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A Big Disappointment At First...
on December 3, 2011
Rating revised (1 -> 4). Original review kept as-is for reference purposes in case others have similar problems. See final update for solution to performance problem.
The purpose of a cutting-edge dual-band (and simultaneous at that!) multi-stream adapter such as this is to allow you to create a modern wireless environment using the newest 2 and 3 stream dual-band wireless routers. In practical terms, though, the 2.4GHz radio band really only has 3 clear channels to choose from so unless you live in a rural area the likelihood of getting more than one channel to bind together to get the multi-stream link speeds advertised by the manufacturers is nil.
So, you set up your new multi-band multi-stream router to use one channel of the 2.4GHz band (if you can find a clear one) just for legacy g and single stream n purposes (your smart phone, older laptops, etc). Then you set up the spacious 5GHz band with as many streams and 40Mhz channels as your router will let you claim. Your new laptop probably already has a multi-stream card that can sit on the 5GHz radio band. This TEW-684UB adapter would theoretically be the perfect add-on to a desktop PC in an awkward location for running Ethernet cable. And with simulcast radios you can use the 5GHz for your main connectivity and the 2.4GHz band for monitoring the rest of your network with free software such as InSSIDer.
I read the mixed reviews of this device and as usual I thought I would be smart enough to make it work to my satisfaction. My conclusion, however, is that either there is a huge variability in the quality of the adapters, or perhaps they only work well with the same brand chipset on the routers, or the praising reviews here are confusing link speed with actual throughput. Do not trust any review that does not include a speed test (available from various websites) comparing the speed of connecting your PC to the Ethernet port of the router with a test using the wireless interface. The link speed your computer reports is of little real significance. The actual throughput relative to a known quantity (your Ethernet connection to the router and onward to the Internet verified by a speed test site) is all that is important. The difference will show you your true wireless speed.
And therein lies my extreme disappointment. I should have known something was going to go bad when the setup program had extreme difficulty installing the drivers and the utility under Windows 7-64bit. After installation, the adapter would ignore the enable device function in Windows and the utility did not even list the 5GHz band as even existing. Note the utility, though not strictly required, is the only way to manipulate the radios used and does provide some useful functionality such as listing the local networks in your area and some dBm signal strength meters. I was finally able to to get it installed by using the old workaround of using the compatibility mode and telling the installer (the second setup.exe) that I really have Win XP. Do we really still need to do that in 2011? The next clue that this was more toy than tool is that the profiles that can be set with the utility only allow WEP for the encryption. Puleeze! 802.11n requires WPA2 minimally. Not really a problem since everyone uses Windows itself to control wireless these days and the Windows profile worked fine for setting WPA2.
In my environment (using a cable modem) I get between 22-24Mbps download througput with a 1Gb Ethernet connection. On a laptop using an Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 card set to 5GHz priority I get 18-20Mbps download throughput with clear line-of-site across an average size living room (no walls) but much faster connectivity to other local devices on my LAN (true n speeds to hardwired devices, for example). With TEW-684UB at the same location, the 5GHz a/n mode will get me around 0.3-0.5Mbps download and on the regular single stream 2.4GHz g/n mode I get up to 2Mbps download throughput and similar uselessness on the LAN.
And the adapter, though it has simultaneous radios, can't have the band to use be selected as a preference as with Intel. It will always default to 2.4Ghz when both radios are enabled. When you disable the 2.4Ghz radio in order to use the 5Ghz band you lose monitoring capability of the 2.4GHz band. Why have simultaneous radios if you can't have them both turned on? I will have to resort to multiple SSIDs to access the 5GHz band while the 2.4GHz band is on. I did find a more up-to-date driver and utility from Ralink, the manufacturer of the RT3573 chip used in the adapter (Trendnet just slaps their name on the driver and utility, they don't write anything themselves). They also had all the same shortcomings of the Trendnet provided driver and utility.
So, though at first I did not believe them, I now wish I trusted the reviews that questioned this adapter's capabilities. It would have saved a lot of hassles and time. Unfortunately, I also bought a Trendnet TEW-680MB Media Bridge at the same time which I have just started to play with and the same mediocre performance is present. I am probably going to stay away from any Trendnet products with Ralink chips for the time being. They might work with their own Trendnet routers but are very incompatible with my high-end Netgear router (WNDR3800) which works perfectly with Intel n wireless cards and all other legacy g cards I have. It seems to me that compatibility testing was not an important element in the development of this product and the lack of any upgraded drivers, firmware, or utility since release is telling. And one final thing, for such an expensive adapter you'd think they could put a USB cable that was not so ridiculously short and of such poor quality or at least use a standard USB B connector on the adapter instead of a micro-USB connector which few will have lying around.
Update 12/8/2011 - By turning off all n functionality on the 5GHz band on the wireless router (making it a single channel a band 54Mps network), the TEW-684UB throughput is as expected for that bandwidth (now reporting 16Mps instead of a fractional amount). Usable for Internet purposes but not very good for intranet purposes on my LAN with other functional n 5GHz and hardwired devices. Sorry, Trendnet/Ralink, you have to be compatible with the big guys. If Intel works perfectly with Netgear so must you. No change in review. It is just an overpriced a/b/g adapter in my environment.
Update 12/15/2011 - While playing around with the TEW-680MB Media Bridge I was noticing the same behavior as with this TEW-684UB adapter. In trying to discover the incompatibility with my Netgear router I basically went through all the multitude of settings on the router. The key appears to be forcing the Netgear router into Wi-Fi Multimedia Mode (Advanced - Setup - QOS Setup - Enable WMM settings on 5GHz) which makes no sense but, hey, it works and the speed is now blazingly fast, even faster than the Intel Centrino reference point and indistinguishable from hardwired connection (cable modem is now the bottleneck as it should be) . Note: the Multimedia setting in the advanced configuration setup of the TEW-684UB adapter itself does NOT also need to be set. This router setting combined with using two SSIDs to workaround the lack of the needed band priority setting in the adapter to allow simultaneous use of both radios removes the two show stoppers for me. The performance is now as expected. Loses one star for the mediocre documentation and inadequate QA compatibility testing, but terrific otherwise.