System Builder: Is 802.11ac worth adopting?

Over the past decade wireless communication has moved from a novel way of extending one’s home network into a crucial part of the modern gadget-focused world. Nowadays the PC is in the minority of devices on a network, and even if your PC connects via wires, odds are that most of the other devices connected do so via 802.11n.

As is the way with standards, 802.11n was developed before the smartphone revolution really took hold, and when tablets were just a type of Windows laptop that no one bought. It has delivered significant advances over previous wireless standards, most notably with the potential to use both the overcrowded 2.4GHz band and the much less interfered with 5GHz band.

Nowadays we want more from our home networks. That means usage models such as being able to stream high definition content to the smart TVs or network media players in the lounge room, or to play multiplayer games on everything from wirelessly connected consoles to laptops. We also increasingly connect our smartphones and tablets to our home networks to save on cellular data use.

It was these kinds of issues that informed the development of the latest wireless standard to appear. Dubbed 802.11ac, or Gigabit wireless, it not only brings faster wireless speeds, but is set to implement a bunch of features designed to help with the changing needs of home networks.

As is often the way with wireless standards, the final version of 802.11ac has not been signed off on, yet most router manufacturers have announced products with 802.11ac support. Netgear was the first cab off the rank, launching its router months ago, and since then we have seen companies like Buffalo, Asus, Cisco and Belkin all announce products.

For those who have been through a few generations of router upgrades, this should be worrying. 802.11n had an incredibly messy launch, largely due to the fact that most manufacturers released ‘Pre-N’ or ‘Draft-N’ products before the standard was ratified (ratification is the term used by the IEEE to denote that a standard is now official). These products ended up with a lack of interoperability, and many early adopters got burned buying hardware that didn’t work properly with ‘real’ 802.11n devices.

To get a picture of just why this isn’t the case this time around, and to get a bit more of an idea of when we’ll be seeing more than just 802.11ac routers on the market, we talked to Netgear and 802.11ac silicon manufacturer Broadcom.

Both Netgear’s VP of Product Management, Retail Product, David Henry and the Senior Director of Product marketing for Broadcom’s Mobile and Wireless group. Dinos Bekis, were quite keen to point out that there were a few key reasons why the launch of 802.11ac would be smoother than the launch of 802.11ac.

As Bekis puts it “the industry learned lessons with 802.11n”. The incompatibility mess of the various pre-ratification standards meant that uptake of the technology was slow, and hurt product sales even when the standard was finalised.

According to Henry the major improvement this time around is that the vast majority of products are using Broadcom’s silicon. This is in stark contrast to the 802.11n situation, which was exacerbated by the fact that there were several silicon manufacturers all pushing competing (and incompatible) products.

When ratification of the standard finally happens (we have been told to expect this in the Jan/Feb 2013 timeframe) both Netgear and Broadcom are confident that any last minute changes will at worst require a firmware upgrade. There are some technologies that will also emerge at later dates (much like the relatively late appearance of simultaneous dual band 802.11n hardware), but the base functionality of 802.11ac is good to go in the hardware already on the market.

Why now?
Despite the fact that there are numerous routers now on the market, there aren’t any 802.11ac client devices for sale in Australia. Both Netgear and Broadcom pointed out that Asus announced the first 802.11ac capable gaming laptop at Computex, but it has yet to actually ship.

When asked about this situation, Bekis pointed out that Broadcom has now shipped client processors for PC/laptops and USB adapters, as well as chips for smartphones and tablets. He expects to see a large number of 802.11ac compatible devices announced at CES in early January 2013, which appears to be the point at which the technology will receive its first widespread push.

USB adapters should be appearing on the market real soon, followed by 802.11ac enabled PCs and laptops. Broadcom currently expects that smartphones with support for the standard will enter production during the first quarter of 2013. Given this timeframe, we’d expect that the CES announcements will focus more on home entertainment and computers, while Mobile World Congress in late February will be the place that we’ll see smartphones announced.

There are some overarching advantages given by 802.11ac, that will affect all of these devices. The first is that the technology runs purely over the 5GHz wireless band. Most 802.11n devices still only support the notoriously interference-laden 2.4GHz band (despite support in the standard for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless), and the simple act of moving to 5GHz offers a raft of advantages.

The first is range. The actual distance a 5GHz signal can travel is less than a 2.4GHz one, but the amount of data that can be transferred is much larger. This means you will naturally get better performance near the edge of a 5GHz signal than you would at the equivalent distance from a 2.4GHz one. 5GHz also tends not to travel through walls very well, which sounds like a problem, but actually means diminished interference from nearby wireless networks.

To get around potential problems with wall penetration, 802.11ac will include standards based support for a technology called Beamforming. While not new, this will be the first time it gets implemented in a consistent manner. Beamforming basically involves a router being smart with its signal, identifying where devices are physically located and focusing the signal in that direction. This is one feature that will likely be added once ratification occurs, but the groundwork has been lain for it in current products.

The other major advantage that Henry stresses is that in Netgear’s case its R6300 802.11ac router is being treated as its premium product. This means that not only is 802.11ac performance great, but the router itself uses the highest end components that Netgear can source. This makes for a really solid all-round product, and Netgear’s local Senior Director of Consumer Channels, Brad Little, told us that the R6300 is exceeding expectations when it comes to sales, even beating out the top end N900 802.11n router locally. Given the increasing importance of good wireless in the home, this is indicative that people aren’t necessarily shopping on price and instead focusing on getting the best performance they can.

Product based advantages
The actual advantages of 802.11ac will be subtly different depending on which kind of device you are using. For the connection of traditional computing devices, such as PCs and laptops, the major advantage is the delivery of gigabit speeds in a wireless format.

Home entertainment devices are going to benefit significantly from the increased speeds of 802.11ac. Ensuring that the technology is capable of streaming HD content has been core to the development of the standard. You may have also heard about another wireless standard, 802.11ad, which is designed along similar lines. According to Netgear the ad standard, which should be ratified late 2013, is more of a complimentary product designed to deliver extremely high bandwidth at short ranges, replacing technologies like HDMI.

One of the more interesting notions is just how smartphones and tablets will benefit from the technology. This is an area that Broadcom is particularly excited about, with Bekis pointing out to us that the massive increase in bandwidth is likely to make for better smartphone battery life. While this may seem counterintuitive, it actually makes a lot of sense. Despite the fact that the 802.11ac chip uses roughly the same amount of power as an 802.11n one when running full speed, the 802.11ac chip ends up using less power to transfer the same amount of data. Because data transfers at a much higher speed, the radio in the phone only has to power on for a fraction of the time that it does with 802.11n. This is a very similar philosophy to the design of things like Intel’s Core processors, which are designed to sleep as much as possible, only waking to get tasks done as quickly as they can before dropping back to a low power state.

Buy or don’t buy?
Despite the fact that 802.11ac clients are still to appear, there is definitely less risk involved with early adoption than there was with 802.11n. If you are in the market for a high end router the 802.11ac-based models are definitely worth considering, especially if you plan to use the new router for many years to come.

However if you aren’t currently in the market for a router, then there is little reason to leap onto 802.11ac. By the time you do need to upgrade your existing hardware there will likely be a wider range of products to choose from, rather than the handful of premium offerings currently on
the market.

All in all, 802.11ac is the most mature immature wireless standard to date, thanks to everything from a development process informed by the failures of the past through to the myriad tweaks and feature enhancements designed to complement the ‘Post PC’ world in which home networks host a multitude of different devices.

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