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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  • GuniGuGu - Monday, July 8, 2013 - link

    I wonder how do these intel adapters compare to the "killer" offerings?

    What about latency? I know that was killer's claim to fame. Has intel been able to make any headway here with the 7260 chipset?
  • JarredWalton - Monday, July 8, 2013 - link

    I'll be looking into that in the full review. AFAIK, Killer at present does not have an 802.11ac offering (though I'm sure one is in the works). Their current top solution is the 1103, which is 3x3:3 802.11n.
  • GuniGuGu - Monday, July 8, 2013 - link

    Cool, look forward to it. I'm just curious really if the 7260 on 802.11 ac makes any improvements on latency?
  • 0ldman79 - Friday, July 12, 2013 - link

    What latency issue?

    Wireless latency is typically +1ms of wired links until you saturate the link or have signal or interference issues. It has been this way since 802.11G, and 802.11B didn't add much latency over 10/100.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, July 15, 2013 - link

    Nope. Not even close. It will be typically a 5-10ms, but on many implementations you'll suddenly get some huge spikes of >100ms for a few seconds, then back down again. And that's at short, "ideal" ranges -- go to where you only get moderate signal quality (e.g. when 802.11n is connecting at 30-50Mbps instead of 150-300Mbps) and latency issues become even worse.
  • 0ldman79 - Tuesday, July 16, 2013 - link

    Oh, do educate me on how wireless works.

    I've only got a couple of hundred long range wireless links out there, as well as a 8-10 hotels I've built wireless for. If you are having latency issues on wireless then you have either poor signal, interference or poor quality hardware.

    I was going to give you a snapshot, then I thought about we can't attach pictures.

    My ping to google averages 17ms, 7 miles from my fiber optic line, 2 wireless hops. My edge router averages 15ms to ping google. My farthest link, around 50 miles from my fiber and 5 hops deep averages 27ms.

    Run proper hardware. Most of this stuff at Walmart pales in comparison to what the actual hardware can do. The consumer level routers are made with the cheapest chips they can get because that is what people will pay for.
  • Flunk - Tuesday, July 16, 2013 - link

    There is a big price premium you pay for commercial-grade equipment. Yes, it's much better but it's overkill for most people's home use. What most people want is a $50 Walmart-grade router and there is nothing wrong with that. You get what you pay for.
  • 0ldman79 - Saturday, July 20, 2013 - link

    There was a price premium, not so much any more. Ubiquiti has their Unifi and regular old wireless routers, between $50-110. The Ubiquiti stuff is comparable to Linksys to configure.

    Mikrotik has a few models out now, RB751 2HnD, RB951 2HnD, though admittedly the Mikrotik units are not quite as easy to program. They're working on it though, several presets are there for, more or less, plug and play.

    Not exactly what I would call difficult to program or expensive from someone who is complaining about wireless making them lag.
  • 0ldman79 - Saturday, July 20, 2013 - link

    Almost forgot, Trendnet has been around for a while now, they run quite a bit of Atheros stuff, their Realtek based hardware is pretty solid as well and most of it is cheaper than the Walmart-grade equipment.
  • 0ldman79 - Saturday, July 20, 2013 - link

    Almost forgot, Trendnet has been around for a while now, they run quite a bit of Atheros stuff, their Realtek based hardware is pretty solid as well and most of it is cheaper than the Walmart-grade equipment.

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