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Bill Bennett

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Wi-fi networks are moving out of the home and office to extend mobile phone networks.

D-Link EXO Mesh DIR-X1560 Wi-fi 6 router

D-Link’s NZ$300 DIR-X1560 is an affordable, basic way to upgrade your home wireless network to Wi-Fi 6.

Chances are you use a router supplied by your internet service provider. That means it will be tried and tested, but uninspiring. Moreover, it’s unlikely the router will support Wi-Fi 6.

There are good reasons to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, but little need to rush. If you are in a hurry, D-Link’s NZ$300 DIR-X1560 is the obvious choice. At the time of writing the alternatives are expensive high-end devices. These would be overkill in a normal home.

D-link dir-x1560 wireless router

Shiny

The DIR-X1560 is a small shiny plastic box. It has four removable and adjustable antennae. There are four LED indicators on the front. They show power status, the internet connection and two wireless network indicators.

On the back there are four Ethernet ports for the local network. There is an incoming Ethernet port that connects to your fibre terminal and a reset button.

The two wireless network indicators tell you what is going on with the routers two radio bands. Like many domestic routers, the DIR-X1560 can operate on the 2.4Ghz and 5GHz bands. More expensive Wi-Fi 6 routers can add a third 160Mhz waveband.

Gigabit wireless speeds

If you can, you’ll want to use the router on 5GHz as much as possible. It’s faster and less prone to interference. In theory you can get speeds of 1.2 Gbps on 5GHz. That’s faster than a gigabit fibre connection. It will pipe data around your house at a breakneck speed.

That’s the theory. In practice Wi-Fi never delivers theoretical speeds. It’s cheeky of router manufacturers to even mention them. The most I could get from the DIR-X1560 was around 600mbps and that was with a device placed a metre from the router.

Mind you, 600mbps is more than enough for every application you are likely to meet.

DIR-X1560 a basic Wi-Fi 6 upgrade

It says at the top of this story that the DIR-X1560 is a basic way to upgrade your home network. Basic because it lacks features you’d find on high-end wireless routers. Parental controls let you block websites and limit the hours your little darlings spend online. There is nothing in the way of malware protection.

Compared with other routers, it is a limited web console. You might view this as restricting your options for tinkering. Or you might see it as less scope to screw things.

You can see the cable and network status. There are all the address numbers. The console will show the number of connected clients. If you wish you can disconnect them. One feature I enjoyed was having a Speedtest run from the router itself. All routers should do this.

Web console

As the screen shot shows, D-Link’s web console struggles with Apple’s Safari browser. The second version shows the same page on Firefox. There’s a neat control that lets you prioritise devices. That way Mum’s home office computer can have priority over junior’s Fortnite session. You can protect bandwidth for work Zoom calls.

Away from the web console, you can manage the DIR-X1560 with a phone app. It is cruder and less comprehensive than the console, but you get the important controls.

And if that isn’t enough, a handful of controls work with Alexa or Google voice commands, if that is your thing. This can be useful if you need to reboot in a hurry.

At this point I should write about installing the router. but I ran into an authentication problem with my ISP that meant I took days to get everything working. It didn’t look like an authentication problem and I didn’t solve it until I called D-link’s support.

DIR-X1560 sterling performance

Compared with the ISP provided Wi-Fi 5 router it replaced the DIR-X1560 did a sterling job. I’m going to stick with this review product.

My testing process was simple enough. I ran Speedtest five times using my ISP provided Wi-Fi 5 router from the desktop iMac. The iMac supports Wi-Fi 5, not Wi-fi 6. Then I did the same again on an iPad Pro located next to the desktop. For the third set of tests I moved the iPad Pro to about 1 metre from the router.

The desktop is about three metres from the router, but the other side of a corridor. There are two walls in the way.

Then I did the same tests using the DIR-X1560 router. In both cases I made sure my devices weren’t running backups or other hidden web applications. I didn’t check to see if Johanna was using her computer, phone or iPad. After all, part of the reason for upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 is to improve throughput when you connect lots of devices.

To keep this simple, I averaged each set of five measurements. This is indicative, not scientific.

