What You Need To Know When Buying A WiFi Router For Your Home

wifithumb2   What You Need To Know When Buying A WiFi Router For Your HomeOkay, 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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Conclusion

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.

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

39 Comments -

Alex

Informative, thank you!

Sameer Manas

Which one is the editor’s pick ?
And what about LinkSys routers ?

Adjei Kofi

Thanks for the info. Very useful.

Salman Abdullah

Is this a D-Link ad? Hmm..

Matt Smith

No, it’s a Microsoft Excel bar graph ad

Christian Caldwell

Interesting!

Yash Desai

is n really a big improvement over g?

Matt Smith

Yes, it is a huge improvement. In my apartment, laptops with Wireless-N download at speeds identical to my desktops that are connected via Ethernet. That wasn’t true with Wireless-G laptops.

larrypmNL

Thanks. Good info.

Todd Hofer

This will save a lot of my customers from asking questions. Definitely sharing!

Ă‚dil FarĂ´Ă´q

very informative

NolandHoshino

Just in time. I need to buy a new wireless router. Thanks!

Diana

Thanks for the info..had so much trouble with the last router! :/

Rick

Sorry to sound so dumb, but I’m still just a bit uncertain about this. Here is the scenario. At work my computer is a decrepit Windows 2000 desktop which is often frustrating to use. I don’t have a 3G signal for my Android there either, at least not without walking all the way to the back of the big room, away from my workstation, which is impractical except for making an occasional call or text.. No wi-fi at all. But there is an ethernet hut right beside my computer. If I plug a wi-fi router in there, will that be all I need to give my Android access to wi-fi?

Kyle de Veas

I’m a linksys kind of guy but this is very informative…

Debbie Strain

This article helped me to decide on a new modem and router. Thanks

Rick

Sorry to sound dumb but I’m still kind of unsure about this stuff and have been waiting on an article like this to ask a question. Here is the scenario. The computer I use at work, mainly to clock in and enter jobs, is a decrepit Windows 2000 pc that is often frustrating to use. There is no wi-fi and I don’t have a 3G signal at my workstation so that i can use my Android. (this is in a basement level room). There is an ethernet hub right beside my computer though. If I plug a wi-fi router into it, is that all I need to get wi-fi for my phone?

Matt Smith

Yep, that’s all that you would need, provided that your work network would allow the router.

Rick

Thanks!

erickhbhn

nice info ! Thanks !

alex

just a small thought wps has, even when disabled, introduced security weaknesses in some routers so you may want to avoid it.

http://code.google.com/p/reaver-wps/

Zinc

Nice plug for D-Link…any other makes out there?

CNET and PCMag are also the worst for “unbiased” reviews.

Both have a well documented history of catering to advertiser demands.

Kevin F

Check with MaximumPC.com. They don’t cater to any manufacturer when they do reviews. They tell it like it is.

Matt Smith

I’m sure you won’t mind providing links to back up your extremely well documented claims

Rigoberto Garcia

Good information Matt. Thanks…

Navinder Singh

Usefull….now I know what type of router I should get…Thanks

Mitesh Budhabhatti

Great article.. Very informative.. I also like the Conclusion section bcoz u’ve clearly mentioned what should we look for instead of saying “if u want to do this, do that..” sort of things which actually misguides. Thanks !!

Mike Green

I disagree with buying a N-class router, there is no need whatsoever in terns of speed.

I challenge you to find a internet connection which can get up to 300Mbps. No matter how fast the wireless is, it is limited by how fast the router itself receives data.

Matt Smith

There are some pretty fast Internet connections in some parts of the world. I’ve been told some European countries have access to plans like this (I’m in the states) and they’re rolling out some FIOS plans like this in the States as well.

But more importantly, these access speeds can drastically improve your home network’s performance. You want it for the same reason you want GIgabit Ethernet.

sabih

Great, my dad’s been looking for a new router and I will give him this guide for help.

Jaxx D

Nice.
Though I have some questions.
My router is a WNDR3700 v1
Even tho it supports 802.11n(so does my lappy) I never seem to be able to get a good speed even if the signal is excellent.
Router range is very limited and it doesn’t have any external antennas so the DIY signal boosters are of no use.
Will the DD-WRT FW increase the range???
And yeah I have quite a lot of concrete walls in my house.

Matt Smith

I don’t think this will fix your issue. You might want to try posting a question in MakeUseOf Answers: http://www.makeuseof.com/answers/

Campbell

My key question would be if you have insulation between the modem and router. The reason is that if the house/apartment is using insulation facing a particular way, then where you place the Modem/Router will change. I experienced that in my house and had to change the Modem and router placement because the insulation would reflect the signal on one side. So when it failed on side, I reversed the set up and the signal was great. With some N class routers , also, the signal can be helped with a reflector facing towards your destination , since the Linksys N class of generation 1 or 2, had no aerial, so the reflector was the only way to boost a signal from a unit with no aerial.
Just a thought…

Doc

Buffalo is the first manufacturer to make (draft) 802.11ac routers (and NICs, IIRC). 802.11ad is in first draft right now, and will break the gigabit limit.

IPv6 support will become increasingly important in the near future; this year’s World IPv6 Day saw many major websites turn on IPv6 permanently.

If you are going to buy a router with gigabit RJ45 ports, don’t forget to upgrade your wiring to Cat5E or Cat6 for lower transmission errors and the best speed.

Nehad Hussain

The other day when i was looking for a WiFi router i realized the best thing would be to go for a 300mbps n router and here the author recommends the same.

Muhammad Ahmad

Thanks Matt Smith. I am going to purchase wifi router and It will help me a lot.

Kaashif Haja

I should have read this article and then bought my new modem!
My data transfer rate is slow!

Darren Reynolds

Im in the market for upgrading my router, this has been helpful. thanks

Shayne Selwonk

very good article.