802.11g vs 802.11n and the iPad: What Does it Really Mean?

wireless_iconMany of us have wireless devices that we connect to wi-fi networks.  Those wi-fi networks then connect to the internet via a broadband connection of some kind.  But many people fail to realize that the speed of their wi-fi is often much slower than the speed of their internet connection.  The truth is, if you’re just tooling around the web, surfing Facebook, or updating Twitter, that speed won’t matter.  But if you’re playing games or download files, you might be missing out!

For maximum performance and reliability, a wired connection is king.  Wireless is susceptible to interference from cordless phones, microwave ovens, baby monitors, even that FBI field van sitting down the street.  It’s almost impossible to tell what might be wreaking havoc with your wireless signal at any given point.  So, if you have the option, go for a wired connection if you have the opertunity.  Especially if you’re running a server of some sort in the house.  Particularly media servers, and devices serving up high bandwidth audio or video files.  Wi-fi networks are only half duplex, meaning data is either sent or received at any given time.   Wired networks are full duplex meaning that the network line sends data while at the same time receiving it.  When it comes to network throughput there is no question, full duplex is your ultimate goal.

It’s true that half duplex limitations are supposed to be mitigated with 802.11N’s MIMO (multi-in, multi-out) feature but the truth is that even MIMO doesn’t compare to a wired networks full duplex abilities.  I’ve run tests in head to head comparisons.  Its not even close.

The superiority of a wired connection aside, what I really want folks to think about is the version of wi-fi they are running.  802.11N (up to 300Mb) is currently considered the standard for wi-fi networks.  But not too long ago that standard was 802.11g (54Mb) and there are still many networks out there still running on the G based standard.  If you are still running an 802.11g network, there is a good chance that your wi-fi isn’t able to provide your broadband networks full bandwidth to your wireless devices.

To test the theory I used a 3rd generation iPad.  It’s not even that latest wi-fi chipset but it is 802.11N compatible.  The iPad isn’t even know for having the fastest wi-fi throughput so, if anything, this should be a hampered test.  In all likelihood the iPad 3 won’t be able to achieve the same wi-fi speeds as the latest MacBook Pro, for example.  All of this makes the iPad 3 an ideal test case.  Just take a look at the results.

I have 2 different wi-fi networks in my home.  Both are based off of Apple Airport products.  Both networks offer excellent signal strength in my test area and are set to channels that offer no overlap with neighboring networks.  One network is configured for 802.11g while the other is set to run strictly 802.11N.  That “strictly” qualifier is important since 802.11N has a backward compatibility mode that will allow it to work with 802.11g and 802.11b based devices.  But if the 802.11N network is configured to work with only 802.11N devices the network will not fall back into a slower “compatibility mode.”  This is essential for the purposes of this test.

802.11g Test:
Server: Chicago, IL
Download: 8.79 Mbps
Upload: 3.68 Mbps

802.11N Test:
Server: Chicago, IL
Download: 20.78 Mbps
Upload: 5.78 Mbps

Comcast is my cable provider.  Neither test fully saturated my cable modem’s pipe (up or down).  If I run the same test to the same destination on my MacBook via a wired connection, I actually get higher test speeds.  But the point is made.  A dedicated 802.11N network offers a distinct advantage over an even slightly older G based network.  So, if you’re not happy with the speed of your home wi-fi network and you know your broadband isn’t the limitation, consider upgrading to 802.11N.

Update 2/5/13 10:08am:
It’s true that one would expect better speed and performance from 802.11n.  It’s a newer, more efficient version of 802.11g so it should be better.  But what I want to illustrate here is that many older wi-fi networks can’t even get the full power of a home broadband connection to a wireless device.  With that in mind, it becomes a lot easier to justify an upgrade to newer wireless network hardware if you want to better utilize your broadband connection.

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