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How to Buy a Wireless Router

  • Category: Buying Guides
Date:2/2/2012

By Samara Lynn

Wireless routers are the starring players in a home or small business network, yet they often cause great frustration for home users, business users, and anyone who is not a wireless networking guru. Don't worry: we can help.

There is one main reason why a wireless router can be a confusing piece of hardware: wireless signals. Wireless signals are subject to interference from many things, from other nearby routers to the configuration of your home or office.

The enigma of wireless networking isn't helped by router makers who, in a frenzy to differentiate and sell their products, tout unrealistic bandwidth speeds, load on extra bells and whistles, and sometimes create products that are difficult for the average user to set up, manage, and optimize.

Sifting through all of the branding noise and choosing which router is best suited for your purposes can be a daunting task. Do you need a lesser expensive single-band router or a more expensive dual-band? Do you need to upgrade or purchase an 802.11n router? What benefits does 802.11n give? Does a higher-end router mean better Internet connectivity? What about IPv6—is it best to get a router that supports IPv6? These questions as well as factors like security, parental controls and extra features such as the ability to connect USB printers and external storage drives to a router for sharing in your personal network, are all considerations to weigh when deciding to purchase or upgrade a router.

On top of the problem of just selecting a router is the complexity of Wi-Fi technology itself. Wi-Fi is a tricky beast and subject to so many varying factors and environmental fluctuations. If there are many other wireless routers in your proximity, you face potential signal interference, especially on the more crowded 2.4 GHz band, a frequency that wireless routers use to transmit and receive data. Certain building materials, multilevel homes, glass partitions and household devices that operate on the 2.4 GHz frequency like microwaves, baby monitors, and cordless phones can all degrade wireless performance.

Businesses often spend thousands of dollars to hire wireless networking professionals to perform site surveys to determine the best equipment and means to deploy a wireless network. It is small wonder that home and small business users who may not have these professionals at their disposal can feel frustrated about purchasing, setting up and maintaining a wireless router and their own wireless networks!

To assuage some of that frustration, we've compiled a list of questions to help you determine the best router for you. The list starts with the basics and then goes into more advanced territory. It's best to know your own networking needs before you shop around for a router rather than relying on anecdotal customer reviews on websites such as Amazon. While you can get a general feel for other customers' experiences with a particular router, Wi-Fi is so fickle and performance can vary from one home to another. Just because someone had a terrific (or miserable) experience with a particular router does not necessarily mean you will have the same experience. Professional reviews in controlled environments, like those I perform in PCMag's labs, are a better source for help in deliberating over which router to choose.

A wireless router can be a challenging piece of technology to select and set up. A router is not like a specific laptop, or an iPad, which gives customers pretty much the same across-the-board user experience. One router can act differently from one location to the next, although vendors are increasingly developing Wi-Fi routers with more robust consistent performance.

Here is a checklist and some information to help you in your search of the perfect router for your networking needs:

Do You Need A Wi-Fi Router?

A router directs network traffic—broken down into small pieces of data called packets. With home routers, this is traffic that flows between the Internet connection your ISP provides and your internal, home or small business network. A wireless router allows wireless devices (and wired devices) to connect to that Internet connection and to communicate with other devices on your home network.

Some people only work from one laptop or PC that may be directly connected to their cable or DSL modems. They may not have other users or devices in their home or office that also need Internet connectivity or sharing printers and files. If this applies to you and you have no need to deviate from a fixed location from which you do your Internet surfing or computing, then you can don't need a wireless router.

However, with enticing gadgets like iPads, with gaming consoles, and in multi-user households and offices, most people these days want and can benefit from a wireless router. With a Wi-Fi router browsing the Internet from an upstairs bedroom, giving Internet access to a game console or set-top box like a Roku, or sharing pictures and streaming music and video to all of the devices in a home or office is possible. If you want the capability to do these tasks, then yes, you need a router.

What Type of Network User Are You?

A single home user who just wants to Web surf doesn't need the same kind of router as a heavy-duty gamer, a multimedia enthusiast or a small business. A single-band router like the $60 Cisco Linksys E1200 Wireless N Router is a basic, decent performer that would suit the needs of anyone looking for simple Wi-Fi connectivity and easy setup.

