Review: Belkin's Faster, Cheaper MIMO Router

Belkin is first to market with a MIMO Wi-Fi router for small offices and homes that cracks the $100 price barrier. The best part: It works.

September 13, 2005

5 Min Read
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Most of us know that, when it comes to WLAN equipment, if we want more speed and range, we must pay more money. That's certainly been the case with Wi-Fi equipment based on Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) technology, which has been available in pre-standard form for quite a while.

That's changing, however, with the release of Belkin's new Wireless G+MIMO router. Unlike the company's previous Pre-N router (review here), a similar device from Linksys (review here) and one from Netgear using different MIMO technology, Belkin's new router costs less than a hundred bucks.

Belkin's latest MIMO router is based on a new, less expensive chipset from Airgo Networks. A router based on the same chipset was just released by Linksys and don't be surprised if more vendors follow suit.

In other words, MIMO, which eventually will be part of the next-generation Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n, is becoming mainstream even though it's not yet a standard.

The Same, But DifferentThis new arrival is a slightly down-contented version, with only two antennae instead of three in the Pre-N router. And Belkin has been careful to limit expectations about what to expect.

The box copy for the older Pre-N model claimed, "Excellent coverage…, 800 percent farther than 802.11g…, 600 percent faster than 802.11g." By contrast, the box of the G+ MIMO model only brags about, "Very good throughput…, up to 1,000 feet coverage…, 2x faster than 802.11g."

Based on my testing, though, Belkin might want to revise its G+ MIMO description a little more to the superlative side.

(MIMO, in case you're wondering, uses multiple antennae -and, depending on which of the three principle companies you talk to, either multiple radios for those antennae or just a single radio, which is Airgo's and Belkin's approach. For a more complete explanation of MIMO, click here.)

The G+ MIMO equipment I received from Belkin had driver and client software for its PC Card Wi-Fi interface that was still beta. The router software was shrink-wrapped. Installation of either is utterly brainless, as the software does everything but physically take you by the hand and click the mouse for you. Although I tested with security turned off, the security wizard will walk you through WEP or WPA setups and it provides both a general and a restricted access password capability for trusted users and guests.Tested on a Dell Inspiron 9600, both the Pre-N and G+ MIMO equipment greatly exceeded the coverage typically available from my Netgear WG602v2 802.11g wireless Access Point. I can't verify 1,000 feet because standing in the middle of the roadway nearly a fifth of a mile from my house would have probably earned me at least the attention of the local police. I can tell you that 200 feet wasn't a problem. At a distance of about 120 feet, the Pre-N router was also able to see my neighbor's secure Apple wireless network while the G+ MIMO router was not.

Despite Belkin's claim that the G+MIMO equipment isn't as fast as the Pre-N gear, my tests didn't show that to be the case at all. When configured with G+ MIMO, the Inspiron actually connected more quickly to a MPEG movie on my server's hard drive (by about 1.5 seconds) and I was able to physically transfer the 887MB mpeg2 file from the server 25.4 percent faster.

What's Faster Than Instantaneous?

The surprising result was that the Inspiron's integrated Intel PRO/Wireless 2915ABG Network Connection, when running with the Pre-N router, was also faster than the full Pre-N arrangement -- although marginally at 15 seconds for the file transfer. In contrast, it was 84 seconds slower with just the G+ MIMO router in place rather than when G+ MIMO was on both sides of the connection. The Inspiron's range increased when connected to either the Pre-N or G+ MIMO router through its integrated Intel wireless connection, although only about 40 percent farther than usual.

That last bit of information was important to me. I have a Wi-Fi dead spot in my house. It's not quite dead, but the 70-foot distance, divided by two intervening walls with the typical array of kitchen appliances on one side and two china cabinets on the other, made it impossible to initially establish a reliable connection between a desktop computer configured with a Netgear WG311V2 802.11g Wireless PCI Adapter and the upstairs Netgear access point.

So haphazard is the connection that the PCI card's stub antenna had to be immediately replaced by a desktop extension model for any communication to occur at all. Even so, the transmission rate typically jumped between 18Mbps and 36Mbps and, on a good day, mostly sat at 24Mbps.Installing the Pre-N router upstairs provided file transfer times that were some 30 percent faster than the Netgear-to-Netgear arrangement. Better still, installing the G+ MIMO router pushed that to 62 percent faster. To put that into a more real-world perspective, the Netgear-to-Netgear transfer of the 887MB MPEG2 file required a mind-numbing 22 minutes and 12 seconds while Netgear-to-Pre-N needed only 15 minutes, 29 seconds and Netgear-to-G+ MIMO saw the file sprint across the ether in just 8 minutes, 24 seconds.

Bottom Line

If you've been sitting on the fence about this pre-802.11n phase of Wi-Fi, knowing that there's really no guarantee of forward compatibility, you're right. There's no sense to spending gobs of money for an upgrade that likely won't be compatible with the 802.11n standard when it's ratified in a year or two.

But the solution to that problem has been changed with Belkin's G+MIMO equipment. At less than $100, on the street, the G+ MIMO router is a bargain given the faster access it provides. Not only that, but it is backward compatible with standard "G" gear -- as well as extending the coverage area and hiking up the transfer speeds when working with the older standard.

Unless you're looking for a faster than instantaneous connection, you don't need to buy a new wireless PC Card or the (soon to be available) PCI card and that will save you another $70 to $80. Tossing away the router once (when/if) the 802.11n standard finally does arrive should be painless and its initial cost will be well amortized in time saved. That all boils down to a win+ MIMO situation.0

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