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First Look: Gigabit Wi-Fi adapters

Low-cost 802.11ac USB adapters deliver an early taste of super-fast Wi-Fi

By Eric Geier, Network World
December 16, 2013 06:54 AM ET

Network World - At some point, desktops and laptops will come with the new Gigabit Wi-Fi standard 802.11ac built in. But if you can't wait and want to speed up the wireless links on your existing devices, you can buy an 802.11ac adapter today.

We tested USB adapters from Netgear (two different models), Edimax, ZyXEL, and TRENDnet, plus a PCI Express card from ASUS. The USB adapters range in price from $40 to $70, while the ASUS card sells for $100 or more. (See a slideshow version of this story.)

In terms of performance, when tested at a distance of 25 feet from our access point, with one wall in between, our top performer was the ASUS card, with a maximum throughput of 280Mbps and an average of 169Mbps. That’s pretty fast, but not close to the Gigabit speeds promised by the 802.11ac standard. However, when we moved the laptop to within a foot of the access point, performance skyrocketed to 800Mbps. So, your mileage will vary, depending on several variables, distance being one. Also, the ASUS product is a three-stream card, while the USB adapters we tested supported only two streams (and in the case of the second Netgear adapter, only one stream.)

As for the USB adapters, in our 25-foot test, the two-stream Netgear averaged 147Mbps, followed by Zyxel at 118Mbps, Edimax at 114Mbps.  The single-stream Netgear adapter only averaged 68Mbps.

+ MORE ON NETWORK WORLD See previous tests of consumer-level 802.11ac routers and enterprise-level 802.11ac access points +

All the adapters provide dual-band connectivity, supporting 802.11b/g/n in the 2.4GHz frequency band and supporting 802.11a/n/ac in 5GHz BAND. 

The best wireless adapter for your situation depends upon many factors, including the type of computer or device you're trying to upgrade.

 If you're going to use a laptop or netbook and don't need the highest speeds, consider the mini Netgear A6100 adapter because of its compact form factor.

 If you want higher speeds, the Netgear A6200 performed the best in our tests of the USB adapters, but it could be bottlenecked in some environments since it only supports USB 2.0.

 If you want to use the adapter on a Mac computer, your options are Edimax or TRENDnet. And if you also want Linux support you'll have to go with Edimax.

 If you're using a desktop PC and want the higher speeds, consider the ASUS PCIe adapter if the $100+ price isn't an issue.

Here are the individual reviews:

Netgear A6100 Dual Band Wi-Fi USB Mini Adapter

The Netgear A6100 Wi-Fi USB Mini Adapter is available online with prices varying $50 to $60. It supports single-stream 802.11ac Draft 2.0, offering hypothetical data rates of 150Mbps via 2.4GHz and 433Mbps via 5GHz. It's supported for use with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8.

This is the smallest USB adapter we reviewed, measuring about 1 inch long, ¾ inch wide, and ½ inch high (excluding the USB connector); a great design for use with laptops and netbooks. Since the adapter only protrudes about an inch out from the side of the laptop you can likely keep it plugged in when storing in your laptop bag, unlike the other adapters that would protrude about 3 or 4 inches. Though it includes a Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button like all the other USB adapters, it's one of the two that doesn’t allow positioning of the antennas for better signal reception.

This adapter uses the Realtek RTL8811AU chipset. During the performance testing we used the driver from Realtek. Like the other Netgear adapter, this one supports 802.11ac beamforming along with Netgear's own implementation: Beamforming+.

Along with the adapter comes a printed installation guide and a resource CD containing a standalone driver, Netgear Genie software and driver combined, and a digital version of the installation guide.

The GUI program is called Netgear Genie (v1.0.0.26), which is also provided for the other Netgear adapter. It's the simplest of the GUI programs, which makes it user-friendly but lacks some advanced features. Signal levels are only shown in bars, whereas the others show percentage or even the negative dbm values. It displays details about available networks but some info like the channel, wireless mode, and MAC address are only shown when you click on a network's Details button.

With Netgear Genie you can't prioritize your wireless networks. Although it supports connecting to hidden SSIDs, there's no support for creating ad-hoc networks or for connecting to networks secured with 802.1X. However, it does offer one potentially convenient feature: the ability to compile and save diagnostic information for troubleshooting network issues.

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