Tech tips: Wireless devices

Passing information: D-Link DIR-605L Cloud Router.
Passing information: D-Link DIR-605L Cloud Router.

Hardware vendors have been sending me wireless devices for review at an alarming rate over the past few months.

These electronic devices have arrived in a myriad of box shapes with fancy branding, sporting almost arbitrary names that appear to focus on specific aspects of the otherwise functionally identical gadgets.

There are many types of consumer wireless devices which you can find being actively marketed by vendors, but the three most common devices are routers, access points and range extenders.

Wirelessly connecting a tablet or notebook for internet access is often referred to by users as connecting to a hotspot or access point. However, it is interesting to realise this is antiquated terminology and that in most cases the device is actually connecting to a wireless router, an important distinction to understand.

Access points are radio transceivers (transmitters and receivers) that are generally used to bridge wired and wireless networks. That is, an access point only provides a wireless interface for wireless clients to connect to your existing physical network.

Routers are devices that forward data packets between computer networks. When a data packet arrives from one of the networks, the router reads the address information in the packet to determine its ultimate destination. The most common type of router is the home and small office router that simply passes data, such as web pages and email, between the home computers and the owner's broadband modem, which connects to the internet through an internet service provider.

Wireless routers combine the functionality of a router with that of an access point, and often an Ethernet network switch, in a single unit. The units which I tested were the D-Link DIR-605L Cloud Router, D-Link DIR-645, Belkin AC 1200 Dual-Band, and Western Digital My Net N900.

Range extenders or wireless repeaters are used to extend the range of existing wireless networks. Netgear sent three units for review: The WiFi Booster for Mobile (WN1000RP), Universal Wi-Fi Range Extender (WN3000RP), and Universal Dual Band WiFi Range Extender (WN2500RP). D-Link sent the DIR-505 which I reviewed in a previous edition.

Tablets, smartphones, and netbooks have created a demand for ubiquitous wireless networks, and while businesses generally use commercial quality wireless devices with sophisticated controllers to ensure excellent coverage throughout workplaces, many home users suffer from dead spots or poor signals in their home.

Strategically placed range extenders can elongate a wireless coverage area, allowing the signal to reach around barriers, and down L-shaped hallways.

The Netgear WiFi Booster for Mobile gives consumers a simple and affordable way to extend and strengthen wireless coverage in the home. It only boosts coverage of the 2.4 GHz signal - it's not dual band, hence doesn't repeat 5GHz - yet is an ideal entry-level product intended for users looking to reduce dead spots for mobile devices. It is designed to offer a better internet experience on mobile devices like smartphones, tablets and e-readers in smaller homes.

Unfortunately wireless devices that are connected through range extenders suffer from both increased latency and a reduction in the maximum data throughput. For this reason, wireless range extenders work best in residential settings where they only need to support low traffic requirements, such as email and web browsing.

Networks that utilise wireless extenders are also more prone to performance degradation. This is due to interference from neighbouring access points which border portions of the extended network and happen to occupy the same wireless channel as the extended network.

David Hallett is the Chief Nerd of Need A Nerd in the Waikato. Need A Nerd can be reached on 0800 633 326 (NEED A NERD). To ask a question email and be in with a chance to win Norton 360 Version 6 by Symantec ($129 for three PCs).