antenna routers can give you maximum wireless throughput of about 70 to 80 megabits per second (in 40MHz mode), whereas more expensive models manage from 85Mbps to 120Mbps. In terms of real-world throughput, however, you'll likely see only a 10- to 20-percent increase when using the default 20 MHz mode. Depending upon the performance of the particular model you pick out, going with a higher-priced router may not give you enough additional speed to justify its price difference.

There's a much bigger difference in routers when talking about wired-to-wired connections. Lower-priced routers like the Zonet and TRENDnet hit the wall at 100Mbps maximum, while routers with Gigabit Ethernet support up to 1,000Mbps. Though you won't really see a full tenfold increase, a router with Gigabit Ethernet will certainly provide much faster file transfers among wired computers. Remember, however, that you'll need to upgrade your PCs with Gigabit Ethernet cards, as well.

In addition to performance, there may be differences in feature sets. Some of the more ritzy routers, for example, may include a USB 2.0 port to attach and give network users access to an external hard drive. Additionally, they have better QoS features to better support demanding, high-bandwidth voice and video applications. You might also find other miscellaneous enhancements, such as a separate guest SSID.

802.11n tips and considerations

There are many considerations, catches, and interoperability problems you need to address when moving to 802.11n. Here are several tips to get you started:

  • Replace your adapters too: Putting in a new router may provide a bit more range, but you won't get increased speeds from systems that still use an 802.11g to talk to the network. If you want increased data rates, make sure each PC has an 802.11 adapter. On the other hand, you might also want to...
  • Keep your old 802.11g gear: Though 802.11n works with 802.11b/g, operating in mixed mode can dramatically reduce throughput. Therefore, set your new router to force 802.11n and plug the old router into the back. Then users without a new adapter can still connect to the old router.
  • Some Macs are upgradable with software: Select Mac computers can be upgraded from 802.11g to Draft-N with a $1.99 software update from Apple.
  • Carefully change the default channel width: To get the maximum data rates of 802.11n, you must change the default channel width from 20MHz to 40MHz. Just be careful, as this can actually have an adverse effect on clients farther away from the router. The change also doubles the frequency range used and can wipe out other wireless networks operating in b/g mode.
  • Don't use WEP or WPA: With most routers, you won't be able to take advantage of 802.11n's increased performance when using these encryption methods; you must use WPA2.

Making your final decision

When setting your budget for an 802.11n upgrade, consider what we discovered. A thrifty kit can cost 50 percent less while losing only 10 to 20 percent in wireless speed; however, wired-to-wired connections will be much faster with routers sporting Gigabit Ethernet.

Some routers in this price range may have only the bare minimum of features. Also consider the other parameters we discussed when figuring out if you want to upgrade at all--it may not be so easy.

As with most hardware, going cheap is for those that don't require the best of the best in performance and features. One big showstopper, for instance, would be if you regularly transfer large files between wired PCs. On the other hand, looking for low-priced 802.11n upgrades can be a great way for many small business or home users to save money.

For definitions of unfamiliar terms, visit our searchable Glossary.

Eric Geier is the author of many networking and computing books, including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and 100 Things You Need to Know About Microsoft Windows Vista (Que 2007). Article adapted from SmallBusinessComputing.com.

Originally published on .

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