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Confusing Wi-Fi Labeling Should be a Federal Offense

I recently went computer shopping with my wife and I was astonished at how challenging it was to identify one that would fit her needs. Her requirements where not complicated: less than a grand, fast for working with Office365 applications, including OneDrive, and fast web browsing. I wasn't surprised by these specs, as the primary function of any laptop computer anymore is fast, reliable connectivity to the Internet...and that means great Wi-Fi performance.

However, to my shock and chagrin, finding a laptop with the proper Wi-Fi specifications to meet her criterion was painstakingly difficult. Why? Because product labeling, when it comes to Wi-Fi capabilities, is confusing, inconsistent, deceptive, and borders on gross negligence. As a result, the average consumer has little-to-no chance of selecting a computer with adequate Wi-Fi capabilities.

The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967, directs the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration to issue regulations requiring that all consumer commodities be labeled to disclose net contents. It protects consumers from  unsafe or deceptively labeled or packaged products sold. It ensures that packages and their labels provide consumers with accurate information about the contents to facilitate value comparisons. While these regulations mainly apply to food, drugs and cosmetics, based on my recent shopping experience, they should apply to consumer electronics also…especially laptop computers!

Wi-Fi Alphabet Soup

The placards accompanying laptops in stores and online today tell you little or nothing about the Wi-Fi performance of the  computer. Generally speaking, labels will list a string of letters, such as a/b/g/n/ac. But to anyone not skilled in the art, it might as well be Greek. Put simply, these letters define the specification followed by the Wi-Fi adapter manufacturer. They are extremely important because they are directly related to the Wi-Fi adapter's capabilities, including its maximum speed - one of my wife's most important selection criteria.

Inspect these letters closely. If you find that the laptop you've fallen in love with is labeled with b/g/n wireless capabilities -- then please run, do not walk away from this computer, for it will only connect to slower, congested 2.4 GHz networks.  No matter how shiny, pretty or inexpensive, no matter which Intel processor or amount of RAM...this laptop will lead to pain and suffering because it will never connect to faster, less congested 5GHz networks. Cheap laptops usually contain b/g/n adapters, so beware.

Since there are no requirements for proper labeling, my advice when faced with this Wi-Fi Alphabet Soup is to look for the letter "a" when shopping for laptops.  The 802.11a specification defines compatibility with the faster, better performing 5GHz networks. Look for something like one of these on the label:

  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • 802.11ac
  • Wireless-a/b/g/n
  • Wireless-a/g/b/n/ac
  • Wireless-ac

Again, look for the letter "a" and you should be okay because these laptops will likely house a dual-band Wi-Fi radio so that it is compatible with 5GHz networks, as well as 2.4GHz, which you need as a backup when 5GHz networks aren't available. 802.11ac is the latest standard, capable of achieving today's highest data rates.

Count the Spatial Streams

Another critically important Wi-Fi performance spec that is most certainly missing from the product label is the number of spatial streams your Wi-Fi adapter has. In fact, you may only find this important detail on the manufacturers' website, and you have to dig for it…another crime, in my opinion.  However, a great resource for identifying the specs of your wireless adapter is WikiDevi.com.

I like how  Michael McNamee from SecurEdge illustrated this capability… "Similar to a road…each stream is a lane on a road and the more lanes you have the faster traffic is going to move because of decreased congestion."  If your laptop's Wi-Fi adapter is defined as 1x1, this means you have one lane (stream) for transmitting and one lane for receiving.   If your adapter is 2x2, then you have double the capacity to send and receive. Today's MacBook Pros are 802.11ac 3x3, an awesome configuration capable of tremendous Wi-Fi speeds, when available.

Your Consumer Wi-Fi Performance Guide

When purchasing a new laptop:

  • Narrow down your choices, then check the Wi-Fi adapter specs of your choice laptops online at WikiDevi.com.
  • Your minimum requirement for achieving decent Wi-Fi Performance should be 802.11ac and 1x1.
  • Of course, if you can afford it, find a laptop that has ac with 2x2 or better.
  • Avoid 802.11b/g/n at all costs, regardless of streams.

If you are buying a used laptop a few years old:

  • Look for 802.11a/b/g/n 1x1, preferably 2x2 or better.
  • I repeat, avoid 802.11b/g/n at all costs, regardless of streams.

Let the Wi-Fi Buyer Beware

I hate regulations, but something's got to be done to assist people with laptop purchases. Labels and placards are confusing and do not provide the details necessary to make an intelligent buying decision. My solution is to simplify and normalize the notations by mandating that maximum data rates be visible on every label. I imagine a label such as, Wi-Fi Max Data Rate of 150Mb/s on a 40MHz channel. This seems less cryptic and indicates speed. It can also be easily compared to other laptops with similar labels, such as 600Mb/s on 40MHz channel.

Please let me know your thoughts. We need to raise the education level out there. All suggestions are welcome.