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Choosing A Wireless Router

Last week the network dropped.  Again.   This was the 5th time in about a month that I lost all connectivity mid-session.  I was in the middle of pushing some web updates and, as usual,  Comcast left me hanging.   When I made my 10PM call to customer service I was met with one of the rudest know-it-all “customer disservice” people I ever encountered.   She argued with me about everything and told me I had no idea what I was talking about when I told her that rebooting my laptop would not get my cable modem to sync up with their head end router.   (I had checked the logs on the modem and it lost sync and the signal level was out of spec.)

Even though the Comcast Business Class service rep., who came out the next morning instead of THREE DAYS later as the “service rep” insisted was the ONLY option, was very helpful and knowledgeable ; the damage had been done.  I was sick of sudden drops, lag, and network throttling that Comcast insists they do not do.    It was time for a change.

What does this have with wireless routers?  We will get there in a minute… just bear with me.

Knology To The Rescue

Fast forward three weeks.  The Knology installation guy shows up at my house EARLY (take THAT Comcast), was courteous, professional, and *gasp* actually knowledgeable about his trade.     He tested the lines, replaced several faulty splitters that Comcast had installed and eventually got a perfectly clean signal at the modem connection point.    We connected the modem and had a great connection.   The 20M/2M service was actually pulling 27M/2M consistently with 0.0001% rate fluctuation.    This guy actually tested things after he installed (take THAT TOO Comcast).   Everything looked great.   Then all hell broke loose.

I HAD NO WIRELESS ROUTER!

My old Comcast modem had wireless.   The new Knology modem did not.

Setting Up My Wireless

I left the install connected to my wired hub and went to work.  While at the office I picked up a couple of pieces of wireless network equipment we had lying around that was no longer being used.   In the mix I had an old Netopia Wireless DSL modem, which can be used as a wireless access point if you disable the DSL port and a 2-year-old Belkin Wireless N router that was a $200 top-of-the-line unit back in the day.

When I got home the first thing I did was hook up the Belkin Wireless N.  I was connected within minutes.  However I did notice the network was lagging.    I attributed it to being on wireless and having several devices on the wireless network as well as the TiVo and DVD connected.     Then I started getting dropped connections. However this time the modem logs looked perfect.  NO errors, no sync problems no dropped connections there.     Eventually I narrowed down the problem.  It was the Belkin router.    It was getting all kinds of packet loss and transmission errors and was dropping a TON of packets with .190-199 in the last IP address octet.  Very odd.

I temporarily tried the Netopia Wireless but that is a simple A/B series wireless router.  It worked, but was very quickly saturated as soon as other devices came online.  It simply did not have the bandwidth over the wireless channels to get the job done with a tablet, 2 wireless phones, the VOIP hard line phone, 2 laptops, the TiVo and the DVD player.    It worked but was slow as heck at peak load.

I needed something better.

The Netgear Utopia

Netgear N600
Netgear N600

I did some homework and found several glowing reviews for the Netgear N600 series wireless N routers.   Since it was now Sunday and neither my Netopia DSL router or my Belking N router were up to task for a big marketing and site update project, I decided to shop local.   Turns out Walmart had the very router I was looking at AND it was a fair price.   Even with taxes it was within $5 of the Amazon pricing and was near or below most online competitors.

40 minutes later I had returned from Wally World with my new router (and a big-bag of M&Ms, a new garden hose, and 3 coloring books for my son… this is WHY you don’t go to Walmart to shop for “just a router”… dang impulse buys).      Within 15 minutes my new router was installed, fully configured to my liking with a new SSID and passwords, and was online.

HOLY SMOKES WAS THIS THING FAST!!!

I mean LIGHTNING FAST compared to ANYTHING I was using before.     I immediately saw my laptop speed tests pulling the full 27M/2M speeds we had seen with the wired test unit at the router.  This was with all the other network equipment still online.

Bad Communication = Slow Networks

After doing a good bit of testing, re-trying the Belkin, re-connecting the Comcast service (it was not turned off yet), and doing a bunch of general cross-checking and sanity tests it had become clear.    Choosing the right networking equipment is paramount to maintaining solid throughput to your desktop (or tablet) computers.  If any link in the chain is weak you will suffer.

The technical reasons for highly variant network performance has a lot to do with packet re-transmission.   To keep it somewhat less technical, think of it as a simple phone conversation where you MUST get every word right.   To do this you ask the other party to repeat every word they hear.   If they say a word incorrectly you repeat that word until they say it back correctly.    On a poor connection this may happen 3 or 4 times on every-other-word.   That can make for a VERRRRRYYYY long conversation.

In today’s networks a lot of things can go wrong to make your surfing destination and your computer “repeat the words” over & over again.   A wireless network often adds a lot more possibilities for interference.   For example, turning on the microwave oven, or a neighbor turning on their TV.    You don’t HEAR the interference, but your wireless network does.  Think of it like someone turning on a vacuum cleaner right next to you while you are doing the “repeat every word” conversation with your long distance friend.  You are likely not going to hear very well and be repeating a lot of words.

Erradicating Slow

In my case several things were causing problems.   The Comcast connection to my house is not very good which means the “volume” of the conversation is very inconsistent, too loud some moments, too soft at others.   Then the modem Comcast had was an old model that was very slow, think of it as if you had a semi-retarded phone operator in the middle trying to keep up with the “repeat the word” conversation and they just skip words when they fall behind.    The Belkin router refused to repeat any word with the “ch” sound in it, like a Chinese waiter mixing up L’s and R’s and you trying to guess what they really meant.     The Netopia DSL router was mostly just very retarded and easily distracted, barely being able to keep up with a slow deliberate conversation.

In the end I eliminated all the slow, retarded, missed-translation, volume related issues.    A tested solid clean connection with a modern high-speed modem from Knology connected directly to the Netgear N600 Wireless N Router keeps everything humming along.  The conversations are crystal clear and the Netgear N600 + Knology modem rarely, if ever, repeat a word.   A 2-minute conversation takes 2-minutes, not 20.    That translates into getting the full 20M (27M) /2M service all the way from “the Internet” straight into my wireless network.

Get The Best

In your network, choose the best equipment you can afford.   Read online reviews and select the RIGHT solution.   Higher price does not always mean better performance.    In my case the reviews proved out to be well founded and I too give the Netgear N600 (WNDR3400v2) 5-stars.

Netgear N900
Netgear N900

I liked the Netgear N600 so much I bought the “big brother” N900 (WNDR4500) for the office and I like that one EVEN better.  It too was quick to setup and improved network performance.  It also gave us the ability to quickly and easily turn a USB drive into a network share and turn my old Brother MFC-4800 laser (another great piece of equipment, by the way) printer/scanner into a network printer/scanner within minutes and with one quick/simple applet install on our Windows and Mac computers.

If you are in the market for a wireless router I highly recommend the Netgear N600 and N900 routers.