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Wireless Basics

Bandwidth Modes

Those 20 and 40 MHz bandwidth modes mentioned earlier really refer to how many channels the router is simultaneously using. 20 MHz mode means it is using only one channel, 40 MHz mode means it is using two and 80 MHz mode uses four channels.

The advantage of higher bandwidth modes is higher throughput. But with only three non-overlapping channels, 40 MHz channels in 2.4 GHz can increase interference with nearby networks, which reduces throughput and, in extreme cases, wireless connection reliability. This is why N routers have an "Auto 20/40" mode.

Properly designed, i.e. compliant with the IEEE 802.11 spec and with Wi-Fi Alliance Certification requirements, routers are supposed to detect any interfering 2.4 GHz networks and fall back to using 20 MHz mode. Manufacturers also have the option of not supporting 40 MHz operation in 2.4 GHz at all, which is the choice Apple originally made, but no longer does.

There are no such limitations on 40 MHz (or 80 MHz) mode operation in 5 GHz. So most AC routers default to 80 MHz bandwidth mode in 5 GHz.

Throughput & Range

Wireless performance is the squishiest spec to pin down, yet usually the driving force behind the urge to buy a new router. Manufacturers are happy to have you confused, because confused consumers usually buy the product with the highest number on the box, which usually is the most expensive. That's why they use link rates and show the sum of the maximum link rates of both radios in simultaneous dual band products. But, by now, you know that number on the box is much greater than the best throughput you'll actually get.

Throughput, Speed, Link Rate

These three terms tend to be used interchangeably, but it is important to understand the difference between them. Link Rate is usually what people are referring to when they talk about wireless speed. This is mainly because that's what Windows calls it. But the number shown in the screenshot above is actually the link rate reported by the wireless adapter.

This is not throughput!

This is not throughput!

You can think of link rate like the gear in a car. Just as a car's speed is limited by the gear that it is in, link rate limits the maximum possible rate that bits can flow between wireless device and router. The actual flow of bits per unit time is throughput, which is usually expressed in Megabits per second or Mbps and the number you really care about.

Unfortunately, throughput is harder to measure than link rate, so you don't usually see routers or wireless devices provide this number. You can measure it yourself, however, using any of these simple methods.

Throughput is what moves the bits. Link rate limits the fastest rate that they can move.

What you really want in a wireless router is the best throughput vs. range. But because of the way Wi-Fi networks work, this number is highly variable. It is highly dependent on the RF (radio frequency) and physical environment the router is operating in, as well as the capabilities of wireless devices using the router.

That's why the wireless performance testing we do for our Charts and Rankers uses a "clean" RF environment and standard test client. Keeping as many things constant as we can, provides the best relative comparison among products available anywhere.

To get you in the right ballpark, however, here's a table of actual measured best case downlink throughput taken from our Router Charts for many N and AC product classes.

Class Typical maximum 2.4 GHz throughput (Mbps)
20 MHz B/W
Typical maximum 5 GHz throughput (Mbps)
40 MHz B/W N devices
80 MHz B/W AC devices
N300 or N600 ~ 75 ~ 75
N450 or N900 ~ 120 ~ 200
AC1200 80 - 90 215 - 300
AC1750 130- 140 400 - 470
AC1900 120 - 140 440 - 530
Table 3: Product types vs. throughput

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