Belkin N1 Modem/Router and N1 wireless USB adapter
The promise of fast wireless data access around the home is now a reality with the new (draft) N standard for wireless networks. I’ve been spending the last month using the Belkin N1 Wireless Modem/Router that supports both the draft N specification for wireless data transmission and the upcoming ADSL 2 broadband services.
802.11n draft with MIMO technology (Multiple Input Multiple Output)
Transfer rates up to 300Mbps
Support for up to 32 computers using wireless
4 x 100Mbps Base-T Ethernet jacks
1 x ADSL phone line jack supporting ADSL 2/2+ standards
3 x aerials
The glossy black exterior looks gorgeous when you first get it out of the box and place it next to the rest of your shiny gadgets. At the moment it sits nicely next to my XBOX 360 and Nintendo Wii and happily blends in with my black LG LCD set next to it. The issue with anything that is black and glossy is that it’s a chore to keep clean from dust and this appears to be the case with the Belkin N1 because after a couple of weeks it was time to get the duster out since a nice layer of dust had formed on top.
The size of the Belkin N1 is larger than some I’ve used in the past and you can’t stand it on its side like the alternatives you can get from DLink or Netgear which can be placed on their side. Netgear also integrate the multiple antennas inside the router, which makes the design neater.
This leaves the Belkin N1 on the rather large size and awkward to place if you haven’t got the room for its big foot print.
Blue LED lights on the front panel are a welcome design change to the usual flashing green lights you often find on routers. So how are these any different? For starters they don’t flash, making it ideal for those who are going to place the router where they can see it. The blue contrasts very well with the black and also offers the status of the router; when the lights are solid blue everything is working fine, if it’s flashing orange then it means there is a problem.
There are six icons with images and text to describe what each part of the connection is working. This helps to identify and troubleshoot your connection when you’re having problems.
N1 Wireless USB adapter
In order to take full advantage of the 802.11n transmission rates and range, you need access to the compatible 802.11n network adapter. These come in the form of a USB adapter, desktop card or PCMCIA notebook card.
My tests include using a non 802.11n network card that is built in to the Nokia N800 (using 802.11b/g) and my MacBook Pro as well as the Belkin N1 wireless USB adapter on a Windows XP machine.
The Belkin N1 is one funky looking wireless adapter. It comes complete with a docking stand that is essentially a USB extension cable that sits in a kind of bent L shape on the dock. Whether this is designed to improve wireless performance is doubtful but it certainly adds to the aesthetic appeal for it sitting on your desk.
The N1 wireless USB adapter as you can see from the images in this review is not your typical shape or size. It’s got a rectangular shape with rounded edges at the end. The flat and wide design is meant to help improve its susceptibility to intercept the wireless signals providing a larger surface area for receiving the radio waves.
A blue flashing LED is an indicator of network activity and this is one of the design flaws that wasn’t consistent with the matching modem/router. On the modem/router there are no flashing lights apart from when there is a problem detected and in that scenario it flashes orange, but when operating normally the LED lights are solid blue. The blue LED on the USB adapter however flashes whenever there is network activity. Can you see where I’m going with this?
If you’ve got this thing on your desk and you’ve got network activity going on from browsing the net or downloading a file, then you’re going to be seeing a flashing blue LED catching your eye every single time and it soon becomes annoying enough that you want to hide it out of sight.
The 802.11n standard has been developed to deliver on three promises and they are greater performance, increased range and more dependable. It does using a number of ways and one of these is already present in non 802.11n routers called MIMO. This acronym stands for multiple input multiple output, which combines 2 or more antennas to transmit and receive data.
The frequency that 802.11n operates at is different to what 802.11b/g use however the 802.11n spec is works with these legacy standards for backwards compatibility. When operating using N technology it is estimated that 200+ Mbps can be achieved and since N works at the 40MHz frequency it is also expected to receive less interference from other wireless signals that typically share the air waves with B and G technologies.
Real world tests
With the Nokia N800 tablet, which supports 802.11 b/g I was able to continue using the wireless connection much further than was typically achieved with my previous router (Netgear DG834PN). I don’t have exact distance measurements but I estimate the distance to be around the 30 metre figure from where the modem/router was located. This essentially covers the entire house without any dead spots as well as outside by a fair distance.
At the far end of 30 metres, connection reliability dropped and along with it the speed by a considerable margin. It remained connected however and I was still able to access web-sites albeit slowly. Moving back closer by 5 metres to 25 metre distance allowed it to regain its connection speed and throughput. With any way you look at this it is very impressive since my previous router only covered the vicinity of the home but not beyond.
