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CES 2013

{mospagebreak toctitle=Intro, Choices, Tweaking}

Introduction

As CES 2013 fades to black and my annual CES cold ramps up, it's time to share some thoughts on what I heard and saw this past week in Vegas.

First, the general bullets:

  • Phones are getting bigger, but thinner. Samsung's Galaxy Note II "Phablet" with a 5.5" screen appears to have gotten enough traction that it is spawning copycats. So Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE and probably others were showing big-screen phones. Look for more of the same next month at Mobile World Congress.
    After spending a week trying to text, email and manage my schedule on my Republic Wireless Motorola Defy XT with only a 3.7" screen, I definitely see the appeal of a larger screen. Even if it does make you look dorky when making a call.
  • The big CE makers were all pushing Ultra HD TVs. David Pogue's take says it for me: "the sets cost tens of thousands of dollars. There’s not a single cable TV show broadcast in 4K, and not a single movie available on disc in 4K. So what you may watch mostly on your 4K TV is the reflection of your own “I’ve been scammed” expression".
    Yes, of course the demos were gorgeous, but with 84" sizes and $20 - $25K prices, this is TV for the 1%. The rest of us will just have to make do with crappy ol' 1080p HD.
  • TV will continue to be dumb for awhile longer. The rumored gesture / voice / facial recognition "smart" TV sets were not this year's story. I saw only one little pod at the back of LG's booth demoing voice and gesture controlled TV and it was not drawing a crowd. Maybe next year.

Too Many Choices?

In 2012, my advice was to not be in a hurry to jump into buying a draft 802.11ac router. If you waited, your reward in 2013 is routers with lower prices and even USB adapters to go with them so that your notebook or desktop can actually take advantage of draft 11ac link rates.

Unfortunately, it will be harder to choose a router due to the spaghetti strategy (see what sticks) router makers are taking. And making it even harder is that manufacturers have not adopted a uniform naming convention, as they somehow managed to do with 802.11n, i.e. N600, N900, etc.

So I have generated the table below showing what I'm calling the AC "class" designation that some manufacturers have adopted.

"Class" designation 2.4 GHz N Radio
Maximum Link Rate (Mbps)
5 GHz AC Radio
Maximum Link Rate (Mbps)
AC1750 450 1300
AC1600 300 1300
AC1300 450 866/867
AC1200 300 866/867
AC750 300 433
AC580 150 433
Table 1: Draft 802.11ac router class designation summary

In Table 2, I've gathered what I think are all existing draft 11ac routers, plus the models announced at CES into Table 2. New routers are in bold and all prices are MSRP. Where you don't see a price, one wasn't announced. Products are not in any particular order.

AC1750 AC1600 AC1300 AC1200 AC750
Linksys EA6500
$219.99
Linksys EA6700
Belkin AC1800 DB
$179.99
D-Link DGL-5500 Buffalo WZR-1166DHP
$149
Belkin AC750 DB
$89.99
ASUS RT-AC66U
$189.99
Linksys EA6400   NETGEAR D6200 (w/ ADSL modem)
NETGEAR R6200
$179.99
EnGenius ESR750C
$119.99
D-Link DIR-865L
$189.99
D-Link DIR-868L
$169.99
    EnGenius ESR1200C
$169.99
 
WD MyNet AC 1300
$190
    Linksys EA6300  
NETGEAR R6300
$199.99
    D-Link DIR-860L
$149.99
 
Buffalo WZR-D1800H
$179.99
Buffalo WZR-1750DHP
$179
    Belkin AC1200 DB
$149.99
 
TRENDnet TEW-812DRU
$229.99
       
TP-LINK TL-WDR7500        
EnGenius ESR1750C
$199.99
       
Table 2: Draft 11ac router summary

The largest number of routers are in the top-end AC1750 class, with the other biggest group in the AC1200 class. We'll have to see where the prices of the AC1600 and AC1300 entrants end up when they finally are priced and ship. Note that the lone AC1300 D-Link DGL-5500 is the only one in Table 2 to use the new Qualcomm-Atheros "VIVE" chipset.

I need to correct an earlier statement about the StreamBoost automatic QoS feature in the DGL-5500. The VIVE chipset actually uses technology obtained via Qualcomm's 2011 purchase of Bigfoot Networks, not Ubicom's StreamEngine.

The draft 11ac USB adapters announced have either 1X1 (one transmit, one receive) or 2X2 dual-band radios. Since these adapters operate in only one band at a time, it's not really kosher to add the maximum link rates together. But that's what Linksys did in assigning an "AC580" moniker to its 1X1 adapter.

