Why Your Wi-Fi Sucks And How It Can Be Helped, Part 2

Wrapping Up

Deep analysis like what we’ve done here—well over 300 test runs across a wide array of variable factors—is essential if buyers want any kind of true understanding about client performance. When it comes to total environment bandwidth, those big average Mb/s numbers you see in most router and access point reviews are not painting anything close to a complete picture.

In this two-part series, we sought to take a deeper look at performance by spotlighting the two primary environmental factors that weigh on Wi-Fi performance—interference and client load—and many of the technologies access points can use to combat those factors. In part because wireless interference is so difficult to control, most reviewers have never sought to tackle it in a real-world context. And certainly, our results shouldn’t be taken as fixed gospel. Someone could roughly duplicate our test setup and, because of fluctuating conditions, see different test results, if only through product tweaking. As stated earlier, we did no tweaking here—we only tested and reported. Had we started tweaking, we’d still be in that office recording throughput scores.

By now, the results should lead to their own inevitable conclusions. Apple makes a fine consumer router, but the difference between enterprise-class equipment and consumer gear here is glaring. This should be a red flag to power users placing an increasing number of Wi-Fi devices in their homes, as well as any business looking to save dollars by grabbing off-the-shelf gear at the nearest big retailer. The levels of engineering and component quality between the two product classes are worlds apart.

At the same time, there are obviously qualitative differences between enterprise access points. If you want performance under fire from ambient interference, Cisco and especially Ruckus are the two clear choices from our group. The same statement applies to airtime fairness and making sure that all clients get an approximately equal amount of bandwidth at any given time. When it comes to distance, you have to take a closer look at the environmental conditions and the specific attributes of your wireless devices.

In optimal, close-range, with little to no interference and only one client vying for the access point’s attention, the Meraki MR24 suddenly morphs into our top performer, most likely thanks to its three-stream design meshing well with our 3x3:3 Intel client adapter. Start adding distance and obstructions, and the situation changes. It also matters whether you want to emphasize downstream or upstream bandwidth from your AP. Aruba and HP are neither stunningly bad nor particularly impressive, but again—mileage may vary according to how you fine-tune the device.

Good Wi-Fi is not about brute force and raw speed. It’s about understanding RF and doing something about it. The products that outperformed in our testing weren’t the biggest and most expensive, or even the ones that used the highest number of streams. Ruckus puts forth the best effort in the largest number of tests, but it does so with a mere 2x2:2 design through engineering and deep attention to the factors necessary to provide a high-quality wireless experience in increasingly hostile RF conditions. From our group, Cisco is the only other vendor that seems to have provided even close to the same level of attention and control.

A Ruckus representative once mentioned to us in passing that his company had been in advanced talks with at least one panel manufacturer that was interested in putting the company’s antenna technology on a circuit board mounted behind the notebook’s LCD panel, built right into the lid. Can you imagine how performance might differ with both the client and access point using the same adaptive technologies? Sadly, the talks went nowhere because the vendor refused to pay Ruckus' asking price for the technology. Even in the consumer world, we know that Netgear once brought Ruckus tech to market in one of its 802.11g products, but this soon died out for similar reasons. People don’t understand the qualitative difference between wireless approaches. Instead they see Mb/s and access times, and that ends the discussion.

It shouldn’t be this way. In the Wi-Fi arena, we’re facing a bandwidth dilemma not unlike the world’s impending oil shortage. As demand and usage continue to climb, our ability to effectively and efficiently use those resources will continue to diminish. Smart, adaptive antenna technology is not analogous to clean alternative energies, but it does provide a giant leap forward in how well we can utilize existing bandwidth resources.

Buy smart and, when possible, demand better from wireless manufacturers.

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    Top Comments
  • Hey, I still haven't read this article but right away I notice the new format. Just thanking you for listening to your readers! :)
    15
  • Other Comments
  • Hey, I still haven't read this article but right away I notice the new format. Just thanking you for listening to your readers! :)
    15
  • Very welcome Winner. We thought the picture story format would work for that last part and didn't realize the text would come out to be so terrible. From now on, we'll only use picture stories when the captions fit without requiring another click!
    9
  • cangeliniVery welcome Winner. We thought the picture story format would work for that last part and didn't realize the text would come out to be so terrible. From now on, we'll only use picture stories when the captions fit without requiring another click!

