Lots of new technologies claim to be transformative, productivity-enhancing and liberating. But only a few really live up to those claims. One of them is Wi-Fi, the wireless networking technology that has truly revolutionized the way people use the Internet.
With Wi-Fi, you can get online in any room of a home or office -- not just the room where your wired Internet connection lives. And you can use the Internet in airports, coffee shops, hotel lobbies and lots of other places where it wasn't possible before.
But like a lot of technologies, Wi-Fi has been changing so fast that confusion has crept in. A new version of Wi-Fi, generally known as draft-N, promises greater speed, greater range and standardization, but may not deliver any of those things. I've been testing some of this latest Wi-Fi gear, with mixed results.
Also like some other technologies, Wi-Fi adheres to standards set by a private engineering organization called the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), in which representatives of interested companies participate.
The current version of Wi-Fi blessed by the IEEE is called G and has a maximum speed of 54 megabits per second. This G version of Wi-Fi, known to techies as 802.11g, is built into most wireless routers (which transmit and receive Wi-Fi signals) and most laptops.
Now, the IEEE is working on a new, faster standard called N. It promises much greater speeds, measured in the hundreds of megabytes per second, and much better range. But certifying this N standard is taking forever, partly because of factionalism within the IEEE.
In the meantime, the marketplace has moved on. Last year, major makers of Wi-Fi routers, like Linksys and Belkin, brought out routers that used a major advance, called MIMO, expected to be in the eventual N standard. This technology uses multiple antennas to send and combine multiple data streams into one faster, longer-range signal.
Last year, I endorsed one of these MIMO products, Belkin's Pre-N router, which was the only Wi-Fi router I ever tested that covered every corner of my home at decent speeds, even when I used laptops with only the older G technology built in.
Now, the Wi-Fi market has moved again. The major makers have all brought out what they call draft-N routers and cards for laptops that adhere to a draft of the coming N standard that the IEEE has passed. It's probable, but not certain, that the final N standard likely to emerge next year will comply with this draft. Similar draft-N gear will be built into new laptops later this year.
The makers are claiming that the draft-N routers will have up to 12 times the speed and four times the range of G equipment when used with compatible laptop cards. Even if you are just using a laptop with a G receiver built in, the new routers can also improve speed and range, though more modestly.
Speed is nice, but even current G maximum speeds far exceed the speed of most home DSL or cable modem connections. What's more important to most consumers is range, or more accurately, decent speed at longer ranges. The biggest Wi-Fi problem people face is dead spots or very slow connections in parts of their homes.
I tested the new Belkin draft-N router, called the Belkin N1, in my house and compared it with the Belkin Pre-N router I bought last year and have used ever since. The new router, which I placed in exactly the same spot as the old one, was easy to set up. It has lovely, large icons on the front that tell you if everything on your network is connected and working.
But the N1 didn't perform any better, and in some cases did worse, than the old Belkin. This was true whether I was testing it on a Windows laptop or a Mac laptop, and whether I was using the Belkin N1 laptop card or just the built-in G radios in my test laptops. The new model covered my whole house, but so did the old one.
I also tried the Linksys draft-N router, called the WRT300N, which has an antenna array that makes it look like a radar station or a submarine conning tower. The company had to help me set it up, because I use a very fast Internet service called Verizon FIOS, which the router's program doesn't recognize. The Linksys proved much slower than the Belkin, though this may be because of a mismatch between its settings and my Verizon service, which is used by only a few hundred thousand homes in the U.S.
My unimpressive draft-N experience is confirmed by several, more extensive tests done by some magazines and Web sites, which showed the draft-N gear to be no big deal.
There are two other problems with the draft-N systems. The manufacturers aren't promising to upgrade them to the final N standard when it emerges. And buying them will get more complicated in the coming months, because they will be offered in a range of speeds and even in two different frequencies.
I can't recommend the draft-N equipment over the previous round of MIMO-equipped routers. They will likely be better than your G equipment, but so were last year's models.