It is a tough job making wireless routers in 2011. The limits of 802.11n (available commercially in 'Draft' form since 2007) mean manufacturers have been limited to the same core wireless speed standard for nearly five years. As such it is not only hard to differentiate products from the competition, but also to convince users they need to upgrade in the first place.
Taking another stab at both arguments is D-Link with its 'DIR-657 Wireless N HD Media Router 1000', a router which claims to address the biggest challenge facing wireless today: reliably streaming multimedia content around the home. The key differentiator here is D-Link's proprietary 'HD Fuel' bandwidth prioritization technology which the company claims will identify and prioritise multimedia and gaming packet data to ensure faster and more consistent performance.
It sounds good in theory and D-Link hasn't skimped in other areas as it attempts to win you over. The DIR-657 is DLNA-certified, comes with SharePort allowing any USB device (such as a printer or external HDD) to be accessed across the network, and also packs an SD card slot enabling easy sharing of camera and video recorder content. On the security side of things you'll find WPA2/128-bit AES data encryption, support for CAPTCHA and D-Link's now commonplace one button WPS security setup. Meanwhile adding a little future proofing, the DIR-657 is IPV6 ready – the new protocol which will make room for another 340 undecillion Internet addresses. Of more immediate use D-Link has also outfitted the DIR-657 with four Gigabit LAN ports.
Despite all this D-Link has taken risks. Surprisingly the DIR-657 uses just a single wireless band (2.4GHz) rather than the two (2.4GHz and 5GHz) typically seen in high spec routers. 5GHz isn't supported by every wireless device, but it offers faster performance (albeit at shorter range) than 2.4GHz and allows a router to broadcast two networks with independent bandwidth – ideal for separating someone in a household streaming media from another hogging bandwidth with web surfing and Internet downloads.
In addition D-Link has used its 'N 300' specification (offering speeds up to a theoretical maximum of 300Mps) when it has also long offered an 'N 450' spec. Obviously theoretical speeds remain pie in the sky compared to real world performance, but for such a multimedia focused product it seems strange D-Link hasn't opted to equip it with every possible advantage. Consequently our enthusiasm for the DIR-657 was somewhat muted and for all its headlining features we found that caution to be well advised.
Whether using mixed mode (802.11b/g/n) or locking the router specifically to 802.11n, the DIR-657 delivers disappointing results. At two metres in the fractionally faster 802.11n single mode throughput reached just 49Mbps when transferring a 700MB file. This dropped alarmingly to 19Mbps from five metres away then to just 11Mbps from 10 metres. From 10 metres with a solid wall and hollow wood door in the way (a more realistic scenario) throughput dropped to just over 3Mbit. This leaves the DIR-657 some way behind dual band routers like the DIR-825 and speeds are unremarkable even for a single 2.4GHz band device.