 DIR-X1560Wi-Fi 5 ISP supplied router
IMac653 down / 296 up488 down / 417 up
iPad Pro 655 down / 446 up320 down / 267 up

Band choices

Other Wi-Fi routers can allow client devices to choose a 2.4GHz or 5GHz connection.1.

With the DIR-X1560 you can make that decision from the console, not from the device. During testing I found a huge difference in performance between the two wave bands. The difference is larger than you might expect when looking at theoretical top speeds.

None of my devices could get much above 80mbps on 2.4GHz.

I benchmarked everything against an old ISP supplied Wi-Fi 5 router. This beats the DIR-X1560 by miles on 2.4GHz performance. It can reach as high as 200mbps. But the 5GHz is the one that matters.

The old router managed a strong signal in the home office, which is three metres and two walls away. It remains strong in the upstairs bedrooms that are five and seven metres and three or more walls away from the router. Beyond that the signal strength drops fast.

When I compared this with the DIR-X1560, it’s long distance performance was better on both 5GHz and 2.4GHz. In other words, the router has an extended reach. I don’t have the hardware to perform a better test of this, but my suck-it-and-see approach was clear enough for this house. Your mileage may differ.

DIR-X1560 verdict

If you want to get a Wi-Fi 6 network running today, the D-Link EXO Mesh AX1500 Wi-Fi 6 Router (DIR-X1560) is a solid choice. Its 2.4GHz performance is poor, but that’s not always important for everyone. You can get more features and a fancier web console elsewhere. Yet unless you have specialist wireless network needs, the DIR-X1560 ticks all the boxes.


  1. To make life confusing, this is sometimes called 5G Wi-Fi. ↩︎

Wi-Fi 6 — a better way to do wireless

Fibre to the home can be fast. It’s like a six-lane motorway with no speed limit. Yet once that turbo-charged data traffic hits the home, it can slow to a pedestrian crawl.

That’s because home networks tend to use wireless technology. Wi-Fi, the brand name for wireless networking, distributes data in almost every New Zealand home.

Fixed line Ethernet is the faster option. Use it where you can to improve data speeds. You should, at least, connect your TV to your router using an Ethernet cable. That way you won’t get Wi-fi hiccups in the middle of the big match or a Netflix movie.

Cables versus wireless

Beyond that, it’s down to how much you need all that gigabit fibre speed. Stringing cables around the place is expensive. It can be bothersome. Using wireless is far easier, even if it is slow and suffers from congestion.

There is a lot you can do about these negatives. The most obvious and, in the long term, the best option is to move to Wi-Fi 6. It is the most modern version of wireless network technology.

Wi-Fi 6 can be faster than older Wi-fi, although you may not always notice much of a speed bump1. The more important thing about Wi-Fi 6 is that it works better when you have many connected devices.

And it’s likely you do.

Wi-Fi 6 eases data congestion

The average home has around 20 internet connected devices. Switched on devices will attempt to communicate with your router all the time.

The technical term for this is congestion. Unlike a lot of network jargon, it doesn’t need explaining.

When lots of people use the same Wi-Fi router at the same time, you have a data bottleneck.

The technical name for Wi-Fi 6 is 802.11ax. When the Wi-Fi Alliance updated home wireless technology in the past the focus was on speed improvements.

Greater capacity

Wi-Fi 6 does this. But more important it increases capacity and improves power efficiency. It will perform better when there are many devices.

The speed improvement is significant. In theory a router can push data through the air at 1.2Gbps. This compares with 800mbps on the earlier Wi-Fi standard.

In practice you will never see those speeds.

There are all kinds of gotchas slowing connections. The big one is that everything on the network shares the bandwidth. Your neighbours’s Wi-Fi can interfere and slow yours if you are unlucky2. Wireless data will slow down going through walls. There are other factors beyond the scope of this post.

The key thing is that you should see faster Wi-Fi 6 connections: 30 percent faster than old school Wi-Fi. You’re going to need that extra speed if you have a gigabit fibre connection.

Capacity boost from Wi-Fi 6

More speed is great. Yet the increased capacity is every better. You don’t need to know the technology behind this, but if you have a spare week, go and research Orthogonal Frequency Division Multi Access.

In effect this splits radio channels into smaller chunks, then sends simultaneous blocks of data through them.

