Closing Thoughts (for Now)

It’s really up to the notebook manufacturers to make sure that their WiFi implementations are up to snuff, and that means doing more than a quick test for connectivity in ideal test conditions. The QA and engineering departments at the very least ought to be testing at 5, 25, 50, and 100 feet, using standard Windows operations (i.e. not just IxChariot or iPerf). If there are issues, they should be ironed out before customers (and reviewers) get the product. With that said, a good foundation for wireless networking can go a long way toward improving bandwidth and stability of your connection.

Intel’s adapters aren’t always the best, but they’re rarely the worst, provided you get one of the non-budget offerings (i.e. avoid the 1000 and 2000 series parts). Realtek unfortunately comes in near the bottom of my ranking list in many cases, but most notebooks with Realtek WiFi are already cutting corners—they’re the 1x1:1 2.4GHz only solutions that are so common. The fact is, whether you're using an adapter from Qualcomm/Atheros, Broadcom, Marvell, Realtek, or Ralink, you can have a good adapter in some cases or a downright awful one in others. Broadly speaking, most solutions with two streams end up being better than any of the single stream solutions.

Of course, it's not just about spatial streams. Oddly enough, for a company that has been on the forefront of wireless technologies, as Anand detailed in our MacBook Air 2013 review OS X is not scaling TCP window size beyond 64KB and thus fails to get optimal performance out of 802.11ac. (I assume an OS/driver patch will address this at some point, but that hasn't happened yet AFAIK.) OS and driver issues can definitely put a clamp on WiFi performance, which again is why the notebook makers need to exercise due diligence and test in real-world scenarios to ensure their hardware is working properly.

As I said earlier, one of the best things about 802.11ac wireless is that it raises the bar for wireless adapters. No one can get away with selling you an 11ac adapter without including at the bare minimum a dual-band chipset with support for 5GHz and 2.4GHz networks. If you live in a packed subdivision or apartment complex, 5GHz networking is almost required these days. Ideally, though, I want more than just the bare minimum; I want two 80MHz streams on my 802.11ac connections, and three would be even better. Intel’s 7260 provides two streams, and so do most of the current crop of 802.11ac routers. Hopefully, we won’t see as many solutions going for the bottom of the barrel single stream implementations; they’re not worse than 802.11n, but they’re not much better than two stream 5GHz 802.11n either.

Consider this a warning shot across the bow of the notebook manufacturers: we’re going to be paying more attention to your wireless implementations going forward. I can understand why a $500 or less budget laptop needs to cut every corner possible to hit that price point, but when we’re looking at $1000+ laptops we don’t want to see such blemishes. It may not always be as painful as using a bad LCD on an otherwise excellent laptop, but a bad WiFi implementation that loses connectivity if you’re more than 40 feet from the router in can be even worse in some cases.

We’ll be doing some full reviews of 802.11ac routers in the near future, including the Western Digital AC1300 and Linksys AC1200. The full reviews will better characterize performance as well as other features. Until then, at least right now it looks like most 802.11ac routers are using two streams (867Mbps maximum theoretical throughput), which is at least a nice upgrade over the 300Mbps so many 802.11n routers offer. Meanwhile, Apple's latest AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule go whole hog and give us three streams and up to 1300Mbps. Now if I could just get (Windows) laptops with three 802.11ac streams, I might actually be willing to give up my Gigabit Ethernet and wires!

 

A Quick Test of Real-World Wireless Performance
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  • chripuck - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Agreed with mia, my house is 4300 square feet and I need two 2.4 GHz routers to cover the darn thing. Of course my biggest problem is that at the center of my house is a fireplace that has some sort of heat shielding inside it and it creates a blackhole for wifi signals. Reply
  • jaydee - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Comparison of the following options for the Dell Latitude line?

    Dell Wireless™ 1504 802.11g/n Single Band Wi-Fi Half Mini Card
    Dell Wireless™ 1540 802.11a/n Dual Band, High Speed Wi-Fi Half Mini Card
    Intel® Centrino® Advanced-N 6205 802.11n 2x2 Half Mini Card
    Intel® Centrino® Ultimate-N 6300 802.11n 3x3 Half Mini Card
    Reply
  • lmcd - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Clearly the last one is going to perform the best as the first one isn't even dual-band, the next two are dual-band and the last is tri-band. Not even accounting for the fact that Dell likely rebrands the first two options from Realtek, which was covered here. If the difference between the third and forth option is less than $30 I'd dive on that 6300 without blinking. Reply
  • jaydee - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Its not so much a matter of "I wonder which is going to perform better?", its more of a matter of "how much performance are you buying with the better wifi card?" There's only a $28 diff between the 1st option and the 4th option, obviously on paper it's well worth it, but I'm hoping for a more tangible comparison. Reply
  • MikeDiction - Thursday, July 11, 2013 - link

    I went with the Intel 6300 when I configured my Dad's laptop for him. I'm getting about 130 Mbps in 20 feet away from an ASUS NT-56U. Reply
  • Zap - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    "over the past seven or so years of testing notebooks and laptops for AnandTech, dropped wireless connections are a far too common occurrence in my experience"

    Tell it like it is, brother!

    Seriously though, even cell phones still get dropped calls in this day and age.
    Reply
  • lmcd - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Last time I dropped a call was in a completely dead forest corridor, where no signal was claimed. My signal made it farther than advertised, too.

    Now, my data connection on the other hand...
    Reply
  • kwrzesien - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Excellent review, thank you for the solid information as every bit helps. I'm looking to replace my Netgear WNDR3700 v0 which is now performing Wireless AP duty in the middle of an enormous house. The wired network (FVS318G ProSafe VPN Router and two GS105 switches) is rock solid, with eight drops of Gigabit wiring built in to the house during construction. But that stupid wireless box crashes or partially locks up every few weeks. Sometimes wireless will work for some existing connections but won't accept devices (iPhones, iPad) back onto the network when they have been away.

    I just read all the Newegg and Amazon reviews, especially anything less than perfect, on several of the new AC routers. All of them seem to be 10-20% defective, and the firmware seems to be 10-20% buggy on advanced features several of which I need. In fact it seems there hasn't ever been a reliable, rock solid, long lasting (5 yr) router in the last three years. Please, please correct me if I'm wrong! So I am seriously considering the Apple Airport Extreme or Time Capsule, it seems like a solid product, well engineered, and has great reviews. Give me that Apple halo!
    Reply
  • kwrzesien - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    My wife says I have logic problems - maybe she it right.

    I concur with the other comments that 5 GHz doesn't seem to be all that - most of my devices prefer 2.4 GHz as the connection is more stable when moving around the house. Of course most of the old devices are 2.4 GHz only anyway, but even our Lenovo T410 laptops and iPhone 5's seem to work as well or better on 2.4.

    Oh, and please don't label the charts as 5G and 2.4G, that's just not right and will confuse people with 2.5G, 3G and 4G cellular standards. /rant
    Reply
  • lmcd - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Yeah, it doesn't take that much more space to put GHz instead of G... Reply

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