Using my MacBook Pro (MBP) around the house (with 802.11g) I was able to get relatively quick speeds and most of the time the connection didn’t have any problems. Using the MBP for mainly internet access didn’t tax the connection throughput or the distance but it did test reliability since my research indicated that there are known issues with 802.11n chipsets in support for legacy wireless standards such as 802.11 b/g.
Whilst at first I just thought the disconnects was a glitch that you occasionally get in any wireless network I soon discovered that this wasn’t the case. There are known and reported issues with the current draft N specification where the router has to manage the 20MHz frequency for legacy wireless connections as well as managing its own 802.11n frequency at 40MHz.
I experienced disconnects from the N router about once or twice a day, no biggy but its annoying when it happens in the middle of something important. There’s also the fact that performance is sometimes not very good. The promise of uber-quick wireless connections that operate at near-wire speed just isn’t there when you have an environment that operates on both the G and N standard. The truth behind it all is that if you are using an 802.11g device on an 802.11n network it brings the rest of the devices down to the slower speed. So unless you plan on making the transition to an all N network then I would definitely wait until the N standard is completely panned out and finalised with bugs removed before making the switch because you will end up with more problems than it solves.
As for performance with the N1 USB adapter (and without any other G devices connected) I was able to achieve an established connection speed of 270Mbps with the adapter operating in the next room, crossing a brick wall. This was definitely promising and with a bit of networking knowledge I was able connect my MBP to the N1 router via Ethernet cable and then create a connection to the PC in the next room with the N1 USB adapter for a file transfer test.
The quoted speeds on most wireless products on the market today are merely based on the technical and theoretical speeds that are tested in the lab or refer to the speed that the standard is set at. With so many variables in mind that affect wireless performance it is never realistic to expect the full speed that it indicates on the box. Transferring a 1GB MP4 file took 6 minutes 40 seconds. That’s pretty quick in comparison to when you switch the set up to work in G mode it took 11 minutes 29 seconds to transfer the same file in the same condition. With these kind of throughput data transfer rates you can certainly stream HD video over your wireless network without any buffering issues.
Taking the N1 USB adapter on a walk about, I was able to get about 40 metres away from my house and is in its own right an impressive feat. Although the box does state that the range is up to 425 metres there are 3 stars next to it referring to the fact that this distance is based on the router situated outdoors.
The last test I performed on this set up was throwing in a G device that was streaming audio from an internet radio station whilst transferring the 1GB file between two N devices. This slowed performance right down to just over 13 minutes. Whilst this file was transferring I did experience buffering issues with the internet radio stream, which wasn’t normally the case when it has sole access to the router.
The Belkin N1 wireless modem router and N1 USB wireless adapter is a good proof of concept since the N standard hasn’t been finalised. This set up is the closest we can get to the promise of an N network since the true N spec won’t be finalised until the middle of 2008, which is a long ways from right now. Who knows what changes will be made and what other wireless networking technologies will crop up between now and then.
Design wise, the N1 modem router is a tad on the bulky side but is finished in a gorgeous glossy black, and despite its flaws it more than makes up for it with the blue LED-lit indicator icons on the front panel that most importantly don’t flash with network activity. The N1 USB wireless adapter is finished with the same elegance but unfortunately they decided to make the blue LED flash to network activity instead of making it a solid power light. However the larger sized adapter was able to get a good signal coverage in part helped by the large surface area of the adapter itself.
The draft N standard as I’ve emphasised in this review is not finalised and whilst this means that there will most likely be changes in the future we are as close to the finalising of the standard than ever before but it is important to note that there is no guarantee that the spec doesn’t change so drastically that the hardware is different and thus a software upgrade that the manufacturer may release in future may not guarantee complete compatibility with the finalised spec.
There is always that risk when you’re investing in pre-finalised products but we’ve been here before when 802.11b and g were being developed and finalised. Back in those days (it seems so long ago) products were being shipped based on draft standards and any changes that were made were released via software upgrades. So with that in mind it does show promise and at such a late stage in the development process it is highly unlikely that any drastic changes will be made.
Transfer speeds and overall performance, range and reliability proved to be excellent and an easy choice to make if you need any of these aspects that N promises. However if you’re going to run your home or office wireless network based on this technology, be prepared for issues to crop up if you’re not using a complete N infrastructure, and even then you need to try and keep the brands of network cards the same due to different interpretations of the draft N standards by manufacturers.
With no other alternatives for faster or further reach wireless networking right now, the N router from Belkin definitely shows promise and has developed a product that holds true to what it says on the box!