Doing things this way has an interesting by-product: lower latency. This is the time it takes for a signal to do a round trip from, say, your laptop, to and from a server. Wireless latency, think of mobile data, tends to be far higher than with fixed networks.

Latency

Latency is one of those measurements where lower means better.

Lower latency is great for gamers. With a high latency connection your game rival can take a shot at you before you see them.

With lower latency you should see less lag when chatting to others on, say, a Zoom video conference. There are times when this can be a problem, although in the bigger scheme of things, it’s not essential.

Power efficiency

The greater power efficiency in Wi-Fi means battery powered devices will run longer between charges. Again, it’s not a huge improvement when you look at a single household. Yet when millions of homes save a small amount of power we burn less fuel.

There’s another aspect of battery life that might not be of interest right now, but could be in the future. It means that small Internet-of-things devices can go years without needing a charge. This technology is now turning up in domestic products and may soon be useful.

One last advantage of Wi-Fi 6 is that it has better security than earlier versions. It has WPA3 which makes it harder for intruders to run a password guessing attack. You can never be secure enough.

Wi-Fi 6 catches

There is a catch. You’ll need more than a new router. Wi-Fi 6 needs a hardware upgrade. You won’t be able to go to a website and download a software upgrade that lets your existing devices use it.

Almost every new device now comes with Wi-Fi 6. Hardware you purchased in the last year may have it. You’ll need to check.

In other words you may not see much benefit upgrading your router until you buy other hardware. My phone and iPad Pro have Wi-Fi 6, but my desktop computer does not.

The other catch is that your service provider might not offer Wi-Fi 6 routers. Few do. The hardware is more expensive than older Wi-Fi routers. If you buy your own expect to pay more than $200.


  1. Mainly because you need new hardware to get the benefit. The story explains this later. ↩︎
  2. Although there are things you can do to reduce this problem ↩︎

Working from home: Networks for beginners

Working from home may mean you need a better domestic data networks. That way you can Zoom with colleague while others watch Netflix or give the Playstation a workout. Here’s what you need to know before you upgrade.

Basics

Before we get down to details, some basics. If you have a UFB fibre connection, this enters your house at something called the Optical Network Terminal. You may also hear people call it an ONT.

Most of the time, the ONT connects direct to your home Wi-fi router.

Chorus ONT
A Chorus Optical Network Terminal

If you have copper broadband, then you need a modem and a Wi-fi router, although these days the two devices often sit in the same box.

Fixed wireless broadband users have a box which may be called a modem, router or something similar.

A router is a specialised computer that switches data to and from circuits. Some people call them switches. Typically there will be one incoming port and four outgoing ports.

They all use something called Ethernet, which is a 40-year-old wire network technology. Ethernet is reliable and can run at speeds from a few megabits per second up to 400 gigabits per second.

Today’s home routers also offer Wi-fi. This is a wireless networking technology. It’s what most people use most of the time.

Wi-fi can be fiddly to get going at first, but once working tends to be the easiest way to move data around the house. As we shall see, Wi-fi is great, but has limitations.

Wired is best

If you can use wired network connections at home, do so. At a minimum this means a direct cable from your home router to your TV. If you have shared data storage connect that to your router with a cable too.

Ideally you’d connect a shared printed direct to your router using an Ethernet cable. That tends to be awkward given that most people chose to have their Onts and routers next to the TV, which is often not the best place for a printer.

Wire is fast

Wires will always give you better speeds and more reliable connections.

Modern home routers often, but not always, offer gigabit Ethernet. Some might only have a single gigabit port with the rest running at 100Mbps. Either of these will be more than enough to get data from your fibre connection to your TV.

Using wire connections is even more important if you have a gigabit fibre internet connection: see below.

Wired networks may offer the best performance, but there’s more to networking than raw speed. Sometimes a slower connection is the better option.

Ethernet

Ethernet comes with a couple of catches. First, running Ethernet around the house isn’t easy or cheap.

Paying someone else to do the wiring job can be expensive, although it can be wiser in the long term if that’s what you really need. In truth, you can almost always get away without going that far.

The second catch is that Ethernet may often be less help than you’d think. That’s because a lot of modern devices don’t use it. Your tablet and phone certainly won’t come with an Ethernet port.

Many modern printers made for homes and home offices don’t have Ethernet. Which is handy as it means you can put them where they are less disruptive.

