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Tuesday 24 May 2005

Boosting WiFi [Lurks]

Like many of you, I run a wireless network at home. Mine is probably a little busier than most since I sell on an Internet connection to people who live in neighboring flats. Some are wired, some are wireless but even my lady's computer at the other end of the same flat, has difficulty with wireless reception and frequently runs at 11Mbit or less - despite the fact I've used a variety of 802.11g routers including the Asus WL500G which allows you to hack the output power.
The bottom line is that the range of good old 802.11g really isn't that good indoors and the real-world throughput is a bit naughty as well, under the best of conditions, let alone when it has to retrain down to lower bitrates. For that reason there's a bunch of speed and distance enhancing proprietary technology on the market such as the Super-G products which bond two channels together for a theoretical 108Mbit signalling rate.
In my tests those sort of things work okay but you have to buy the same gear for everyone and it works pretty darn badly with standard clients out there as well. However there is hope on the horizon with the new 802.11n protocol which includes support for multipath tranceivers. Sadly 802.11n isn't due out for donkeys. The good news, however, is that a technology start up called Airgo Networks has basically made a multipath-capable chipset which they brand as True MIMO. There's really good look at Super-G versus True MIMO over at Tom's Networking if you're inclined to look at some solid tests.
The great thing about this is that it works with standard 802.11g very nicely. You get some superb rates if you use Airgo-powered clients too but you get the potential to see throughput and range boost on standard 802.11g client adaptors. Bizarrely, the first people to the market with products with Airgo tech in them was Belkin and they really didn't help matters by calling their products 'pre-n', alluding to the same scenario we saw prior to the introduction of 802.11g; proprietary products that offer the benefits now and may be upgraded to full compliancy later. That isn't the case with this pre-n stuff at all, so that's misleading.
Now the Belkin pre-n router is a cheap nasty peice of shit as you'd expect and is well known for crashing periodically just like so many other poor routers do. This is a subject close to my heart since my, ah, unusually demanding home network is a true acid test for any router and I've yet to find the perfect router. In fact I have a box of old domestic routers I've tried including stuff from Asus, SMC, DLink and Netgear. All have somewhat terminal problems. So when I was doing some testing of this WiFi technology for a magazine, I was pleased to try out the Linksys WRT54GX. This is based on their very well known Wireless-G router but has an Airgo True MIMO chipset powering it. Hence the crazy three antenna shit going on.
First thing to report; after 48 hours of solid testing, the Linksys WRT54GX is rock solid. I can't make it fall over with torrents (DLink), it doesn't spontaneously reboot (Asus) or gradually, and mysteriously slow down and seize up (Netgear) or crash on FTP tunneling (SMC). It just works. I guess you can thank the fact that these guys are actually Cisco so probably know a thing or two about networking.
Yet what sets the WRT54GX appart is the wireless. I did a dead simple test; writing a script to copy a 10.8MB file 10 times across the network to the lady's PC equipped with an el-cheapo Belkin vanilla 802.11g PCI network card to the Asus WL500G router (best wireless performance of any I've tested so far) and then to the True MIMO equipped WRT54GX. Both tests are with WPA-PSK security enabled:
  • Asus WL500G: 508309 bytes/second throughput.
  • Linksys WRT54GX: 1092602 bytes/second throughput.

Can't say fairer than that. Further more, one flat which had extremely patchy reception to the Asus - leading me to begin work running Ethernet - ended up belting it in with nearly full bar reception. Again this is a standard client, only the router had changed. I only have a cardbus laptop True MIMO card but testing that, throughput was pretty amazing but I'd advise you to look at Tom's Networking results rather than me quoting my sketchy unquantified tests. The bottom line, however, is that this stuff works and it wont bust anyone's nearby wireless network and you can upgrade bit by bit.
It's not terribly cheap though. The Linksys WRT54GX is worth a tenner more than the Belkin (don't even go there) at £109 or so but the network clients are the killer at around the £55-£65 mark. Linksys don't offer a desktop card but Belkin do and Belkin are cheaper. So what you'd do is get the Linksys router as a no brainer (it's bloody superb) and Belkin pre-n adaptors. They interoperate perfectly.
I came away from this genuinely impressed. This is the perfect technology; it brings tangible benefits right now without introducing proprietary standards that bust compatibility and it can be upgraded in time as you see fit. What's more, the Linksys implementation is top -notch. Sure I'd wish for a slightly more feature-rich comprehensive router ordinarily, but for now I'm just thanking lucky starts that it finally delivers stability under heavy load and that alone makes it a keeper.
What we need now is stand-alone access points so this can be used to upgraded ADSL routers. You could use this gear with an Ethernet-based ADSL modem but they seem remarkably rare. I guess this is a subject I'll have to revisit when/if I manage to finally secure our move to the countryside away from the luxury of cable Internet. More then.


  1. Cheers for this Mat - both helpful and timely, since I'm faced with the fun of finding a way to make wireless work across a big three-storey victorian house in the next couple of weeks! I reckon one of those peculiarly-antennaed beasts might do the job perfectly.
    Planning to do my Bit For Society by recycling my current wireless router as a public access point (firewalled from the actual network) with 128kb of internet access. We can afford it - thanks to having housemates who work for ISPs with unbundling schemes, we're looking at 18MB of incoming bandwidth altogether... :)

  2. Point well made actually. What should I do with all my old routers? I'd almost feel dirty chucking them on ebay for some reason - although I'm sure they'd work ace for light use.