Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Media PC - choosing a solid wireless N router and card for media streaming

When my venerable Linksys WRT54G started getting flaky after years of service, I figured it was time to shop around for another wireless router.  I should note that I loved my old Linksys WRT54G.  I could and did run custom firmware that allowed me to play with all kinds of really cool features.  It even ran Linux!  So I was really bummed when it finally died.

First of all, going wired (which I'd prefer) isn't really an option as I don't want to tear up the walls and the house is built on a cement slab.  So, wireless is really the only reasonable way to go.  Plus, so many of my devices are already wireless (iPhones, Wii, Squeezeboxes, etc).

I really wanted to upgrade to a router that support wireless N for the speed increase, yet I read all kinds of horrific reviews of draft-N routers.  I looked at all of the usual suspects: Linksys (really hard), Netgear, Apple, etc.  Having spent more than my share of time debugging wireless problems on old routers, I know I didn't want to repeat those past experiences.

UPDATE:  The latest version of this router "rev B1" (with the latest firmware) now supports IPv6.  While this may not be immediately important, in the next couple of years you'll be glad you have this capability.  Read more about it on d-link's blog.

Start with a solid router:  D-link's DIR-655

Then I ran across some really positive reviews of the DIR-655 Extreme N by D-link.  I've owned a D-link router before and it worked great.  Actually, it is still working today even though it is as old as the hills (and wireless B only).

I especially like the fact that the DIR-655 has a great reputation for long range, speed, and compatibility with wireless G.  Later on, D-link had some problems with firmware (who hasn't), but they seem to be all sorted out now.  As an added bonus, this router supports Gigabit ethernet ports for any wired devices you connect to it's built-in 4-port switch.  The only down-side to this router is that it is only single band (2.4Ghz not 5Ghz).  I'm willing to trade off dual-band features for what is otherwise a hassle-free, rock solid router that isn't too expensive.

Probably the most important reason to go with a wireless N router is that it gives you lots of bandwidth to stream Media.  The older G networks can stream media, but it is really pushing the limits of what G can do.

For example, the bit-rate of a DVD (not High Definition video) maxes out at about 10 Million bits per second and Bluray (High Definition) is around 40 Million bits per second.  Whereas the actual maximum throughput of a wireless G network is somewhere around 22 Million bits per second.  That sounds like enough for at least DVD, but keep in mind that real world throughput is further reduced by lots of factors like distance, interference, etc.  A wireless N network provides much more throughput capability and even has enough for streaming BluRay (High Definition) video under good conditions.

With that in mind, it was no surprise that I was having trouble streaming regular standard definition video on my old wireless G network to my Media PC.  So, it was also time for me to upgrade my Media PC to with a wireless N card.

Add a matching wireless N card for your Media PC:  D-Link's DWA-556

Okay, so pictures of wireless cards aren't that exciting, but this card is nice because it comes with two back plates.  The standard back plate fits a regular sized PC case.  However, if you are using a MicroATX sized case (as I do), you will need that smaller plate or the card won't fit in the case.  Fortunately, D-Link provides the smaller size and it is easy to swap it out.  Also, the card has three antennas that can be positioned for good reception.

Like routers, there are tons of reports of draft wireless N cards that have problems of one kind or another.  Since I had already had good luck with D-link, I chose their best Wireless PCI Express card (DWA-556 Xtreme N) to go in my Media-PC.

Note that PCI Express is the new bus standard that replaces PCI and is now common on newer computers.  Just make sure that you have at least one slot free when purchasing this card.

Before using this card, I was using a fairly reliable wireless G bridge to stream video to my Media PC.  I would get occasional hickups which would pause the video for several seconds (highly annoying to say the least).  After installing the DWA-556, these hickups were gone and transfer speeds boosted dramatically.  The card connects to my router at a reported rate of 300 Megabits per second (plenty fast for just about anything that I want to do).


Going wireless doesn't have to mean you can't stream video, even High Definition video.  I've been using the DIR-655 for over a year and the DWA-556 for months without problems.

I'd go wired if I could, but this is the next best thing.  Highly recommended.

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