Okay, so you need a router. Maybe you already had one blinking away and it’s taken a turn for the worse. Perhaps yours is working fine, but it doesn’t support 802.11n, and you’d like to upgrade. Or it could be you haven’t had any WiFi at all, in which case – welcome to 2012! We’re glad you could join us.
Many people find that they don’t know much about routers when it comes time to buy one. There’s no shame in that. Consumers usually don’t bother to learn much about them because we don’t often interact with them directly unless they’re broken.
There are some important differences between routers, however, so it’s a good idea to brush up on your knowledge before making a purchase.
Wi-Fi Standards – Buy 802.11n
The first thing you should learn about is Wi-Fi standards. Many users have heard of terms like “802.11n” but don’t fully understand what they mean. I wrote a guide covering wireless standards last year and, despite being over a year old, it’s still entirely relevant. I suggest that you read it for the full scoop.
For the too-long-didn’t read crowd, here’s the summary. You should buy an 802.11n router no matter what. Routers supporting this standard can be had for as little as $40 and are backwards compatible with 802.11g (but Wireless-g devices will not benefit from 802.11’s increased bandwidth). In fact, many smaller retail stores no longer bother stocking 802.11g routers.
There is a new standard on the block called 802.11ac. You can buy some routers that support it today, but the standard is not out of “draft” status, which means it has not been finalized. I am not aware of any devices currently on the market with native 802.11ac support. Your router might offer it, but you won’t be able to take advantage of it without buying additional (expensive) adapters.
Data Rates – 300 Mbps Is The Sweet Spot
Since we’ve already established you should buy an 802.11n router it’s a good idea to now talk about what kind of 802.11n router you want.
Yes, there are different kinds of 802.11n routers. They are separated by their maximum data rate. If you walk into a store and start looking at boxes you’ll notice that most list 150 Mbps or 300 Mbps while some expensive models offer up to 900 Mbps.
The maximum data rate of a single 802.11n data stream is 150 Mbps. However, the standard supports technology known as Multi-In Multi-Out (aka MIMO). This allows the use of simultaneous data streams to create one big, fat stream of data.
Sounds great, right? But there is a catch. Both a device’s adapter and the router must support multiple data streams. If one supports less than the other you will be restricted to the data rate of the slower device regardless of your routers capabilities. And guess what? A lot of laptops, tablets and phones can only use one or two data streams. Also, these are theoretical maximums, not promises. Real-world performance typically falls far short of the rated max.
The best way to find out the data stream support for a device is to look up its wireless adapter on Google and read the manufacturer information. You can find out the adapter used by a Windows 7 computer if you open the Network Connections folder. The model of your adapter will be listed under Wireless Network Connection.
I think that 300 Mbps routers are the ones to aim for. They are not expensive and there are some common laptop and desktop adapters that will support the increased data rate. I don’t recommend buying anything with a higher data rate unless you are absolutely, positively sure you have or are going to buy devices that can use it.
Don’t forget the speed of the wired ports, either! If you have any wired devices (and chances are you do) they’re going to be needed. Some cheap wireless routers skimp on wired ports by only including 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, which can handicap network performance. Make sure the router you buy has GigaBit Ethernet (1000 Mbps) ports.
Don’t Forget A Modem, Maybe
If you are buying a router because you want to replace a router provided by your Internet Service Provider you should be aware that not just any router will work. You need a router with a built-in modem. The modem is the gadget which transfers data from your network to the Internet and back again.
Some routers are made with a built-in modem and will serve you well. If you don’t like your choices, however, you can always buy a separate modem and then connect it to your router via an Ethernet cable.
Whatever your choice, make sure you consult your Internet Service Provider before buying. There may be restrictions on modem compatibility.
Value Added Features
The average home network will do fine with a basic 802.11n router that supports a 300 Mbps data stream. You can find many such routers at low prices. But there are some extra features you may be interested in obtaining.
Many routers, even some inexpensive ones, now boast USB ports. A USB device that normally does not have wireless network support can be plugged into this port to make it a network device. You can plug in a printer and then use it with any computer on your network, for example. Different router manufactures give this feature different names so be sure to read the fine text when searching for it.
Users who live in multi-use households heavy on high-definition streaming should consider a router that supports dedicated use of the 5 GHz band for media content. Most high-end routers advertise this feature, which can reduce network interference between users trying to stream video and users trying to just surf the web.
Another feature of interest to media freaks is DLNA certification. Devices with this certification are built using certain hardware and software standards to ensure they will work smoothly together. This certification is provided to various bits of home media equipment. Adding a DLNA certified router is a good idea if you own other DLNA equipment.
Finally, if you feel comfortable installing new firmware on a your router or would like to try it, look for DD-WRT support. It is open source router firmware that includes a number of features usually reserved for expensive models like IPv6 support, an advanced firewall and quality-of-service controls. Check out the DD-WRT support page to discover if it can be installed on the router you are interested in.
What About Security?
You only need a router with WPA2 support, the current best standard for Wi-Fi encryption. Virtually all routers support this security feature. Some routers will tout features like easy SSID broadcast control or an advanced firewall. These are fine and sometimes include an easy-to-use interface, but they’re not nessecary.
So, to summarize
- Buy an 802.11n router
- Don’t buy a router with a data rate above 300 Mbps unless your devices support it
- Remember that you need a modem
- Additional features aren’t a requirement, but nice to have
- Make sure the wired Ethernet ports are rated for GigaBit (1000 Mbps) speeds
- Make sure the router supports WPA2 encryption
And that’s about it.
I encourage readers to check out router reviews on CNET and PCMag. All routers are not built the same. Some are a bit quicker and some are easier to use. The requirements above are only what a router needs to be adequate for the average consumer.