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 - Monday, July 22, 2013 - link

    Run proper software. Ping uses ICMP, where normal software uses TCP or UDP. Most games use UDP, and while a 7ms average seems great, it could be 2ms 95% of the time and 228ms 5% of the time, which would suck for action gaming.

    The problem with latency of this form most often comes from the wireless clients and drivers, not the router. 802.11ac likely doesn't change that, but since it has been nearly two years since my last look at latency, it's something we certainly need to revisit.
  • 0ldman79 - Tuesday, July 16, 2013 - link

    Btw, the Intel cards are not all they're cracked up to be either. A $27 Compex Atheros 9281 chipset card blows Intel's wifi away.

    I haven't checked recently, but Trendnet is another that was using Atheros chips. They're cheaper than Linksys, D-Link, Netgear and Belkin and work much better.
  • BreezeDM - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    yes do latency in full review please. I would also love to see something running DD-WRT.
  • Flunk - Wednesday, July 10, 2013 - link

    "Killer" products are made by Broadcom so you can extrapolate based on the performance of their chip in this article.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, July 10, 2013 - link

    This is what I'm hoping to avoid: don't extrapolate anything based on chipset manufacturer -- or even notebook manufacturer. Every company has had products with poo wireless performance, and most if not all have also had good products. Amped Wireless, for instance, uses a Realtek chipset but manages to get much better performance than you typically see from Realtek solutions (and of course it's a dual-band 2x2:2 solution).

    Killer is actually owned by Qualcomm now, so I would be surprised if they're using Broadcom devices, but regardless they do their own custom drivers and tuning, plus they're not using the cheap single-band 1x1:1 solutions. I reviewed their 1102 last year and it performed quite well, though not necessarily so much better as to negate any alternatives.
  • kogunniyi - Monday, July 8, 2013 - link

    Interesting look. Can you test the Broadcom 4352?
  • DonTHB - Monday, July 8, 2013 - link

    As part of future testing of 802.11ac it would be good to know how this version of WiFi works in an apartment building where each of your nine neighbors (three on one's own floor, three on the floor above and three on the floor below) have upgraded to this new standard.

    In a single family house it seems ideal, however.
  • DanNeely - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    You've got several times as many, and significantly wider, channels at 5ghz as at 2.4ghz; so there's much less conflict over spectrum. In the US: 5ghz offers 6x80mhz (or 12x40, or 25x20mhz) vs 3x20mhz at 2.4ghz. The FCC may add enough additional spectrum to add 3 more 80mhz channels to the wifi to the 5ghz band in the near future. (The 5ghz situtation is more fragmented globally than 2.4ghz; but most of the world has similar amounts of total spectrum available).

    In addition because 5ghz is shorter ranged you'll have less interference from networks in adjacent buildings.
  • DonTHB - Wednesday, July 10, 2013 - link

    The issue isn't with the next building the issue are the neighbors that are each one wall away. What if they are first with an ac router and set up channel bonding?

    WiFi is best for a single family house and 802.11ac only improves this situation. In an MDU it is best to have wires that give you a communication channel you don't have to share.
  • iwod - Monday, July 8, 2013 - link

    Any Reason why the only 2 antenna is working instead of 3?
    Any Reason we could believe we would have even better throughput then what we have tested today for 802.11ac, with better software, hardware etc? The speed is still no where near good enough.
    Why we only have 80Mhz implementation today when the spec allows up to 160Mhz?

    Lets hope decent company like Amped Wireless will give us a decent Router soon. Most if not all major consumer brand, including Linksys, Cisco, etc give us absolutely crap router.

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