Networking through traditional Ethernet cables is reliable and effective, but long runs of networking cable aren't a practical way for most consumers to access the Internet or share printers. By the late 1990s wireless networking using a Wi-Fi standard began to make networked computing easy and accessible for everyone. Routers using several versions of the 802.11 wireless standard are available, with differing speeds and ranges. Understanding the differences can be important when you're in the market for a new router.
There are four versions of the 802.11 wireless standard in the marketplace in 2012. The 802.11a and 802.11b specifications date from 1999, 802.11g from 2003, and 802.11n from 2009. For ease of reference -- and retail advertising -- they're usually referred to simply as wireless n, wireless g, wireless b and wireless a. Wireless g routers can be used with older wireless b hardware. Neither wireless g nor wireless b equipment are compatible with wireless a. Wireless n routers can be used with equipment designed for all four standards.
Several sections of radio bandwidth are set aside for consumer use. These are usually referred to either by the physical size of their radio waves -- such as ham radio's 2-meter band -- or by their frequency. Wi-Fi routers use the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Wireless b and g use the 2.4 GHz band, and can communicate with each other. Wireless a uses the 5 GHz band, while wireless n uses both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Dual-band wireless n routers can communicate simultaneously on both, reserving the higher-quality 5 GHz channels for gaming, streaming video and other demanding uses.
The 802.11 a and b specifications were released in the same year. Wireless a offered transfer rates of up to 54 megabits per second and less interference, but its maximum indoor range was limited to 95 feet. Wireless b transferred data at only 11Mbps, and faced interference from baby monitors, cordless phones and other devices. Nevertheless, its 150-foot range made it more suitable for whole-home networking. Wireless g brought transfer speeds up to 54Mbps in the 2.4 GHz band, extending maximum range to 170 feet. Wireless n offers throughput of up to 300Mbps, and indoor ranges up to 230 feet.
New routers and wireless networking cards almost all use wireless n, though wireless g equipment is plentiful on the used market. An 802.11n compatible router is a safe choice for most purposes, providing compatibility with your older hardware as well as high performance for current equipment. Newer technologies are beginning to arrive on the market, such as the upgraded 802.11ac standard and triband routers, which utilize higher frequencies and multiple antennas for extended range and bandwidth. These standards haven't achieved broad acceptance and usage as of 2012, but are likely to make inroads into the wireless market in the near future.
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