Satisfy your need for higher WiFi speed
Single standard still has to be hammered out, but it's fairly safe to upgrade your devices now.
By Peter H Lewis, FORTUNE senior editor

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - WiFi is one area where you probably don't have to wait for faster and better technology.

Although formal certification of the standard is still months away, it's increasingly safe to upgrade to wireless routers and adapters based on the draft IEEE 802.11n specifications, some experts say.

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You may already see wireless network devices on the shelves marked "pre-n," and for most people the risk of buying now is minimal.

Two dozen of the top network equipment makers have agreed to align behind the 11n specs, and even if changes occur between now and formal ratification, it's likely that the hardware you buy today can be upgraded easily with a software download. (Businesses that depend on wireless networking have more at stake, and ought to proceed more cautiously.)

Higher speeds ahead

Why 11n? It's expected to be much faster than the current standards, with longer range and better reliability. If you're happy with the speed and range you get on your current WiFi connection... okay, stop laughing. Everyone wants more speed and range, especially if someday you want to move HDTV video files from room to room without stringing wires across the floor.

The first WiFi devices were based on a 10-megabit-per-second 802.11b standard. Then came 11g, with a theoretical top data transfer speed of 54 megabits per second. (In practice, consumers rarely saw such speeds, and 20 mbps to 25 mbps is about average.) Another variant, 802.11a, intended for moving video over short distances, also took hold.

The 802.11n proposed standard calls for speeds in excess of 100 mbps (theoretically as much as 600 mbps, but don't count your bits before they're hashed). A technology called MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) is part of the 11n proposal, and it expands the range of 11n devices beyond the 150-foot radius that 11a/b/g offer today.

MIMO has been described as sipping a soda with two or more straws, instead of the single straw system used today. There are several different flavors of MIMO implementation, however, and a single standard has to be hammered out. Right now, however, MIMO-based 11n holds the promise of blasting bits to the corner of your house or yard where current WiFi does not reach.

The bottom line

In any event, it's time to retire 802.11b, the 10 mbps system that started the wireless data trend. If you must buy today, go with 11g if you're cautious, and pre-11n if you're more daring. My guess is that the added speed and range offered by pre-11n systems today will offset any aggravation caused by tweaks to the specifications in coming months. Top of page

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