This review appears in the August issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents.
If you're buying your first wireless router, chances are you'll just want it to work. If this is your second or third, it's likely you'll be looking for one that isn't so slow as to warrant a coffee break with every file transfer or one that doesn't cut out as soon as you close the living room door.
If, on the other hand, you're a devil-may-care Wi-Fi maverick, you'll demand all the performance current standards have to offer and more. Enter the AirStation Nfiniti draft-N router from Buffalo.
The 802.11n wireless standard has been coming for some time. But while the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 802.11 Working Group may take plenty of time dotting every I and crossing every T before officially giving the green light, we want performance right now.
A herd of pre-N
Pre-N routers offer speed and range far in excess of 802.11g's puny 54Mbps (megabits per second) connections. Even enhanced (and unofficial) 108Mbps and 125Mbps modes have been surpassed by implementing many of the technologies due to appear in the forthcoming 802.11n standard. However, with performance-enhancing technologies such as pre-N, you never know quite what you're getting. When the 802.11n wireless standard is finalised it could well be that pre-N products will be incompatible.
A safer choice is to buy a draft-N wireless router – a product that conforms to a fully documented draft proposal of the 802.11n wireless standard. Such technology is the closest thing to the final standard that's currently available. And while there's still no guarantee that a draft-N router will work flawlessly with proper 802.11n equipment, the chances of success are greater.
The Buffalo Nfiniti is the first draft-N router we've reviewed and it looks very promising. As it stands, draft-N is capable of connection speeds of up to 270Mbps, with real-world data transfers of around 90Mbps. This is comparable with a good wired 100Mb connection. In a home environment, where weak signals from other wireless LANs were in range, we achieved a maximum data throughput of 61Mbps from a distance of 10ft.
Although draft-N hardware is required at each end to achieve such high speeds, the use of Mimo (multiple input, multiple output) connections ensures better transmission of the signal around obstacles. This helps even when connecting with normal 54Mbps 802.11g adapters. Performance from a room two walls away was significantly better than that of a typical 802.11g router when using 802.11g client hardware.
At the time of writing, only PC Card adapters were available from Buffalo, although soon PCI cards and, eventually, USB adapters should become available. Buffalo makes no claims regarding interoperability with draft-N products from other manufacturers, although if they all follow the same N specification there's no technical reason why they shouldn't work together.
Initial setup of the device is via a simple browser-based interface. Advanced options and those inappropriate to your connection type are kept hidden from view. Although the language used can get technical quite quickly, most of the basic setup is automatic, and the user guide takes you through trickier tasks such as firewall configuration.
Buffalo's Aoss (AirStation One-touch Security System) button allows quick configuration of wireless clients. Pressing a corresponding button on the client's software utility configures security settings automatically, without the need to enter or remember any encryption keys. WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol) and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) are supported.
No grazing on your neighbour's network…
One reason draft-N was not accepted as the final recommendation is the fact that it has the potential to disrupt the operation of 802.11g networks that happen to be in range. In theory, connecting through 802.11n hardware could bring down complete 802.11g networks, causing no end of trouble for your neighbours.
This may not necessarily be a concern to you. However, if you don't want to upset those nearby, you'll be glad to hear that the AirStation Nfiniti can combat this with the Friendly Neighbour technology built into Broadcom's wireless chipset. When 802.11g networks are detected, the Nfiniti reduces its use of available channels and bandwidth to give them a fair chance.
This means your draft-N router won't be able to work at full speed, but it will still be significantly faster and have greater range than any 802.11g router installed in the same position. You may not like the idea of compromising the performance of your wonderful router, but it's a good option to have.