WiFi Upgrade Time at the Mountain Compound

There's quite a bit going on in my home network: Main workstation PC, a media server PC, a couple of iDevices, an AT&T microcell, several Apple Airport Expresses, an Apple TV, PS3, Wii... you get the picture. All of these devices are on a single 2.4GHz network, except for the PS3, Apple TV, and Wii, which are on the wired LAN. The most important thing I use my wireless network for is for whole-house music streaming. Using an iPhone or iPad as the remote for iTunes running on my media PC, music is streamed to three Airport Expresses and an Apple TV connected to powered speakers. Musical delight ensues. Second to this are file transfers from my main PC to my media PC that also performs local back-up duties. Lastly, all of these devices need to get on the internet to download files, browse the web, stream Netflix, or push files to Mozy for backup. Lately there have been some problems cropping up. I can't complain about the data rates between the non-PCs, but things aren't going so well on the PC to PC and PC to intertubes fronts. 

I've been using a Linksys WRT54GL with DD-WRT firmware for several years and it's been great. This open source firmware is a drastic improvement over Linksys' build and I strongly suggest flashing your router firmware to this if it's compatible. For a several months I ran a D-Link DIR-655 Draft N router with gigabit LAN, but that guy started having all sorts of issues and I switched back to the Linksys. It's been that way ever since. Sadly, I think she's on her last legs and it's time she's replaced by a much younger, sexier, and bandwidthier gal. 

Here are the issues currently plaguing my network:

  • PC to intartubes connection has started acting up. For minutes at a time the PC connection will stall and I can't even get out a ping. While this is happening, I can sometimes browse the web on the same network from another device. This has been happening much more recently and is due to Windows, the WiFi card, or the router. This is EXTREMELY frustrating.
  • Most of my Airport Expresses think they're not on the network anymore, but will play music anyway. Super weird; they blink yellow demanding a network connection but have no problem connecting to iTunes and blasting The Graduate throughout the house. This could be due to the devices themselves or the router. 
  • These same Airport Expresses will decide they're no longer connected to the network and the only fix is to power cycle the router; sometimes twice before they're recognized again.
  • File transfers between PCs max out at about 1MBps, and occasionally 3. This is embarrassingly slow, and something I like to keep secret. 
  • Microwaving delicious treats jams my streaming music. Thanks to the FCC for making sure my microwave isn't blasting me with 2.4GHz cancer rays. EMI fail. This is a 2.4GHz WiFi problem that can be eliminated by moving everything up to 5GHz N. 
This is all very annoying. Since the router is pretty old and I'm tired of debugging it's time to upgrade. The non-negotiable requirements for the new device are as follows: 
  • Simultaneous dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios. I want all my 5 GHz N capable devices on this network, while maintaining the 2.4GHz network for things that aren't. Getting both PCs on 5GHz N will significantly increase transfer rates between machines.
  • Gigabit LAN ports. For goodness' sake it's 2011, get that 10/100 stuff out of my face.
When I started taking a gander on Newegg for what was available, I was shocked and delighted by the additional features that are being included in the higher end models. I love the idea of 'Guest networks' that keep your buds' phones and laptops sandboxed in their own network, keeping your own completely separate and secure. Built in USB NAS is also pretty slick; makes network backups much easier. So far, I'm looking at the following models. They're all simultaneous dual-band and have gigabit LAN, as I've demanded.
  • Linksys E3000
    • Guest networks, USB port for external storage, UPnP media server, 4 GbE ports
  • Netgear WNDR3700-100NAS
    • Guest networks, USB port for external storage, DLNA server, 4 GbE ports
  • D-Link DIR-825
    • USB port for external storage, 4 GbE ports
  • Apple Airport Extreme
    • Guest networks, USB port for external storage, 3 GbE ports, familiar pretentious white Apple shine
I also plan on replacing the 802.11N cards in these PCs with new ones made by the same manufacturer as the router, and preferably ones that were tested with the router in the reviews. It's going to take a few days to figure out which one to get. This research is all about finding thorough reviews and sifting through as much user feedback as possible. I'll be blogging my findings. Game on.