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Review: Belkin N1 Wireless ExpressCard for Home Network

In Brief

This year, almost half of all laptops shipped will include ExpressCard slots. But until recently, there was no draft-802.11n ExpressCard, nearly a year after shipment of the first 802.11n equipment last spring. Users who wanted to hop on the 300Mbps bandwagon had to settle for clunky USB adapters with Martian-like antenna arrays. Now, at least two draft-n ExpressCards are available, from Belkin and D-Link. We needed a card for our new HP laptop with Windows Vista, which lacked built-in 802.11n support. The Belkin N1 Wireless ExpressCard neatly fit the bill, connecting without complaint to three different draft-n routers we tried it with, as well at at typical hotspots.

Since we spend a lot of time on the road, we really wanted to see if the card would give us improved range at hotspots, which are mostly 802.11g. It did, giving us a usable connection much further out than the built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi in our notebook. Mobile warriors with draft-n routers at home or in the office will thus win twice with this card. Ease of use and installation were also up to Belkin's high standard, and there is a lifetime warranty, very unusual in the wireless world.

In Depth

Right off the bat, we were impressed that Belkin had support for Windows Vista, which has been a long time coming for many Wi-FI cards. The driver installed smoothly, without requiring a reboot, and the entire process from popping in the CD to connecting to the first router took about five minutes.

Belkin uses Atheros XSpan chips in its N1 line, the same as those used by Apple in its new AirPort Extreme draft-n router, and by D-Link in its XTreme N DIR-655, so we had high hopes for connecting to those routers at draft-n speeds. (Since the 802.11n standard is not yet final, there is no guarantee that different vendors equipment will interoperate at the top speed of 300Mbps, although all are compatible at regular 802.11g speeds of 54Mbps.)

We compared performance of the Belkin card when connected to each of these routers against performance with the matching Belkin N1 router. The N1 ExpressCard connected to all three at draft-n speeds without issue, getting the best long-range results from the D-Link router, and the top close-range performance from the Belkin N1 router. (Differences were small, however, and we'd pick a router based on other factors.)

We also tried the card with a Netgear RangeMax Next Gigabit Router, which is based on the competing Marvell TopDog chipset. Again, we got an 802.11n connection with no problem, but performance was not quite as good as with the Atheros-based routers. These differences should grow smaller as the 802.11n standard matures. Firmware upgrades to Draft 2.0 of the standard are already starting to appear.

But what we were most curious about was whether it would be worth taking the card on the road at hotspots, which don't have 802.11n routers. We really didn't expect much, but were very pleasantly surprised when we got a good usable signal at the outdoor tables of our local coffee shop, where we usually have to go indoors to connect. This is thanks to the increased range of 802.11n, even when connecting to regular 802.11g routers. If you travel a lot and sometimes have a hard time getting a stable signal, the Belkin card can help.

Sadly, the card does not have a Mac driver, which would allow MacBook Pro Core Duo owners to upgrade to 802.11n. Hopefully that will change in the future, but we aren't holding our breath.

Overall, the Belkin N1 ExpressCard exceeded our performance expectations, and gave us trouble-free installation and use with all the routers and hotspots we tested. Pair it with an Atheros-based router for best results, and be sure to take it with you when you go on the road.

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