MacBook Pro delivers blazing speed in Gigabit Wi-Fi test

In a test of three smartphones and two laptops, all five products validate the superior throughput of 802.11ac

Gigabit Wi-Fi is starting to appear in mobile devices, so we got our hands on three smartphones and two laptops running the 802.11ac standard and put them to the test. Though you won't see anywhere near Gigabit speeds in real-world environments, our testing proves that 802.11ac can offer increased throughput over 802.11n.

We tested the 802.11ac wireless capabilities in three Android smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and Motorola Moto X. Plus, we tested a Dell XPS 15 laptop running Windows 8.1 and the MacBook Pro running Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks.

We ran throughput tests of each device at a distance of 25 feet from our access point with one wall in between. Our top performer was the MacBook Pro, which wasn't a surprise since it has three streams, whereas the other devices only have one or two streams. The MacBook Pro delivered a maximum throughput of 463Mbps and an average of 318Mbps.

The next best performer was the Dell XPS 15 laptop, averaging 219Mbps, which was the only 802.11ac two-stream device. All three of the smartphones were single-stream. The Galaxy Note 3 did the best at an average of 154Mbps, the Galaxy S4 was second at 105Mbps, and the Moto X placed last at only 48Mbps.

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD First look: Gigabit Wi-Fi adapters | Watch the slideshow version of this test+

Here are the individual reviews:

Samsung Galaxy S4

Samsung Galaxy S4

The Samsung Galaxy S4 (SGH-I337) was activated with AT&T and running Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean). It features a 5-inch wide full-HD Super AMOLED screen. It comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 1.9 GHz Quad-Core Processor or an Exynos 1.6 GHz Octa-Core Processor with 2GB RAM. It's available with 16G, 32G, or 64GB memory and a microSD slot supporting up to 64GB.

The Galaxy S4 is officially Wi-Fi Certified and is loaded with the Broadcom BCM4335 wireless chipset. It offers integrated support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. For Wi-Fi, the S4 offers single stream 802.11ac, with maximum hypothetical data rates of 150Mbps via 2.4 GHz and 433Mbps via 5 GHz.

The BCM4335 wireless chipset supports Broadcom's TurboQAM technology that implements the 256-QAM mode in both the 2.4- and 5-GHz bands to help increase data rates. To help increase the Wi-Fi range and performance, it supports beamforming for 802.11n/ac, low-density parity-check (LDPC) code, and space-time block code (STBC). Plus the chipset features advanced idle power consumption to help extend the S4's battery life. It also has integrated support for Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi Certified Miracast, and the Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint technologies.

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

The Samsung Ga laxy Note 3 (SM-N900T) was activated with T-Mobile and running Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean). It has a 5.7 inch full HD Super AMOLED screen. The LTE model comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 2.3-GHz Quad-Core Processor and the 3G model with an Exynos 1.9 GHz Octa-Core Processor, with with 3GB RAM. They are offered with 32G or 64GB memory and a microSD slot supporting up to 64GB.

The Note 3 is officially Wi-Fi Certified and is loaded with the Broadcom BCM4339 wireless chipset, offering single stream 802.11a/ac/b/g/n with maximum hypothetical data rates of 150Mbps via 2.4GHz and 433Mbps via 5 GHz.

Like the S4, the BCM4339 wireless chipset in the Note 3 supports Broadcom's TurboQAM technology to implement the 256-QAM mode in both the 2.4- and 5-GHz bands to help increase data rates.

For greater Wi-Fi range and performance it supports beamforming for 802.11n/ac and low-density parity-check (LDPC). The Broadcom proprietary Channel Smoothing helps increase receiver sensitivity. And specific to the BCM4339, Broadcom claims it's the only vendor to offer Long Term Evolution (LTE) co-existence to help decrease interference from the cellular transceiver.

Motorola Moto X

Motorola Moto X

The Motorola Moto X was activated with AT&T and running Android 4.4 (KitKat) and the Motorola X8 Mobile Computing System. It has a 4.7 inch AMOLED screen. It runs the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro 1.7 GHz Dual-Core Krait processor with 2GB RAM. It comes in 16G and 32GB memory sizes. It doesn't include a memory slot, but does come with 50GB storage on Google Drive for up to two years.

The Wi-Fi is provided by Qualcomm's WCN3680 chipset, which also provides Bluetooth 4.0. Plus it offers FM radio support, but the Moto X doesn't utilize the FM radio. It's Wi-Fi Certified and offers single stream 802.11a/ac/b/g/n with maximum hypothetical data rates of 150Mbps via 2.4 GHz and 433Mbps via 5 GHz. Although the details we received on chipset were limited, we do know that it supports the 256-QAM mode to help increase data rates.

