Recap: 802.11ac Wireless Networking

We’ve had quite a few major wireless networking standards over the years, and while some have certainly been better than others, I have remained a strong adherent of wired networking. I don’t expect I’ll give up the wires completely for a while yet, but Western Digital and Linksys sent me some 802.11ac routers for testing, and for the first time in a long time I’m really excited about wireless.

I’m not a good representative of normal PC users, but it has been a long time, relatively speaking, since we first saw Draft-N wireless options—Gary Key (now with ASUS) wrote about it what seems like an eternity ago, and in Internet time I suppose seven years is pretty darn close. Granted, 802.11ac has really been “done” for about two years now, but the first laptops to arrive with 11ac adapters are less than a month old—up until now, 11ac has been almost exclusively used for routers and bridges.

Before I get into a few performance specifics of 802.11ac testing, let me start by saying what is bad with 802.11n. The single biggest issue for me is the lack of quality implementations in so many of our devices. If you look at Apple’s MacBook Pro offerings, they’ve all been 3x3:3 MIMO for several years, offering connection speeds of up to 450Mbps. The problem with that “up to 450Mbps” is that it’s influenced by several factors.

Of course you need to know what sort of signal quality you have, but by far the bigger issue is this: are you talking about 2.4GHz 802.11n or 5GHz 802.11n? If you’re talking about the former, you can pretty much throw any thoughts of 450Mbps out the window. The bigger problem with “up to 450Mbps” is that the vast majority of laptops and routers don’t offer such support; Apple's 3x3:3 dual-band implementation is better than 99% of Windows laptops (and yes, I just made up that statistic).

About a year ago, I reviewed a router and repeater from Amped Wireless and found them to be good if not exceptional products. Compared to most of the wireless solutions people end up with, they were a breath of fresh air and I’ve actually been using them for the past year with very few complaints. On the other hand, I’ve had dozens of laptops come and go during the same time frame. Can you guess what the most common configuration is, even on more expensive laptops? If you said “single-band 2.4GHz 1x1:1”, give yourself a cookie.

We’re thankfully starting to see more laptops with dual-band 2x2:2 implementations, but even when you get that there’s still a big difference in actual performance, depending on notebook design, drivers, and other “special sauce”. We’ll see this in the charts on the next page, and it’s often more a statement of a particular laptop’s wireless implementation as opposed to representing what you might get from a particular wireless chipset.

In my opinion, the great thing about 802.11ac then is that any product claiming 802.11ac compliance is automatically dual-band. 11ac actually only works on the 5GHz channels, so for 2.4GHz support it’s no better than existing 802.11n solutions, but it’s fully backwards compatible and, as we’ll see in a moment, you really don’t want to use 2.4GHz wireless networking unless you’re primarily concerned with range of the signal. This is a shorter introductory piece, so don’t expect a full suite of benchmarks, but let’s just cut straight to the chase and say that there are a lot of situations in which I’ve found 802.11ac to be substantially faster than 802.11n.

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

    Considering the gaming laptops have hit the $3000+ mark numerous times, I'd say enough of them that it's still a problem. Granted, we're still trying to get good LCDs, which is a bigger deal IMO, but I'd happily add $25 to the cost of a laptop to get a quality WiFi solution integrated. Reply
  • ananduser - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    2 OEMs is still more than 1 OSX OEM. You're never without choice in the PC front. As long as there is one choice at least it is on par with Apple. So what if the rest don't follow the lone Win OEM ? Reply
  • steven75 - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    I got a good laugh out of this completely faulty logic. Thanks! Reply
  • seapeople - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Ballmer, is that you? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Um, no... that's two LAPTOPS. One was Dell Latitude, and granted 450Mbps dual-band is often an option with Dell, but if you're not custom ordering (e.g. just buying from Newegg or elsewhere), the number of laptops that have quality WiFi is diminishingly small. Reply
  • JamesT34 - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    I buy business notebooks (EliteBook, Latitude, ThinkPad) and they all have excellent WiFi solutions (usually Intel 6300 cards). I'm transferring data at 250-300 Mbps on 5 GHz 802.11n.

    Sounds like you're overpaying for you notebooks.
    Reply
  • arthur449 - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    The bigger problem is the UEFI/BIOS whitelist these Windows OEMs use to disallow the purchase and use of other mini PCIe modules.

    I just purchased an HP ENVY 15z (AMD 'Richland' 5550M) and the included Ralink RT3290 WiFi+Bluetooth module is 1x1:1, doesn't support 5GHz networks, and barely manages 5MB/s over 2.4GHz 802.11n when sitting 1 meter away from an ASUS RT-N56U.

    In fact, I have a 2010 HP dm1z (AMD 'Brazos' E-350) and its Ralink RT5490 wifi module typically beats the much more expensive ENVY product in wifi network transfers. My 2007-8 HP TX2525nr (AMD Turion @ 2.0GHz) boasts a Broadcom Wifi module (Draft N) supports the 5GHz band and manages at least double the network throughput of either of the two newer machines.

    I'd love to swap out the wifi module on crappy wifi implementations in OEM machines, but hardware not specifically coded in the UEFI/BIOS doesn't work, at all.
    Reply
  • RU482 - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    "Apple's 3x3:3 dual-band implementation is better than 99% of Windows laptops"

    Should this say 3x3:2 instead of 3x3:3? Or am I incorrect in thinking that the number after the : stands for the number of bands?

    Great write up - definitely be sharing this with some colleagues
    Reply
  • RU482 - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    nevermind - the number after : is the number of streams. Reply
  • kmmatney - Tuesday, July 09, 2013 - link

    Would have been nice to see 100Mb and 1Gb wired connections as well, just for a comparison. Reply

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