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 9, 2013 - link

    How large is your house? It's a question of area, as well as quality of implementation. Some 5GHz devices will manage to go farther than others, but if your home is really large you'd need to go with repeaters or access points. Then again, if your home is that large, you probably aren't running into as many problems with neighborhood 2.4GHz networks interfering.
  • chripuck - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Agreed with mia, my house is 4300 square feet and I need two 2.4 GHz routers to cover the darn thing. Of course my biggest problem is that at the center of my house is a fireplace that has some sort of heat shielding inside it and it creates a blackhole for wifi signals.
  • jaydee - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Comparison of the following options for the Dell Latitude line?

    Dell Wireless™ 1504 802.11g/n Single Band Wi-Fi Half Mini Card
    Dell Wireless™ 1540 802.11a/n Dual Band, High Speed Wi-Fi Half Mini Card
    Intel® Centrino® Advanced-N 6205 802.11n 2x2 Half Mini Card
    Intel® Centrino® Ultimate-N 6300 802.11n 3x3 Half Mini Card
  • lmcd - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Clearly the last one is going to perform the best as the first one isn't even dual-band, the next two are dual-band and the last is tri-band. Not even accounting for the fact that Dell likely rebrands the first two options from Realtek, which was covered here. If the difference between the third and forth option is less than $30 I'd dive on that 6300 without blinking.
  • jaydee - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Its not so much a matter of "I wonder which is going to perform better?", its more of a matter of "how much performance are you buying with the better wifi card?" There's only a $28 diff between the 1st option and the 4th option, obviously on paper it's well worth it, but I'm hoping for a more tangible comparison.
  • MikeDiction - Thursday, July 11, 2013 - link

    I went with the Intel 6300 when I configured my Dad's laptop for him. I'm getting about 130 Mbps in 20 feet away from an ASUS NT-56U.
  • Zap - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    "over the past seven or so years of testing notebooks and laptops for AnandTech, dropped wireless connections are a far too common occurrence in my experience"

    Tell it like it is, brother!

    Seriously though, even cell phones still get dropped calls in this day and age.
  • lmcd - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Last time I dropped a call was in a completely dead forest corridor, where no signal was claimed. My signal made it farther than advertised, too.

    Now, my data connection on the other hand...
  • kwrzesien - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    Excellent review, thank you for the solid information as every bit helps. I'm looking to replace my Netgear WNDR3700 v0 which is now performing Wireless AP duty in the middle of an enormous house. The wired network (FVS318G ProSafe VPN Router and two GS105 switches) is rock solid, with eight drops of Gigabit wiring built in to the house during construction. But that stupid wireless box crashes or partially locks up every few weeks. Sometimes wireless will work for some existing connections but won't accept devices (iPhones, iPad) back onto the network when they have been away.

    I just read all the Newegg and Amazon reviews, especially anything less than perfect, on several of the new AC routers. All of them seem to be 10-20% defective, and the firmware seems to be 10-20% buggy on advanced features several of which I need. In fact it seems there hasn't ever been a reliable, rock solid, long lasting (5 yr) router in the last three years. Please, please correct me if I'm wrong! So I am seriously considering the Apple Airport Extreme or Time Capsule, it seems like a solid product, well engineered, and has great reviews. Give me that Apple halo!
  • kwrzesien - Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - link

    My wife says I have logic problems - maybe she it right.

    I concur with the other comments that 5 GHz doesn't seem to be all that - most of my devices prefer 2.4 GHz as the connection is more stable when moving around the house. Of course most of the old devices are 2.4 GHz only anyway, but even our Lenovo T410 laptops and iPhone 5's seem to work as well or better on 2.4.

    Oh, and please don't label the charts as 5G and 2.4G, that's just not right and will confuse people with 2.5G, 3G and 4G cellular standards. /rant

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