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Will 802.11x wireless products be compatible with 802.11n?

In 2009, we will see a new wireless standard emerge addressing 802.11x product compatibility issues. Wireless networking expert Lisa Phifer explains how current wireless devices may become outdated, in this expert response.

I need to replace a dead wireless adapter card in my laptop. Adapter card reviews suggest that I wait until the new "n" standard is ratified. But when will that happen and what will it mean for card updaters and buyers?
Early "pre-N" wireless users experienced interoperability problems and sub-optimal performance when connecting to other-vendor devices. However, the current generation of 802.11n Draft 2.0 products laid most of these problems to rest.

What to expect from 802.lln
Check out this searchNetworking podcast, Upgrading to "full 802.11n", to hear Lisa discuss what businesses can expect to see in the final 802.11n standard and how those "full 802.11n" differences will and won't impact Draft 2.0 enterprise WLAN deployments.
"Draft 2.0" is a 2008 snapshot of the emerging 802.11n standard that the Wi-Fi Alliance chose as the basis for product testing and certification. Any product that passes this certification has demonstrated its ability to play nicely with other 802.11n Draft 2.0 devices and supports all of the standard capabilities that were stable and widely-implementable at the time the snapshot was taken.

In fact, this Draft 2.0 certification program was created to address concerns just like yours. Consumers can purchase Draft 2.0-certified Wi-Fi products (routers, cards, printers, media centers, etc.) with greater confidence. (You can view this list of certified Wi-Fi products.)

Most analysts (including me) believe that Draft 2.0 is sufficiently mature to pose little risk of incompatibility with products based on the final 802.11n standard (to be ratified sometime next year). Although there are no guarantees until ratification occurs, any Draft 2.0-certified product you buy today will probably require only firmware and software upgrades to align with the final standard.

The bottom line: Most consumers can get improvements in speed and reliability by upgrading to 802.11n Draft 2.0 today. Personally, I would not consider buying a wireless card for my laptop today unless it was Draft 2.0-certified. Furthermore, I recommend buying only dual-band Draft 2.0-certified adapters so that you'll have the freedom to use the "cleaner" channels in the 5 GHz band. Just look for 2.4 and 5 GHz on the package (or text indicating the product is backwards compatible with 802.11a as well as 802.11b/g. However, businesses that need additional capacity and 200+ Mbps of application throughput may prefer to wait for final 802.11n products that will offer advanced 802.11n features like 4x4 MIMO and transmit beamforming.

This was last published in March 2009

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