To see if an upgraded router could really result in an upgraded home entertainment experience, I looked at the Linksys E4200, a high-end consumer model that features the latest dual-band Wi-Fi capabilities. This router, and others in Linksys' "Smart" Wi-Fi lineup have recently been superseded by an ambitious new cloud-based series of products from parent company Cisco. That means a price drop for the more conventionally featured E4200, and perhaps a bargain for the A/V fan that's tired of badly streamed media.
Why Is The Wi-Fi Router an A/V Component?
Anyone who enjoys Hulu, Netflix, Pandora or other web-based services knows that inconsistent Wi-Fi is root of most evils. The more streaming devices I added to my system over time, and the more neighbors that moved into our adjacent buildings, the more I realized that pound for pound, the Wi-Fi quality mattered more to the overall entertainment experience than the performance of the TV and the audio gear. A serious claim, but completely defensible.
Unfortunately, many things conspire to make Wi-Fi in your home punch below its weight. It's not just the router; you also have to factor in distance, construction of your home, the quality of the receiving devices, physical obstacles, in-home and nearby interference and more.
With that in mind, it pays to create an optimal Wi-Fi environment in your home to get the most out of web-based entertainment. Beyond surmounting the challenges of the laundry list named above, there are additional steps you can take to get even better Wi-Fi. For now, let's look at the most important component, the router itself, in this case the E4200.
Features And Setup
The Linksys E4200 is a dual-band Wireless N router, which means it is capable of simultaneously sending out Wi-Fi at 2 different frequencies; 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Both frequencies have their pros and cons in both terms of physics and in real-life terms, like your actual home. Why does this matter to your audio/video experience? Because picking the better one for your environment will get you the best Wi-Fi. With the E4200, you have both options.
In addition to its WAN port to connect to your Internet connection, the E4200 has four state-of-the-art Gigabit Ethernet (ie: very fast) ports for other equipment. Four ports is neither generous nor miserly, you may need more or fewer places to connect your Ethernet gear over time. There's also a USB port for external shared storage and the ability to wirelessly stream files from a flash drive. The unit boasts six internal antennas, and a maximum throughput rate of 300-450 mbps, which is three times as fast as my old Wireless G router.
The E4200 comes with a CD installation disc for both PC and Mac. It installs a series of apps that let you set parental controls, passwords for guests, add devices to your wireless network and configure security and other settings for your router.
In our immediate vicinity, in a multi-unit dwelling, there are dozens of Wi-Fi networks actively competing in the standard (and overwhelmingly used) 2.4 GHz range. Our audio/video setup is approximately 50 feet from our router, with standard wallboards in the construction -- not a terribly hard job for any decent Wi-Fi router.
At 2.4 GHz, the E4200 provided inconsistent throughput for our Roku media player and the Smart Apps capabilities built into a Sharp Aquos TV -- most of the time. Both of these devices have built-in Wi-Fi reception at 2.4 GHz, and while our network is password protected of course, the Wi-Fi traffic at 2.4 GHz in our building makes streaming movies and music problematic.
By utilizing the 5 GHz band -- which almost nobody in the vicinity was also using -- I was able to get remarkably fast throughput from the E4200. Streaming was uninterrupted, rewinding and re-buffering was speedy enough that I no longer feared the pause button, and the HD video quality was more consistent overall. There was no question that all things being equal, the E4200 was more than capable of holding up its end of the Wi-Fi equation.
In order to use the 5 GHz band, I had to let both the TV and the Roku be able to accept signals from this frequency, which neither could do on its own. Fortunately, both have an Ethernet port to accept an external network adapter, and a quick trip to Staples saw the addition of a Netgear WNCE3001, which for $49 let me upgrade either component to 5 GHz capability.
I switched both the Roku and and the TV back and forth between their internal Wi-Fi performance (2.4 GHz) and their souped-up 5 GHz performance and brother, what a difference. It's the difference between actually being excited to sit down to a streamed movie instead of apprehensive. I'm not saying that 5 GHz is a "better" frequency to stream Wi-Fi on, many people would say the opposite. I'm saying that in my environment, with my specific environmental factors, the higher frequency relieved problems that the lower frequency never overcame.
There are numerous ways to improve the Wi-Fi in your home to get better streaming. You can change the channel of your router (at either 2.4 or 5 GHz bands). You can move components around. You can get Wi-Fi repeaters.
I found that upgrading the router and plugging a cheap network adapter into the back of my source components made the biggest difference. With a bit of shopping, you can get the Linksys E4200 for $120 or so, which is a good discount off the original $199 price. Add an external adapter (if you need to), and for less than $200 you've made possibly the most substantial and cost-effective upgrade to your A/V system you could have made.
I call that a bargain, which is what I thought the Linksys E4200 most certainly is.