Dell XPS 15

Dell XPS 15

The Dell XPS 15 9530 is a 15.6-inch touch screen laptop with Windows 8.1, starting at $1,949.99. The test unit Dell sent sported a 2.20 GHz Intel core i7-4702HQ processor and was loaded with 16GB of RAM. It came with the Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 PCIe half mini card installed, and is the only factory option for the XPS 15 series.

The Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 card is Wi-Fi Certified, supports 802.11ac/a/b/g/n, and has integrated Bluetooth as well. It offers two Wi-Fi streams with maximum hypothetical data rates of 300Mbps via 2.4 GHz and 867Mbps via 5 GHz. The driver used during the testing was the Intel driver version

The Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 card supports the Intel Smart Connect Technology that enables automatic application updates, such as from e-mail and social networks, when your device is asleep.

With the Intel Wireless Display Watch feature you can also wirelessly stream content instantly to supported HD screens. The wireless card also supports the Intel Wi-Fi HotSpot Assistant that enables auto connecting to compatible Wi-Fi hotspots.

For businesses, the Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 card supports Intel vPro technology, Intel Active Management Technology, and Intel PROSet/Wireless Enterprise Software. These features can help with enterprise Wi-Fi client management, security, and deployment.

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro

The MacBook Pro with Retina display comes in two screen sizes: 13-inch starting at $1,299 and 15-inch starting at $1,999. It's loaded with Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks. Our test unit was running a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5 processor and was loaded with 4GB of RAM.

This MacBook Pro doesn't include an Apple AirPort card. The Wi-Fi adapter is built into the laptop itself. And Apple doesn't provide much details regarding the Wi-Fi specs either. However, we do know that it's Wi-Fi Certified and provides three stream 802.11a/ac/b/g/n support. This offers the highest maximum hypothetical data rates out of all the mobile products we tested in this review: 450Mbps via 2.4 GHz and 1.3Gbps via 5GHz.

Performance Testing

We used IxChariot to run throughput tests on each mobile device with the Ubiquiti UniFi AP AC. The access point has a 2.4GHz radio and 5GHz radio, supporting three spatial streams. We enabled WPA2/AES security and 80MHz channel-width support, and set the 5GHz channel to 153.

All wired connections between the access point, Windows-based wireless controller (running UniFi AP-AC Version, and Windows-based testing end-point were made via Gigabit Ethernet ports with newer CAT-6 cables. And these connections were tested as well and confirmed to be running near Gigabit speeds. During the testing, the distance between the adapters and access point was about 25 feet with one wall and a closet partially blocking the line of sight (both made of drywall material).

We ran the tests with the IxChariot High Performance_Throughput.scr script for one minute with each mobile device individually in the 5GHz band. It simultaneously tested both the TCP uplink (client to access point) and downlink (access point to client), which we add to show total simultaneous throughput. I ran each adapter test three times and recorded the average and maximum throughput seen for each and then reported the average of those results.

We should note that although this review and our previous 802.11ac adapter review use the same test plan, the positioning of the test devices differ slightly and this review will likely show a more favorable result. In the Wi-Fi adapter review, the adapters were plugged into the back of the PC tower on the floor, somewhat shielding the signals. And in this review, the mobile devices sat on the table next to the PC during the testing, offering a bit more optimum spot for the signals. Nevertheless, you can still make rough comparisons of the results between the two reviews.

Gigabit Wifi

It's not surprising to see that the MacBook Pro performed the best since it's the only three-stream device and that the Dell XPS 15 came in second as it's the only two-stream device.

The MacBook Pro also outperformed the only other three-stream client we've tested, the ASUS AC1750 Wireless Dual-band PCI-e Adapter from our previous Wi-Fi adapter review. The MacBook Pro showed 65% better on the maximum throughput and 88% better on the average throughput.

However, there were some surprising differences in the results of the three smartphones. The Galaxy Note 3 showed the best average at 154Mbps, the Galaxy S4 was second at 105Mbps, and the numbers for the Moto X came in at a surprisingly 54% and 67% lower, respectively, with only 48Mbps average.

The averages for the Moto X were also 29% lower than the other single-stream adapter (Netgear A6100) we tested in our previous 802.11ac adapter review. The differences can be attributed to a number of factors, including different chipsets, how well the wireless chipset and other parts of the phone work together, and the internal antenna of the phone.

Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer — keep up with his writings on Facebook or Twitter. He's also the founder of NoWiresSecurity, a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service, and On Spot Techs, a tech support company.

Read more about wireless & mobile in Network World's Wireless & Mobile section.

This story, "MacBook Pro delivers blazing speed in Gigabit Wi-Fi test " was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.