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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  • kmmatney - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Would have been nice to see 100Mb and 1Gb wired connections as well, just for a comparison. Reply
  • pattycake0147 - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    ^This would be excellent for the full reviews that are forthcoming. Reply
  • khaydin - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    I have an Asus RT-AC66U router and a Linksys Wireless AC Media Bridge and I can copy a movie I recorded with Windows Media Center 7 to my computer upstairs at 48 megabytes per sec. Only about half the speed of gigabit Ethernet, but a great alternative in a condo where it'd be a nightmare to try to run cables through the walls. Previously I was using powerline adapters getting maybe 5 megabytes per sec on file transfers from my media center downstairs to my computer upstairs. Reply
  • hojo98 - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    I also have an Asus RT-AC66U and a Linksys WUMC710 AC bridge. I get ~500 Mbps transfer rates between an HTPC downstairs and a PC upstairs.

    The only issue I have is sometimes during long file transfers (several GBs of data), the WUMC710 loses it's connection to the router and never reconnects unless I power cycle the WUMC710. Do you encounter this as well? There's a somewhat long thread in the Linksys forums mentioning disconnects too.
    Reply
  • andrewaggb - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Good luck. Linksys is terrible, they look nice, they have one of the best ui's (in my opinion), nice features, but their hardware just always seem to be unstable. They'll release a v2 hardware which runs different (incompatible) firmware, then a v3, and v4, etc but you're likely screwed. Reply
  • 24thChromosome - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Journalism 101: Explain briefly what you're talking about (what is 802.11ac?) Reply
  • name99 - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Google 101: "802.11ac wiki" Reply
  • chrnochime - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    My primary concern IS range. Even at 300mbps if the range doesn't get close to at least 40ft, which is not 3 cars length, what's the point of having wifi anyway. Reply
  • name99 - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Oh noes. The product does not meet my needs, therefore it is useless for all people in all situations.

    One of the things you're supposed to work out some time in your adolescence is that though you're the star of your own life, you're not the star of anyone else's.
    Reply
  • Hrel - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    I know you guys can't review all products. But if you could review the D-Link DIR-868L that would be great. It's their top offering so I'd think they'd be more than happy to send you a unit to review. Reply

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