So, like it or not, Wi-fi will have to do a lot of your home network heavy lifting.

Gigabit broadband, slowcoach Wi-fi

The problem with Wi-fi at the moment is that most home wireless networks can’t run at speeds faster than about 500Mbps.

That is if you are lucky. Typically you’ll see slower speeds.

To make matters worse, everything connected to Wi-fi shares the same bandwidth. What’s more, Wi-fi doesn’t travel too well through solid objects.

Wi-fi signals can usually get through the plasterboard walls in New Zealand house. Yet performance can drop off dramatically the further you are from the router or the more solid material there is between you and the router.

It’s not unusual for home network speeds to drop below 100mbps. Which is disappointing if you have a gigabit broadband plan.

Given the number of phones, tablets, computers, games consoles and other kit in a modern house, your devices might only get tens of megabits per second each.

The good news is that not everything uses the bandwidth at the same time.

Which means if you connect to, say, Speedtest, from a home computer connected to gigabit fibre but linked to your broadband port via Wi-fi and nothing else is running you might see speeds of 300Mbps to 400Mbps on a good day. Some connections will be slower.

One way to reduce congestion is to use a mesh network. These spread the wireless signals around

Wi-fi 6 will fix some of this

There’s a new version of Wi-fi that promises to fix some of these problems. Wi-fi 6, or 802.11ax as it is sometimes known, promises faster speeds, less congestion and less pressure on device batteries.

You need to be careful reading specifications for Wi-fi router devices. Read the marketing material for a router using the older Wi-fi 5 standard and you might see a claim it runs at 3Gbps.

This will be a theoretical maximum speed. You will never see anything like that. In reality individual device speeds top out at around 500Mbps.

A Wi-fi 6 router might say 10Gbps on the box. In practice you may only see a small speed increase if you connect a Wi-fi 6 equipped laptop to a Wi-fi 6 router when compared to Wi-fi 5 speeds.

Although there may be a bigger speed jump.

If you think this language sounds like hedging, it is. Like anything to do with wireless communications, speed depends on a number of factors. You may not be able to control all of them.

Congestion

While you should see minor, yet noticeable speed improvements with Wi-fi 6 on individual devices, that isn’t the technology’s main goal.

Wi-fi 6 is more about improving network performance when there are lots of devices connected. It does a better job of managing congestion.

As more and more devices connect to the network, congestion gets worse leaving less headroom for each individual connection. Wi-fi 6 lets a router communicate with more devices at the same time.

Security is the other advantage Wi-fi 6 has over Wi-fi 5. It uses a security protocol called WPA3 that makes it even harder for hackers to guess passwords.

Getting to Wi-fi 6

This all sounds great, but there is one huge drawback to Wi-fi 6. It isn’t a simple software upgrade, it is all about hardware.

To get its benefits you will not only need a Wi-fi 6 router, but you will also need new Wi-fi 6 equipped devices.

A new Wi-fi modem might be a few hundred dollars. New everything else will run to thousands.

Wi-fi 6 equipped devices are only now coming on to the market. Apple’s latest iPad Pro models have Wi-fi 6. At the time of writing no Apple Mac models do.

In fact, you will struggle to find Wi-fi 6 devices in general. When I checked I managed to find one new Dell laptop and one HP laptop with Wi-fi 6 support. If there are Wi-Fi 6 TVs or smart home devices they have yet to be announced in New Zealand.

This means unless you have one or more Wi-Fi 6 devices, it is pointless upgrading your router.

One last point. Wi-fi 6 delivers screaming performance when you have a mesh router using the technology. They are expensive at the time of writing, New Zealand prices start at around $1000, but they can flood your home with fast wireless.

Five new regional digital hubs

Regional economic development minister Shane Jones dipped into the Provincial Growth Fund to find $2 million for five more digital hubs.

The hubs provide free wi-fi, co-working space and advice for people outside the main centres.

New hubs will be at Gisborne, Katikati, Te Kateretanga O Kura-Hau-Pō in Horowhenua, Woodville and Murupara. They will join eight other hubs already planned for Northland, West Coast, Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay and Manawatū-Whanganui-Horowhenua.

