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Why Your Wi-Fi Sucks And How It Can Be Helped, Part 1

Why Your Wi-Fi Sucks And How It Can Be Helped, Part 1
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Please Power Down

“All you bloggers need to turn off your base stations,” an increasingly annoyed Steve Jobs told the crowd at the June 2010 iPhone 4 demo. “If you want to see the demos, shut off your laptops, turn off all these MiFi base stations, and put them on the floor, please.”

In a crowd of 5000 people, roughly 500 Wi-Fi devices were active. It was the wireless apocalypse, and not even a fleet of Silicon Valley’s finest backstage engineers could do a thing about it.

If this example of 802.11 extremity sounds inapplicable to your everyday world, refer back to August 2009, when Tom’s Hardware took its first look at Ruckus Wireless's beamforming technology in Beamforming: The Best WiFi You’ve Never Seen. In that story, we introduced the concepts of beamforming and examined some competitive test results in a big office environment. As enlightening as this was at the time, there is clearly much more of the tale to be told.

This literally came home to me a few months ago after setting up a nettop for my children and using a dual-spectrum (2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz) Linksys 802.11n USB dongle to connect to my Cisco small business-class 802.11n access point. The wireless performance was horrific. We couldn’t even stream YouTube videos. I assumed the problem was the nettop’s feeble processing and graphics capabilities. One day, I tried substituting the 7811 wireless bridge kit from that previous piece. The difference was instantaneous, and video looked perfectly fluid. It was as if I had plugged in a wired Ethernet connection.

What was going on here? I wasn’t in an auditorium filled with 500 live bloggers crushing my connection. I was using supposedly best-of-breed small business Cisco/Linksys gear that I’d personally tested and knew had higher performance than most competing brands. It wasn’t enough to have switched to the Ruckus-based wireless bridge. That left too many unanswered questions. Why was one product performing better than the other? Why had editor Chris Angelini himself observed in our original article that not only did the up-close proximity between his client and the access point impact performance but so did the shape of the AP itself?

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