Upgrade Your Home Network to Wireless N or Better

The newest protocols generally yield better performance

When you finally get your home network set up and running reasonably well, probably the last thing you want to do is change it. If your network lacks Wireless N capability, though, you could be missing out on faster speeds and better reliability.

The term Wireless N refers to Wi-Fi wireless network equipment that runs the 802.11n radio communication protocol.

The Benefits of Wireless N

Wireless N allows you to transfer data between devices faster. For example, older 802.11g equipment could communicate inside the network at a standard rate of 54 Mbps. Wireless N products support a standard of 150 Mbps, roughly three times faster, with options for even higher rates also available.

Wireless N technology also improves the design of radios and antennas built into the network hardware. The signal range of Wireless N routers often exceeds that of older forms of Wi-Fi, helping to better reach and maintain more reliable connections with devices further away or outdoors. Additionally, 802.11n can operate on signal frequencies outside the band commonly used by other non-networked consumer gadgets, reducing the likelihood of radio interference inside the home.

Although Wireless N generally improves the speed of the movie, music and other file sharing inside the house, it does not increase the speed of the connection between your house and the rest of the internet. However, local network devices like Network Attached Storage drives operate at the maximum speed of the Wi-Fi network, so Wireless N works great if your home network relies on more than just the internet.

Wireless N Support in Consumer Devices

Wireless N gear began appearing on the scene as early in 2006, so there's a very good chance the devices you use now support it. For example, Apple added 802.11n to its phones and tablets starting with iPhone 4. If the computer, phone or other wireless devices you're using lacks hardware support for 802.11n, you cannot gain the benefits of Wireless N on that particular device. Check the product documentation to determine what form of WI-Fi your devices support.

Devices can support Wireless N in two different ways. Dual-band Devices can use 802.11n to communicate on two different radio frequency bands – 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, while single band devices can communicate only on 2.4 GHz. For example, the iPhone 4 supports only single band Wireless N, while the iPhone 5 supports dual-band.

Choosing a Wireless N Router

TRENDnet 300Mbps Wireless-N Router

If your home network router doesn't support 802.11n, your Wireless N devices can only get the benefits of 802.11n when they are connected directly to each other in ad hoc wireless mode. (Otherwise, they fall back to older 802.11b/g Wi-Fi communication.) However, most models of home routers sold today include Wireless N.

All Wireless N routers support dual-band 802.11n. Products fall into four primary categories according to the maximum data rates (network bandwidth) they support:

  • 150 Mbps
  • 300 Mbps
  • 450 Mbps
  • 600 Mbps

Entry-level Wireless N routers support 150 Mbps bandwidth with one Wi-Fi radio and one antenna attached to the unit. Routers that support the higher data rates successively add more radios and antennas to the unit to manage more channels of data in parallel. 300 Mbps Wireless N routers contain two radios and two antennas, while 450 and 600 Mbps contain three and four of each, respectively.

While it seems logical that choosing a higher-rated router will increase the performance of your network, this gain does not necessarily realize in practice. For a home network connection to actually run at the highest speeds the router supports, each device must also have matching radio and antenna configurations. Most consumer devices today support making only 150 Mbps or sometimes 300 Mbps connections. If the price difference is significant, choosing a lower-end Wireless N router in one of these two categories makes sense. On the other hand, choosing a higher-end router may allow your home network to better support new gear in the future.

Setting up a Home Network with Wireless N

An illustration showing the difference in speed between 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz wireless signals.
Alison Czinkota / Lifewire

The process of setting up a Wireless N router is nearly the same as for other types of home routers with the notable exception of dual-band wireless configuration. Because 2.4 GHz is the wireless band heavily used by consumer gadgets, use the 5 GHz band for any devices that support it.

To set up 5 GHz connections on your home network, first ensure the router option for dual-band operation is enabled, usually through a button or checkbox on one of the router's administration screens. Then enable the device for 5 GHz channel operation similarly.

Is There Anything Better Than 802.11n?

The next generation of Wi-Fi devices after 802.11n support a new communication protocol named 802.11ac. Just as Wireless N provided a significant improvement in speed and range compared to 802.11g, so 802.11ac provides similar improvements above Wireless N. 802.11ac offers theoretical data rates starting at 433 Mbps, but many current or future products support gigabit (1000 Mbps) and higher rates.

Was this page helpful?