• Old laptop Mini PCI wireless N shootout, is it really worth the upgrade?

    When we picked up an old, but reliable, Dell Latitude D610 on a NewEgg Shell Shocker deal, I felt it would be the perfect time to do an old laptop upgrade wireless card shootout. The D610 still uses the old 32-bit Mini PCI Intel 2200BG wireless card, which is good for its time, but falling behind as it relates to wireless N. Upgrade options for this slot are slim as all new laptops are Mini PCI Express slots. This left me wondering why all of the upgrade options are sparse or non-existent. Was it just the new technology and abandonment of the old, or was it simply that the older laptop couldn't take advantage of wireless N anyway? I aimed to answer those questions with a Mini PCI wireless N in an old laptop shootout.

    There are really only two options for wireless N with a Mini PCI slot. The first is the TP-Link TL-WN861N and the other is the Netegriti EM-700NAG. I attempted to contact Discount Technology for a Netegriti card for review and was referred to the vendor site. Seeing they had no email address I promptly gave up... I then contacted TP-Link and got a very courteous response that they don't lend product out for reviews, rats... At the time the TP-Link adapter was only $19.99 and Mrs. HomeNetworkEnabled agreed it wouldn't break the bank if it made her laptop faster, all of which I could not guarantee. At $119.95 the Netegriti card was beyond my scope, but in the interest of having another wireless N to compare against, I used a Tenda W311U wireless-n usb stick.

    The TP-Link adapter arrived via Newegg (I at first thought I had ordered some Ginseng) and I hurriedly started devising the barrage of tests I would put it through, which I laid out if you follow that link. I wanted to baseline the old Intel 2200BG card, then plug in the Tenda USB adapter and baseline that, and finally install the TP-Link and see what it could do. The wireless router used in the tests was my Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH, set to channel 6, with 40MHz wide disabled so my neighbors don't hate me. It should be noted that, possibly, in a less congested wireless neighborhood, turning on 40MHz wide could boost throughput on the TP-Link adapter. 40MHz wide works by using two channels to increase throughput, in our congested wireless environment that was neither beneficial nor ethical.

    So let's get right in to the results!

    Living Room (6 feet from router)

    The first test was done in the living room, sitting 6 feet from the Buffalo router serving wireless. This first chart is wireless LAN speed using LAN Speed Test. It should be noted that, connected gigabit ethernet, this laptop ran at 692.55 Mbps down and 354.487 Mbps up for this test. These tests clearly show that wireless is still no substitute for a good ol' wire. I was going to put the wired LAN speed on the same graph for comparison, but it dwarfed all wireless speeds so badly that I removed it. Wireless N speeds were still a tenth of wired speeds. As another sidenote, both wireless N adapters connected at 130Mbps, but as you can see that wasn't a true indicator of throughput.

    In the Wired to Wireless internet speed test (probably the most important for a majority of laptop users) the Tenda and TP-Link adapter fared very similarly and were fairly close to wire speeds. The original Intel 2200BG adapter scored pretty well for a wireless G adapter.

    Interestingly enough, the original Intel 2200BG wireless adapter had the best received signal in the living room.


    Next we moved on to the basement. This is a direct shot from the router, just with an internal wall in-between and the typical furniture. The basement tests showed about the same speeds with the two wireless N adapters, and reduced signal strength for all. The Intel 2200BG still had the best received signal here, yet took a big performance hit on speed.

    LAN speed test

    Wired to wireless WAN speed test


    The last set of tests were the upstairs bedroom, a straight shot back to the wireless router with no walls in the way, but more distance than the basement test location. The two wireless N adapters held consistent speeds here, while the wireless G adapter saw some loss when compared to the living room. All adapters showed reduced signal, but that did not seem to affect speed on the N adapters.

    LAN speed test

    Wired to wireless WAN speed test

    These tests clearly show that upgrading an old laptop to wireless N using the TP-Link TL-WN861N, or even the Tenda W311U USB adapter, can be an economical and effective way to get a little better speed and throughput, even when on the internet. Since internet speeds are a fraction of LAN speed anyway, I was a little skeptical that there would be any benefit, but increased stability with range does seem to be a benefit and the N adapters held their speeds regardless of location, which couldn't be said for the G adapter. It should also be said that this was against an Intel 2200BG adapter, which was a good adapter, there were many wireless G adapters that did not work nearly as well.

    UPDATE: About a day into the new TP-Link wireless card, Mrs. HomeNetworkEnabled started complaining that her laptop was super slow. I ran a couple of speed tests and saw her laptop was getting less than 1Mbps on the internet where she was getting close to 19Mbps before. Obviously the TP-Link card had to be the problem. Rather than yanking it and going back to the Intel 2200BG, I started messing around with adapter settings. I ended up changing all possible power settings on the adapter from Legacy Power Save to WMM Power Save and the speed returned, even faster than my original speed tests. The TL-WN861N also seems to have an issue with reconnecting when the laptop comes out of hibernation, despite seeing the network, an issue confirmed in the reviews at Newegg. I haven't contacted TP-Link to see if this is a known issue, but the latest driver is 2009, so I don't expect much sympathy.

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. toki's Avatar
      toki -
      I realize this post is 3 years old, but for the benefit of anyone else that is referred here by google and trying to decide if they should upgrade their wireless card in the dinosaur of a laptop they still use, yes you should. It's still available on Amazon for $20.
      The problem with waking the card from sleep/hibernation the author mentioned is resolved by simply disabling the power management for it in windows. I hate to be the one that tells you this, but your 10 year old laptop sucks at power management anyway. I bought this card for an old Gateway that I still use and am irrationally attached to. I am happy to report that the Atheros chipset in the TP-Link card is supported out of the box by current linux kernels.
      Installing this card allowed me to finally retire my old 54G router that I had still been using as a "legacy" access point to my home network. Running a current N router in mixed mode DOES slow down your entire network, which was unacceptable. Use of this card now gets me the whole 50/10 internet access that I pay for on this machine, where previously I was limited to around 15mbits download through the 54G access point.
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