Streaming Video – Even for Grandma

I recently spent some time at the local Micro Center shopping for some network equipment. It’s pretty interesting what you can overhear on shopping excursions like this…

Customer: Hi, I’m looking for a wireless router.

Associate: Well, we have this D-Link Wireless-N router for $29.99, but it only transmits at 150 Mbps. For $39.99 you can get the one that transmits at 300 Mbps.

Customer: Do I need the extra speed?

Associate: Well, the 150 Mbps is fine if you’re a grandma just sending e-mail or something, but if you want to do any kind of serious networking like video streaming or gaming, 150 Mbps isn’t going to cut it and you’re going to want the 300 Mbps.

Well, your grandma’s e-mail needs will probably be just fine with less than 1 Mbps transfer speeds, but this made me wonder… Are these associates really ignorant of the technology they’re selling and they simply repeat what they’ve been told, or do they actually know they’re misleading customers in order to sell higher priced products?

The higher throughput router should alleviate network congestion on a very busy home network, but it’s not going to make any real difference when you try to stream your next YouTube or Netflix video.  If you’re not sure this is the case, run a quick internet bandwidth benchmark from a computer you plan to connect to that wireless router. You will quickly find that your ISP doesn’t come anywhere close to 150 Mbps, much less 300 Mbps, when transferring data from the internet to your house. More likely, you will see transfer speeds in the 12-16 Mbps range. Your ISP is the bottleneck in your connection to the internet and regardless of what wireless networking equipment you’re using, you can’t do anything to your home network that will make your ISP provide you data at a faster rate. (Though you can sometimes pay them more money for a faster connection.) Unless you have an unusually large amount of internal traffic on your home network, the 150 Mbps and 300 Mbps routers should provide the same experience with internet video and gaming.

So why would anyone need the 300 Mbps router? There is some advantage to using the faster router, but it only provides an advantage for local network traffic, not traffic coming from the internet. For example, if you are frequently transferring a lot of data from a laptop to another computer on your network (such as backing up photos or video), you may want to go after the better networking performance of the 300 Mbps router. However, you still need to be aware that achieving the best networking speeds will depend on factors beyond the specs on the 300 Mbps router. For example, does the wireless card on your laptop support the higher data rates? Even if it does, how does your environment affect the signal-to-noise ratio between your laptop and the wireless router? The clarity of the wireless signal is going to affect your throughput. There are a lot of factors beyond the numbers on the router packaging that you will want to consider.

Most of the wireless devices I connect to my network are still Wireless-G, not Wireless-N. The Wireless-G standard achieves a maximum possible throughput of 54Mbps. That’s not anywhere near 150 Mbps – but it’s still plenty fast compared to the bottleneck of my ISP and Netflix comes through just fine.

So the next time you wander into your local tech store and ask about a product, just be aware that the person answering your questions may not know a whole lot more than you about what they’re selling.

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