Today's media heavy households need networking devices that can manage the constant demands of game consoles, smartphones and tablets. Just about every box that connects to your TV can stream Netflix, and some, such as the Xbox 360 or PS3, offer high-definition streaming or downloading of movies and TV shows. Then there's sharing music and video files from one PC to another device and launching apps or browsing on mobile devices. Performing any of these tasks is bandwidth intensive; performing any of these tasks simultaneously often creates lags. When it comes down to it, a digital home needs a good router.
Two of the biggest names in the home router business are Linksys and D-Link. Globetechnology's Chad Sapieha reviewed the Linksys E4200 a few months ago, so I thought I'd try a D-Link router for the Tech Gift Guide. D-Link has recently released a line of products under a new brand called Amplifi, which include two multimedia routers, a Wi-Fi booster and two powerline adapters, one of which I wrote about in Part 3. I'd wanted to try the top-of-the-line DIR-827 HD Media Router, the closest competitor to Linksys's E4200, but D-Link has no units available for review. Instead, I tried its less expensive cousin.
The Amplifi Whole Home Router 1000 ($89.99) is an oddly shaped device. Rather than the rectangular box we've become accustomed to in the way of Wi-Fi routers, the DIR-645 is cylindrical and looks more like a chic coffee Thermos than a piece of networking equipment. However, the D-Link router makes some lofty promises: Multiple media content streams; full home coverage – every room, every floor, even outside; online gaming with blazing speed and no lag. D-Link uses what they're calling SmartBeam technology to focus "beams of bandwidth" to all of your devices, something achieved by the device's "six multi-directional antennas with a patented, sectorized design."
With press bumph like that it's got to be good, right?
Actually, it's not bad. I'm very familiar with D-Link because I have a DIR-655 in my house, a pretty good 802.11 N device that is no slouch when it comes to reaching the far corners of the home. However, even that router has its limits. Streaming something such as a live ball game on the MLB At Bat app – something that needs a constant and strong connection – has never been particularly successful in a few areas of my house, particularly at the back end of the master bedroom and outside in the back yard.
Setting up the Whole Home Router was very simple, which is a plus when it comes to configuring a router. The included CD took me through each step of the process and I was up and broadcasting a signal in about 5 minutes. The DIR-645 is a 2,5 Ghz 802.11 N device that advertises speeds of up to 300 megabits per second. It has four gigabit ports for direct wired connections and a USB port that lets you host a shared printer or shared storage.
After configuring the router, I connected my iPad to my new home network, launched the MLB 2011 app and brought up Game 6 of the 2011 World Series – the see-saw extra innings game that saw the eventual champion Cardinals tie the Texas Rangers in the 9th, 10th and then win it in the 11th. Yes, I am a baseball nut. The stream came in nice and strong, with audio and video both 5 by 5. Then I headed to the nether regions of my abode. I watched the 9th-inning comeback in bed, holding the iPad on my lap and grew increasingly more impressed by the strength of the signal. David Freese smoked a triple, the Cards scored two to tie and I headed to the back yard still wondering why Nelson Cruz didn't catch that ball.
I have three levels to my house, and the basement walks out into the yard. My router is on the second floor, a little closer to the front of the house than the back. In the past, I have been able to stream audio broadcasts pretty successfully from the back deck but not video. It'll last for a bit and then freeze up. Using the Whole Home Router improved reception a little bit but not as much as I'd hoped. The bottom of the 10th came in clearly but suffered from periodic stuttering, which became progressively worse as I headed closer to the back fence. Still, better than what I normally experience. Lance Berkman had a clutch at bat, tied it in the 10th and I went back into the house for another experiment.
Inside at the kitchen table, just around the corner from the router, the signal came in strong as ever. I turned on the TV, spun up the Xbox 360 and launched Netflix. With video quality setting on maximum, I stuck with the baseball theme and launched Brewster's Millions, starring Richard Pryor and John Candy. The ball game continued to stream perfectly, but as I headed upstairs to the dark corner of the bedroom, playback suffered some slight stuttering. As the only device using bandwidth earlier, the stream was quite strong, but competing with Netflix was a little much.
As a final test, I went to my main PC, opened up a shared folder on the Asus EeeBox in the living room and started a large file transfer. In the living room and kitchen, Netflix and the ball game both continued to stream smoothly, which I found impressive. I watched Freese put one out in the 11th just as the file transfer completed, and – pardon the cliché – thought that D-Link hit a home run with the DIR-645, too.
Below is a discussion with tech expert Michael Snider on the challenges of wiring up your living room with the latest entertainment technology. Mobile users can click here to read.