EnGenius and TP-LINK took a similar approach when naming their new 1X1 USB adapters, but rounded up more to get to "AC600". 2X2 USB adapters introduced by Belkin, TRENDnet and EnGenius were awarded an "AC1200" class label. Does you head hurt yet? Mine does.

There were no 3X3 (AC1750) USB adapters introduced and I doubt there ever will be. Three radios and dual-band antennas are a bit much to cram into a USB dongle and keep it small enough to prevent it from being snapped off. If you want the full 1300 Mbps 802.11ac link rate, you are probably looking at a stationary application like connecting up a media center. This is where an Ethernet-connected wireless bridge will be a better choice anyway, with its ability to be flexibly positioned and more room for better antennas and more powerful radios.

The smörgåsbord of draft 11ac routers and adapters that manufacturers have put on the table has generated a minefield for consumers to find their way through. So it will be very important to carefully read product specs when choosing a draft 11ac router and not just take the "AC" number on the front of the box as truth.

And, of course, remember all these numbers are maximum link rates that assume 40 MHz bandwidth mode in 2.4 GHz and 80 MHz ac mode bandwidth in 5 GHz. Also keep in mind that you'll need an N450 class adapter to reach the top link rates on the 2.4 GHz bands with AC1750 routers.

Under The Table and Tweaking?

The consumer wireless industry has never been shy about "enhancing" the 802.11 standards. Remember Atheros' channel-bonding 108 Mbps "Super G"? Or 22 Mbps 11b Turbo? But these efforts were always explicitly revealed and even marketed as product differentiators.

A little birdie told me during the show that some manufacturers may be using undisclosed non-standards-compliant methods to boost performance of consumer routers. Techniques include making packet sizes so large that they run beyond specified time slots and boosting transmit power above FCC limits. Both techniques can negatively effect performance of nearby spec-compliant APs and routers.

Since transmit power is carefully checked as part of FCC certification, I was told that the "tweakers" simply use spec-compliant firmware for certification and then load spec-busting firmware in shipping product.

I am not naming any names and neither did my little bird. The spec-busting techniques require detection know-how and equipment beyond my ability to replicate, so I can't independently verify the claims. But my source is credible enough that I thought that it worthwhile to shine a little light on these alleged practices.

To any chip or product manufacturers who may be doing this: Knock it off! The Wi-Fi airwaves are bad enough without putting gear on the market that purposely can make life more difficult for owners of spec-compliant Wi-Fi products. And same goes for those of you runnning in 40 MHz mode in 2.4 GHz, when you know that your neighborhood airspace is too crowded to support it and your router is too dumb to stop you. Grrrr!


Beamforming

NETGEAR announced that beamforming will be soon be turned on in their draft 11ac routers and Linksys said their upcoming draft 11ac routers will ship with beamforming too. Both companies claim beamforming will improve performance. But, as it usually the case with Wi-Fi, reality is not so simple.

As I've mentioned before, both router and client must support the same flavor of beamforming in order for there to be any performance enhancement. The good news is that a beamforming spec is part of 802.11ac. So once beamforming is implemented in draft 11ac routers and clients, it should actually work.

But an additional little tidbit that I picked up during my CES chats is that beamforming does not extend wireless range. Instead, it can boost throughput primarily at mid-range locations. It doesn't do anything at close range, nor does it help the Wi-Fi signal reach further.

So beamforming might be able to reduce streaming hiccups in locations where you have a decent signal. But if you think it's going to let you reach that back bedroom or garage that you currently can't get a connection in, it's unlikely that it will help.

I plan to write a more complete story on this soon. In the meantime, don't let the presence or absence of beamforming in a draft 11ac router influence your purchase.

The Rise of Powerline-Connected mini-APs

If you're going to go whole-hog into draft 11ac, you're going to find some shrinkage of your wireless coverage. 5 GHz signals just don't travel as far as 2.4 GHz signals and ramping up power on the router doesn't fix the problem.

Manufacturers have tried to address this with "range extenders" that operate by receiving, then retransmitting Wi-Fi signals. But this "repeating" method has a built-in 50% throughput penalty because of the retransmission technique.

As a result, buyers can find themselves with a case of diminishing returns as they try to find the right spot for the repeater. Place it too close to your primary router and you may not reach your dead zone. Place it too far away from the router and you may "light up" your garage or patio, but with much-less-than-desired throughput.

The simultaneous dual-band range extenders that are appearing (like NETGEAR's WN3500RP below) are one attempt to solve the problem. If one radio can be used to connect back to the main router, i.e. the "backhaul", and the other used to transmit the data received by the other radio, you won't get the 50% throughput hit. Unfortunately, you then are stuck deciding which radio to use as the backhaul. If it's the 5 GHz, then you again have the limited range issue.