In contrast, Netgear's N750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (WNDR4000) or Cisco Linksys' E4200 v2 are excellent choices for those who want to perform bandwidth demanding tasks like high-definition video streaming or moving large files to and from NAS devices. But the N750 is more expensive, with an average street price of $150. A good rule of thumb: The more expensive the router, the more features it will contain. Higher price, however, doesn't necessarily mean better performance; in our testing, the E1200 performed just as well as pricier, more feature-rich routers.

Single Band or Dual Band?

While researching routers, you will inevitably stumble across the term "bands." The 2.4 and 5 GHz bands are the frequencies in which wireless communications operate. 802.11 B and G devices use the 2.4 GHz band, while 802.11N can use either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band. A single-band, 2.4-GHz router—such as the $65 Asus RT-N11 EZ Wireless-N Router—is geared toward simple wireless networks. On the other hand, a dual-band router like the $119 Cisco Linksys E3200 Advanced Wireless-N or D-Link's supports both 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies. The 5 GHz band is less crowded then the 2.4 GHz band; less equipment runs on 5 GHz. That's why it's better equipped for throughput-intensive work within your home network such as gaming and file streaming. You will also get better internal network performance.

The one downside of 5 GHz is that it does not sustain signal at greater distances as well as the 2.4 GHz band. So, if you are looking for a dual-band router to take advantage of the 5 GHz bandwidth—you'll want to factor in distance when placing the router in your home or office.

One other thing to consider when it comes to Wi-Fi bands? Some of your devices may only work with a given band. For a guide to which gadgets require what Wi-Fi, see, the The Wi-Fi You Need for the Gadgets You Want.

300 Mbps, 450 Mbps, 900 Mbps...All Those Numbers!

When router shopping you will notice three digit numbers emblazoned on most routers' packaging, indicating the speed of the router. A few years ago, 300 Mbps was the standard speed of most Wi-Fi routers. That meant that testing under the best circumstances, which means in what we call a "clean room" with no interference, the router can achieve up to 300 Mbps speeds. Currently, 450 Mbps or even 900 Mbps routers are being marketed. 900 Mbps is a touted speed of the latest dual band routers on the market like Netgear's N900 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router , which can transmit a potential 450 Mbps on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. 450 + 450 = 900. Get it?

You however, will never see those speeds. Issues such as channel overlap and interference means a router in a typical home or office environment will never reach these theoretical speeds touted by vendors. When testing at PCMag, which has a real-world testing environment, if we see speeds close to half of what a vendor says a router is capable of, that's excellent bandwidth!

Of course, fast router speeds don't have anything to do with how fast your Internet connection is. A 300 Mbps router won't make your Internet connection any faster than a 900 Mbps router. That speed is set by your ISP. What a faster speed router helps with is the performance of your internal network: streaming music and video, sharing files and so on.

Do I Need 802.11N?

802.11n is becoming the standard in wireless networking. If you are purchasing a new router, be it single or dual band—go with an 802.11n router. And not 802.11n draft, which is an older standard. 802.11n routers can run in "Mixed mode" so that non-802.11n wireless devices can connect as well.

What Type of Security?

Most of the newer routers support the highest level of security, WPA2. If in the market for a new routers, make sure it supports WPA2. If you have children you may want to consider a router with parental controls such as the D-Link Amplifi HD Media Router 2000 (DIR-827)

What's My Comfort Level with Router Setup and Management?

Ironically, we find that the latest more expensive routers like the Netgear N900 or Linksys E4200, have the easiest setup. The best setup process we've tested so far is the one from the Cisco Linksys E4200 v2. It's a fool-proof setup that requires nothing more than clicking a few instructions on screen.

If you are more of a guru, and on a tighter-budget, you can get away with cheaper routers that do not offer automated setup such as Asante's SmartHub Smart Dual Band Wireless-N Router (AWRT-600N) . Because these routers do not have as sophisticated software for deploying as more expensive routers, a little more networking know-how is required to setup and manage them.

Other Considerations

If you are looking for a router that you don't want to upgrade anytime soon, consider going with one that supports IPv6. While conversion from IPv4 to IPv6 networking appears to still be some time coming, a router that supports IPv6 will help you keep your network intact when your ISP transitions over to IPv6 as well.

Some routers also offer extras such as SD card slots, (D-Link DIR-827, is an example) and USB ports for printer sharing and external drive sharing, including routers from Cisco, Belkin and Netgear). If those are features you want in your network, look for router that support those features.

This buying guide is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.