Should I upgrade to 802.11n (wifi router)?

Question

Do I need to upgrade to a (Wi-Fi) ‘n’ router from my ‘g’ router if I want to stream TV & movies from Netflix and Hulu Plus?

- Tom

Answer

This question was answered on December 23, 2011. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

The alphabet soup of Wi-Fi routers (a, b, g, n) has always been a source of confusion, but if you understand some fundamentals of ‘bandwidth’ and ‘bottlenecks’, it becomes a little less confusing to make purchasing decisions.

Your web surfing is only as fast as the slowest part of the chain, so increasing the speed of a component that is already the fastest part of the chain will make no difference.

If we use the old ‘information super-highway’ analogy and think of this as traffic flow, the basics become a little clearer.

Your home network is like the roads in and around your neighborhood while your Internet connection is like the freeway system.

Netflix and Hulu Plus are like your place of work some distance off that you travel back and forth from on a regular basis.

As with most of our commutes, the ‘bottleneck’ when trying to go back and forth to work is the freeway, not the surface streets in our neighborhood.

The speed difference between an 802.11 G and N router is really only beneficial for those that want to transfer large amounts of data between two computers on the same network, or in our analogy only if you have lots of traffic congestion in your subdivision and you travel mostly in your own neighborhood.

Since your primary need is to get back and forth to work far from your neighborhood, expanding the number of lanes in your subdivision won’t appreciably improve your commute since the ‘bottleneck’ is the freeway system and not your neighborhood.

The real value of the 802.11 N MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) technology for most consumers is the extended range capabilities and higher resistance to outside signal interference not the ‘theoretical’ speed difference.

If you look at the data speeds of typical residential Internet connections vs the various Wi-fi router technologies, it becomes even more obvious.

Most residential Internet connection speeds range from 2-20 Mbps with most in the lower ranges (you can test your Internet speed with the tips in this previous post: http://goo.gl/2MtHl).

The theoretical upper limit of 802.11g is 54 Mbps and 802.11n can go as high as 600 Mbps with all 4 channels pumping data, but neither will change the fact that your Internet connection is likely significantly slower.

Another element of upgrading your router to 802.11n is that you must also upgrade the wireless devices on all your computers or they will continue to operate on the 802.11g standard.

Even if you are paying for (and actually getting) a really fast Internet connection, the content servers at Netflix and Hulu Plus aren’t necessarily going to provide you with the data streams any faster either.

An easy way to see if the router is slowing down your streaming activities is to temporarily bypass it and connect your computer directly to your cable modem or DSL router to see if you notice any difference in performance.

Having said all of that, routers do have a finite life span and to tend to degrade in performance over time, especially if they spend their entire life sitting on top of a heat-generating cable modem.

If you find yourself in need of buying a new router, spending a little more money to get a dual-band N router will prepare you r home network for future devices that will likely benefit from the technology and still work with your older wireless devices

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Author

Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on December 23, 2011