WN3500RP Universal Dual Band WiFi Range Extender

WN3500RP Universal Dual Band WiFi Range Extender, Wall-plug Editio

One manufacturer I spoke with is working on a dual-band extender that automatically and in real-time switches the radios between backhaul bridge and AP modes, depending on client needs. While this sounds attractive in concept, the implementation is not going to be a trivial exercise. So we'll just have to wait and see if anything ever hits the market.

I've always been an advocate of using (or at least trying) powerline networking to deploy additional APs to improve wireless coverage when Ethernet connectivity isn't available. Unfortunately, product makers haven't made this easy in the past. Prices for powerline adapters have been relatively high and, with a few occasional exceptions, small wall-plugged access points needed to make it easy to build hybrid networks have not been produced.

But this is changing. 200 and 500 Mbps HomePlug AV adapters have gotten a lot smaller and a lot cheaper. I was told a pair of 200 Mbps adapters was selling for $30 in a special promotion this past holiday season! And even more help is on the way.

Picture tiny wall-plugged 1X1 dual-band draft 11ac APs with 500 Mbps powerline built-in. Hell, they may even include a heat-activated air freshener built in to help increase WAF. Hopefully, these will be inexpensive enough so that you can afford to install a few of them and small enough that they take up only one outlet and don't draw attention.

While this hybrid network isn't going to provide enough bandwidth for streaming uncompressed Blu-ray rips, it will provide more than enough to ensure that all your household's tablets, smartphones and other Wi-Fi devices stay reliably connected. From what I heard, these powerful little wall-warts could appear this year.

HomePlug AV2

Speaking of powerline, I've gotten queries about when to expect HomePlug AV2 products. Qualcomm-Atheros announced the first AV2 SISO chipset a few months back, so products using it should be appearing later this year. Products might even include the powerline-connected APs I hinted at above.

AV2 SISO products hit only a 500 Mbps maximum link rate, so don't expect them to perform much differently than current "AV 500" products. But when MIMO AV2 products appear at CES 2014, you'll be seeing "AV 1000" or something similar on their boxes to tout their 1 Gbps maximum link rates.


Personal Clouds On The Rise

The news in NASes focused on making them friendlier, taking business away from cloud storage companies and providing tablet and smartphone-toting youngsters with enough movies and music to keep them quiet on long trips.

It will be interesting to see if Seagate's Central Shared Storage gets some traction with consumers. Seagate has done a nice job with prettying up its interface and simplifying installation and remote (cloud) connectivity. It looks like a set top box, is quiet enough to be welcome on your TV stand or media center shelf and even has an app that adds an easy-to-navigate interface to Samsung Smart TVs.

Seagate Central Shared Storage

Seagate Central Shared Storage

2013 should see NAS makers, who already haven't, get their act together on making their "personal cloud" features your-Mom-could-do-it simple to set up and use. No reliance on port forwarding (automatic UPnP or manual), no messing with setting up dynamic DNS and no CD-based installation.

With upstream bandwidth provided by ISPs lagging far behind the growth in family storage needs, NAS makers have figured out that most folks won't be uploading much to their or anyone else's cloud. Most data will stay on the home NAS and be accessed when needed by apps or via web portals.

Wi-Fi Storage Sharers

We should also be seeing more options in compact, battery-powered Wi-Fi connected storage. Seagate had enough success with its Satellite mobile drive that it introduced its second generation Wireless Plus with longer battery life, twice the capacity and improved apps. And even HP decided to see if it can get some action with its Pocket Playlist that starts shipping next month.

HP Pocket Playlist

HP Pocket Playlist

These compact beasties are being pitched primarily for media storage and streaming to mobile devices. But they can also be used for on-the-go Wi-Fi enabled camera backup or plain old data storage duties. Some will even let you use their internal batteries to charge other devices via USB, as D-Link's new DIR-508L SharePort Go II does.

Not all of these devices will be hard-drive based. Kingston was handing out to journalists "beta" copies of a device that wirelessly shares SD cards and USB flash drives. I also came across Hyper's booth in the even-larger iLounge area in the North Hall. They were showing three new wireless storage sharers, only one of which can hold a hard drive.

Hyper iUSBport mini, HD and port2

Hyper iUSBport mini, HD and port2

And to confirm that even more wireless sharers will be coming, I stumbled across an OEM/ODM's booth in the International Gateway area. I saw just about every combination of Wi-Fi enabled sharer you can come up with and I'm sure they could make more combinations if you came up with a big enough order.

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