This is a sound idea that extends the idea of rural broadband. It’s one thing to deliver connectivity to the bush, it’s another thing to provide hubs where casual users can experience or use the technology.

Some rural users may struggle to pay for an account at first, but need just enough free connectivity to get started. Others may want to try before they buy.

Providing advice is crucial for people who have been underserved with technology in the past. Using broadband may seem straightforward to most users, but it can be daunting for people on the wrong side of the digital divide.

As Jones says: “Improving digital connectivity was flagged as a key area of investment for the PGF as it is a catalyst for economic development and wellbeing, lifts productivity and supports the other investments government is making in the regions through the Provincial Growth Fund.”

There’s a strong case for a similar initiative in less well off parts of urban centres. That money won’t come from the PGF, but now government has accepted the principle of building hubs it shouldn’t be too hard to organise.

Emirates in-flight wi-fi: More despair than OnAir

While one trip is not enough to write a definitive review of Emirates OnAir, the airline’s inflight Wi-fi service, I’m not masochistic enough to put myself through the experience a second time.

So this is an anecdote, not a formal review.

My earlier plan to work at the airport business lounge was foiled by overcrowding. Plan B was to write, fact-check, polish and file my stories from my seat as Emirates flight EK448 made its way from Dubai to Auckland.

The plane has in-flight Wi-fi, so it should have been practical. It’s a 15 hour flight, which, on paper at least, left plenty of time to write and rest.

That’s not how things worked out.

Options

Emirates offers three in-flight Wi-fi options on Airbus A380 flights. There’s a free 20MB download. 150MB costs US$10, 500MB costs US$16.

The 20MB free option wasn’t even enough to download the email that arrived in the eight hours since I last connected. That’s because some PR companies insist on sending journalists material as PDFs or Word documents with large embedded logos or other images.

I didn’t plan to work all through the flight so I opted for 150MB. As we shall see, this turned out to be a wise choice.

On my flight the Wi-Fi wasn’t turned on until almost an hour after take-off. By then the cabin crew were starting to serve a meal, so I waited until that was over; maybe two hours into the journey.

Simple

Connecting, logging-in and paying was straightforward enough. Two days after landing the payment still doesn’t show up in my bank account so I can’t confirm there were no price surprises. If it does show up I’ll let you know how it went.

The rest of this story is a tale of woe. Here at home I have a 1 gbps fibre connection. When I’m on the move I use 4G mobile which can mean anything between about 20 and 100 mbps. I’m old enough to remember 1 mbps ADSL and even dial-up, which during its last phase could connected at 56 kbps.

Emirates’ OnAir Wi-fi service was slower than dial-up. Much slower. It was so slow that I couldn’t even load many webpages before they timed out. This included Speedtest. Mail was slow. I normally use Apple’s Mail app. I tried to use Gmail, but, again, the page couldn’t load before timing out.

Dreadful benchmark

The best benchmark I can give you is the time it took to file my first story. I use iA Writer, which produces a text file as output. The story was 5050 characters long. The file is 5k. That is five kilobytes. In other words, bugger all text. It took Emirates OnAir 27 minutes to transfer this file. That’s about three bytes per second.

To put this in perspective. Emirates OnAir sent my story at 33 words per minute. A Morse Code operator might transmit at around 13 words per minute.

It is like all the passengers on the flight are sharing a single dial-up internet connection.

That’s not the whole story. The OnAir service cut out entirely for large sections of the flight. This is to be expected. After all, Emirates publishes a map showing areas where the satellites servicing OnAir don’t operate. However, the flight didn’t pass through these areas.

Not a good look for Emirates OnAir

There’s nothing new or original when it comes to whinging about in-flight Wi-fi. The services are usually slow, poor quality and ridiculously overpriced. My point here is that it is so bad, it’s not remotely fit for purpose. Fact checking was near impossible. Sending email questions and getting answers was painfully slow.

In the end it took nine hours to do a job that might normally take me 90 minutes.

One last point. Even though I was using OnAir full tilt for about nine hours of a 15 hour journey, I only used about a third of the 150MB data allowance. This means there’s no point buying the 500MB plan, you simply can’t use it.

Like it says at the start, this is based on a single experience, it’s not a definitive review. Even so, Emirates OnAir is, at best, a marginal proposition.