    "Now thats what i like to hear!"
    4
  • What if you add few thin-foil balls to room (the size of fist or 2)

    That should add few rf-reflections or paths, right?
    Just your 2cent amplifier.. :)
    2
  • Quote:
    However, when push came to shove,

    what does this clause mean???
    -8
  • When will Part 1 get a makeover like this?
    2
  • I wonder why you didn't include Juniper products (formerly trapeze)to this test. It's quit a big player here in europe. Trapeze also produced the 3com wireless manager and accesspoints which was sold widely here.
    2
  • In the page "Benchmark Results: Close Range, No Interference", the HP AP is missing on the downlink graph.
    3
  • This was an outstanding article. Going just by this, Ruckus and Cisco are the only two I'd consider out of the box, but it would be very interesting to do a follow on that features even a minimal amount of tweaking to see what changes. A consumer expects a product to work well out of the box, but an enterprise network engineer almost certainly does not.
    2
  • Very thorough. Lots of hard work went into this and it shows. But how did you select client devices? Did you try any other chipsets? We tried something like this with more diverse clients and got results that were too variable to reach conclusions. (Some clients just did better with some APs than others.)
    2
  • Why not include Aerohive?
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  • I would like to know about the exact model of the Airport Extreme tested: is it the previous generation model, or the recently refreshed model capable of 450Mbps?
    -1
  • jtt283This was an outstanding article. Going just by this, Ruckus and Cisco are the only two I'd consider out of the box, but it would be very interesting to do a follow on that features even a minimal amount of tweaking to see what changes. A consumer expects a product to work well out of the box, but an enterprise network engineer almost certainly does not.

    As much as i want to see a follow up on tweaked APs did you read the cost of the setup, $15,000! I don't expect a follow up any time soon haha. By the way Toms, great articles. I didn't mind the initial layout but I like this one better truth be told. Good info, good read. Looks like I'm getting me a Cisco for the office :)
    1
  • You have confirmed what 6 years of operating and managing a TROPOS wireless mesh network has shown. As a municipality that deployed the network initially for mobile workers and public safety we did sell access to the network for affordable internet to our citizens. When we looked for a wireless bridge device for the customer that would give good performance along with reliable connectivity the hands down winner was Ruckus. We have probably installed close a 1000 of their dual zone bridges and I can say that everything that your tests have shown is what we have seen in true world application. Your article did a great job of addressing all of the various RF issues of wireless network and I commend you on a job well done.

    Anthony Tull CGCIO
    IT Director
    City of Granbury, TX
    8
  • Will - this has got to be one of the best online articles I've read in the last 15 years. Kudos to you and your team!
    2
  • rebel1280 said:
    As much as i want to see a follow up on tweaked APs did you read the cost of the setup, $15,000!...

    Oh yes, of course. If they could take just a worst case result, e.g. for that sorry Meraki unit, and see if a few simple tweaks made it viable, hopefully that wouldn't take the time or expense, but would clearly show the benefit from tweaking (i.e. from being a competent network engineer).

    Edit: And, perhaps the cost could be picked up by Meraki, or Aruba, since it seems to clearly be in their best interests, IF it showed their units could hang with the big boys. Based on this article alone, I probably wouldn't touch their products with a ten foot dipole.
    1
  • Great read, interesting article. Have about 7 wifi devices in my house and currently getting pretty random performance. Think i now know why. If Ruckus ever releases a 3X3:3 for close range performance that would be very interesting!
    0
  • Isn't it Cisco Aironet, not Aeronet?
    2
  • spammitIsn't it Cisco Aironet, not Aeronet?


    Lord... Does it really matter?

    Anyway, it's so weird here at Toms now an add will pop up because you move you mouse over it and you have to click X to close it. But yet, the pull down at the end of each story (with the chapters in it) will go away of you move your mouse off of it. You have to be very careful with your mouse, when trying to select another chapter, or it will go away. It's been like that for years. Doesn't this annoy anyone else?
    0
  • By the title of these 2 articles, I was anticipating some information regarding how I can diagnose and fix issues with my WiFi. Whereas now I have a greater understanding of what issues can arise and what router to use in an office setting, I still do not know how to diagnose my own crappy WiFi performance or how to fix it. While I applaud your efforts, I imagine most readers do not have 60 laptops and 5 ipads in their home...
    -2