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How Apple “Doubled” iPad Wi-Fi Throughput

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During the launch of the fourth-generation iPad and iPad mini on 23 October 2012, I couldn’t help but prick up my ears when I heard Phil Schiller state, at least twice, that these new models had Wi-Fi that was “up to twice as fast” as earlier models.

My immediate supposition was that Apple had upgraded the 802.11n chips to models that could handle two “spatial streams.” One of the speed boosts in 802.11n over earlier versions was its capability, using multiple antennas (known as MIMO for “multiple in, multiple out”), to send unique streams of wireless data that take different paths through space. All iOS devices were single stream (really, SISO: “single in, single out”), because that requires a simpler radio system and simpler antenna architecture.

But, no, Apple actually chose a course that doesn’t truly provide “up to twice” the throughput except in limited circumstances. The company’s iPad features page trumpets “advanced Wi-Fi technology,” which is odd, as it would mean that Apple has upgraded to technology it has offered since 2006 in Macs! Apple writes, “With dual-band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) 802.11n Wi-Fi and support for channel bonding, download speeds can reach up to 150 Mbps.”

There are problems with that statement, as clear as it might seem. Channel bonding uses what Apple previously called “wide” channels: it takes two separate 802.11n channels and treats them as one. This feature has been in all Macs that were sold with 802.11n (whether initially or through a later firmware update in 2007), and is offered in all 802.11n Apple base stations, too. The raw single-stream data rate for 802.11n is 75 Mbps; double the channel width and you can get a raw rate of 150 Mbps. In practice, the improvement is never quite that much. In my testing, I have often seen 30 to 35 Mbps for an interference-free short-range connection using a single stream, and more like 50 Mbps with a wide channel.

But beyond the raw rate is where wide channels may be used. Although the IEEE 802.11 committee that approved 802.11n allows wide channels in 2.4 GHz, and the Wi-Fi Alliance that certifies gear with the Wi-Fi label offers it as well, it’s rarely used. The 2.4 GHz band is crowded with baby monitors, cordless phones, Bluetooth, and other Wi-Fi networks. The algorithm that enables wide channels has three separate tests in 2.4 GHz to make sure it’s not “talking over” another network by bonding channels.

In most cases, circumstances don’t allow wide channels to kick in with 2.4 GHz networks, and the Wi-Fi Alliance has been making it harder to use in 2.4 GHz. Further, Apple never enabled wide channels for 2.4 GHz in any 802.11n base station it has sold. (There used to be a switch to disable channel bonding in 5 GHz, but that has been removed in AirPort Utility 6.)

So the wide channels are typically available only for use on base stations in the 5 GHz band, where there are more channels in most countries than with 2.4 GHz, and where the channels are more spread out. But even though that frequency space is available, 802.11n still employs a few mechanisms in the 5 GHz band (less restrictively than in 2.4 GHz) that prevent bonding channels in many cases, too. So long as there are other 5 GHz networks nearby, it’s unlikely that wide channels will be available. (The ugly technical details are in a 2007 post to my defunct Wi-Fi Networking News site.)

In the end, the “up to 150 Mbps” or “2x” improvement is a sort of silly marketing point that should have been confined as a note in the tech specs and not trumpeted as “advanced,” “new” or, in fact, in any way special during the launch event. Adding two-stream or even three-stream support to future iOS devices would have a greater impact on improving throughput than this channel bonding tweak affords.


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Comments about How Apple “Doubled” iPad Wi-Fi Throughput
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Where is the " AC " in these devices and in the rest of Mac line up?
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-25 11:57
802.11ac is barely baked and hardly available. The advantages have been overstated for most users, in any case. Only in limited circumstances do you both need the higher per-device throughput and can achieve it where a base station has 80 MHz of available clear spectrum to use.

In any case, Apple almost certainly would put out a base station update (which I guess for Feb. 2013) before it would widely update its hardware. The iOS devices have always lagged Macs with the latest Wi-Fi. The current iOS state of the art is substantially behind the adapters in Macs, for instance.
The Help on my AirPort Utility for a my AirPort Extreme First Gen indicates MIMO is part of it. But, in the Airport Utility itself, I could find no confirmation of this.
How do we know we have it, if we have it, on Macs and AirPort Extremes?
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-25 15:05
I don't believe it's possible to get a Wi-Fi base station certified as Wi-Fi without including MIMO. And all Macintoshes, even those with "secret" 802.11n in 2006, include at least 2x2x2 MIMO for 802.11n with support for wide channels. (That's two transmitting and two receiving antennas, and two radio chains for 2x2x2.) Some even have more antennas and radio chains.

You can tell that a device has MIMO in 802.11n by the numbers. The AirPort Extreme, even the first 2007 model, shows up to 150 Mbps in 2.4 GHz (two 75 Mbps radio streams) and 300 Mbps in 5 GHz (two radio streams at up to double the channel width for 150 Mbps per channel). Newer Extreme and Time Capsules are 3x3x3 and are shown as up to 450 Mbps in 5 GHz.

You can also visit where you can look up Apple products and see the details of each certification.
Matthew Blakley  2012-10-28 20:04
Option-Click on the network icon in the menu bar and note the MCS index. Anything above 7 is MIMO.