It's been years in development but this September it looks like 802.11n Wi-Fi will finally become a standard... well, an official standard anyway.
Presently the majority of the wireless hardware you will buy (routers, wireless network cards, printers etc) will use a networking specification called 802.11g which has a maximum speed of 54Mbps. This maximum speed is being increasingly seen as inadequate as applications become more complex and require more bandwidth.
The successor, 802.11n is being ratified to increase both the speed and range of wireless devices however it should be noted that due to the time the IEEE Task Group n have been arguing about the intricacies, equipment manufacturers got bored and decided to run with the draft specification. As a result, the fact that 802.11n is becoming 'official' is unlikely to change a great deal as hardware utilising the new standard has been available for some time now. Although these devices have been produced working on the draft specification, the reality is that there are very few differences between this and the anticipated final 'official' release.
Essentially based on the current 802.11g standard, 802.11n uses some new technology and tweaks to give Wi-Fi more speed and range. The most notable part of this technology is called 'multiple input, multiple output' or MIMO for short. MIMO uses several antennas to transmit multiple data streams simultaneously rather than a single antenna transmitting just one stream of data. This allows more data to be transmitted in the same period of time while also increasing the potential range of the network.
Other advancements in technology include a payload optimisation so more information can be transmitted in every batch and a channel bonding feature that uses two separate non-overlapping channels at one to send data. The outcome of this being an achievable data transmission rate of 100Mbps, a 200% improvement in the potential range of 802.11g wireless.
There are no additional improvements as far as security is concerned because they really are not needed. As the standard WPA2 encryption provided by older network hardware have proven to be incredibly secure.
However it is worthwhile to check the box of any network equipment you have purchased recently as you may find it is compatible with 802.11n already and simply needs setting as instructed by the manufacturer. Naturally in order to get faster speeds both the sending and receiving devices both have to support 802.11n. A 802.11n compatible router working with a 802.11g machine will result in the slower 802.11g speeds.
At present 'n' rated hardware is more expensive than the older 'g' standard however not prohibitively so; our 'n' rated wireless router typically retails for around a tenner more than the £25 'g' rated equivalent. Of course, if you are already happy with your wireless network and the upgrade will mean replacing perfectly functional hardware it is certainly worth considering whether your needs warrant the faster hardware.
At present 802.11n will only be required by those with blisteringly fast broadband connections or those that regularly copy large volumes of data across a wireless network however it will soon become the norm. If upgrading your hardware, therefore, it may well be worth paying a couple of extra pounds now to ensure that you remain future proof.
Chris Holgate writes a weekly article of all things tech related. He is a director and copyrighter of the online computer consumables business Refresh Cartridges who sell cheap ink cartridges, toner cartridges, computer hardware and other computer consumables online. An archive of his work can be found at www.computerarticles.co.uk.