How to set up a fast 802.11ac wireless network

Make the switch from 802.11n to 802.11ac in order to turbo-boost your file transfers

There are many reasons to upgrade to a fast new wireless network for your home. You may already have access to NBN (national broadband network) fibre and need the extra Wi-Fi capacity to distribute your faster Internet connection; or you may just want to move files across various devices at a quicker rate than you're used to. Whatever your reasons, the wireless network standard that you should be looking is 802.11ac. It's the latest and greatest and will provide the best transfer rates.

What is 802.11ac?

This is the wireless standard that has replaced 802.11n at the top-end of the Wi-Fi market, and while take up of this new standard has been somewhat slow, we are now starting to see more devices being released with support for the faster transfer rates that it can provide. There are many 802.11ac wireless routers on the Australian market now, and, rest assured, while they offer the brand new standard, they are also backwards compatible with 802.11n devices.

Speeds available from 802.11ac wireless routers vary (starting at 867Mbps), but there are now products on the market that support rates up to 1300 megabits per second (Mbps). The 802.11ac standard runs in the 5GHz frequency band, which means you won't have to run it on the congested 2.4GHz band (though you can still run the 2.4GHz network simultaneously), and some routers that use the standard also implement new features such as beamforming antennas, which can adapt to the way signals are sent depending on the environment.

Some of the marketing terms used for 802.11ac wireless routers are a little misleading, and you should keep this in mind when purchasing. Often, a vendor will quote a single speed such as 1.75Gbps (gigabits per second) for its wireless router. This doesn't mean that the router can perform at that maximum speed. That figure is an amalgamation of both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz capabilities of the router. For example, to achieve the 1.75Gbps figure, the vendor is adding up the 1.3Gbps speed of the 5GHz network with the 450Mbps speed of the 2.4GHz network. The total figure is the speed at which the router can run both networks simultaneously.

Will an 802.11ac router work with current devices?

To reap the benefits of an 802.11ac wireless router, you will need to run client devices on it that also support the faster specification, and this means either buying computers that already have 802.11ac as part of their configuration, or buying USB adapters that can be used to connect to the 802.11ac wireless router at a faster rate than 802.11n. Many flagship smartphones that have been on the market since last year also support 802.11ac and will benefit from the extra speed that an 802.11ac wireless router can provide. HTC's One (M8), for example, connected to an 802.11ac router at a speed of 433Mbps in our tests.

Basically, though, even if you don't have any 802.11ac devices, and don't intend on upgrading to them soon, if you're in the market for a new high-end router for your home network, you should still consider an 802.11ac wireless router, mainly because it will give you extra speed when you finally do get devices that support the faster networking standard. Of course, the usual caveats about your budget apply, and some of the routers that support the new standard are north of $300. Meanwhile many 802.11n routers that support speeds of 300Mbps can be found between $80 and $150.

Next page: How to set up an 802.11ac network.

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Elias Plastiras
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