These days, wireless routers are everywhere. Nearly every house, apartment, business, and sketchy van parked down by the river has one. A functional wireless router allows you to easily connect your computer to a broadband Internet service so you share data files and stream media between mobile/Wi-Fi devices.
Although you could opt for a wired router, we suggest a wireless model so you can avoid stringing Ethernet cable around your home unless you absolutely have to; besides, a wireless router is the best way to access the Internet using your smartphone or tablet. And if you ever discover you absolutely must have a wired connection, the router will have a built-in switch to handle it. While you’re at it, check out the best 802.11ac routers on the market, along with our guide on how to secure your wireless network.
Do you need a router?
Routers are not absolutely necessary if you prefer to use a hard-wired connection and run an Ethernet cable directly to your computer, but given most mobile devices lack a dedicated Ethernet port, opting for a wireless network remains the only solution for picking up an Internet connection using a smartphone or tablet.
Routers also allow you to share media, stream music and video, and seamlessly connect every device in your home — whether you want to stream music to your speaker system or simply pick up an Internet connection on the other side of the room. A single desktop may not need a wireless router, but for a house full of devices, it’s often a necessity.
Choosing network standards
Now let’s talk about the features you should look for in a wireless router. Just like smartphones, router manufacturers are constantly implementing new and more powerful wireless standards (IEEE standards, specifically) as technology becomes more advanced. That’s why we have standards like 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac – these aren’t just random numbers, they are a description of router capabilities. The traditional single-home user will likely need a different kind of router from the heavy-gamer or media enthusiast.
The latest standard is 802.11ac, which you see on all the newest routers. That means that the router can support up to Gigabit speeds, much faster than the previous 600Mbps limit. Like previous standards, “ac” is backwards compatible with devices made for older standards. As it becomes widely adopted, 802.11ac is growing more affordable and will soon be commonplace.
If you are buying a new router, look for the “ac” standard first. However, be aware that you won’t see the new standard’s full benefit unless your devices also support it. If your smartphone only supports 802.11n, for example, then you won’t see any speed boost on that phone if you purchase an 802.11ac router. You might find none of your devices support 802.11ac, in which case an older, less expensive router could make more sense.
Capable routers touting the “ac” capability include ASUS Dual-Band AC1750 Wireless Gigabit Router and Netgear Nighthawk AC 1900 Dual-Band Wifi Gigabit Router, each of which offers considerably quicker speeds at the expense of compatibility.
Interpreting Wi-Fi network speeds
Remember, you should always take manufacturers’ speed declarations with a grain of salt. For example, many manufactures list “theoretical” maximum bandwidth on their boxes. You’ll see anything from 350Mb/sec to 1900Mb/sec (megabits per second), but you’ll rarely see throughput that high in realistic environments in which walls, doors, appliances, and other barriers separate your router from its client devices. A plethora of other specs and standards also influence real-world speeds from router to router, so use listed speeds as more of a general guideline.
Fortunately, wireless routers manufactured in compliance with the 802.11ac standard should be capable of streaming high-definition video over a reasonable distance, provided there aren’t too many obstacles in the path between the router and its client.
All wireless routers also feature built-in Ethernet for hard-wired network connections, but cheaper routers will have switches rated at only 100Mb/sec. You won’t regret spending a few extra dollars to buy a model with a Gigabit switch (that’s 1,000Mb/sec).
When buying, remember that a router’s speed only determines the speed of your home network. It won’t make your Internet connection quicker unless it was bottle-necked by your previous router. Today, that’s unlikely in most parts of the world. A typical American router on Comcast, for example, will have bandwidth between 40 and 150 Mb/s. That’s not enough to utilize all the bandwidth recent Wi-Fi standards can handle.
Wireless data security
Wireless networks are as insecure as they are convenient — if you don’t take steps to secure your network, just about any troublemaker within range can eavesdrop on your online activities, leech off your Internet connection, access any of the files stored on your computers, infect your systems with viruses, and cause all sorts of other problems.
Any router you buy should support at least WPA2 (the second implementation of the Wi-Fi Protected Access protocol), but every device you add to your network must also support WPA2 for this to work. Your network is only as secure as the least-secure device that’s connected to it. WPA is acceptable, though not ideal. It’s not a good idea to rely on WEP, which is easily cracked by tools that anyone can download for free.
Also keep in mind that some routers are designed with enterprise or advanced family security in mind. These devices come with many extra features, including the ability add extra encryption, monitor devices, block unwanted users from the network, and even see what people are browsing.
How many bands do I need?
Manufacturers have sold dual-band routers for years, but now many are starting to roll out tri-band routers as well.
Dual-band typically means that the router is equipped with two radios, one that operates on the 2.4GHz frequency band, and one that runs on the 5.0GHz frequency band. This enables you to set up two separate wireless networks, so you can improve speeds in a crowded wireless network by bumping some devices over to the alternate frequency.
Make sure you read the fine print, though. Some dual-band routers in fact have one radio that can operate on either the 2.4GHz or 5.0GHz bands, but not both at the same time.
Tri-band routers include a second 5.0GHz band. This is helpful if you have a lot of mobile devices on one network and need to spread them around three bands for greater efficiency and data management. Tri-band routers remain rare, because very few people need them. They can be useful in a dorm or office, but aren’t necessary for the average house.
Smart Wireless Management
One of the worst problems to plague the average router is interference. A router isn’t much good if it can’t give you acceptable wireless signals everywhere you want it. Fortunately, most modern routers have a couple other tricks to deal with this problem.
The solution is using “smart” processes that identify devices or dead zones and target them with Wi-Fi signals so they they always get service. The monstrous D-Link AC3200 Ultra, for example, has SmartBeam technology to do just this. Products like Luma, on the other, encourage people to buy several routers and link them together to create a Wi-Fi web around your home that eliminates dead zones. These solutions are something to keep in mind if you’ve had bad experiences with routers in the past.
Google’s recently introduced OnHub router goes a step further, baking extensive Wi-Fi functionality into an easily understood smartphone app. Other manufacturers are also taking this route, though OnHub’s is the easiest to understand so far.
Quality of Service
Despite the label, Quality of Service (QoS) is not related to the quality of your Internet connection; rather, it’s a set of mechanisms within the router’s firmware that reserves certain resources for different applications.
If you rely on a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service, such as Vonage, for telephone service, QoS allows you to configure the router to assign that data flow higher priority. So if someone in your home is downloading a large file while you’re talking on the phone, the quality of your call won’t degrade.
QoS can also be used to optimize your network’s performance with online games, video streaming, and similar applications. QoS can’t increase your network’s bandwidth or speed up your Internet access, but it can make the best use of the online resources you do have.
The last router feature we’ll examine is USB support. You’ll find USB ports on many routers, but it’s important to find out what that port is used for. On some routers, it’s merely a means of transferring setup information (network ID and password, for example) from the router to a client via a USB memory key. Better routers will allow you to plug in a USB mass-storage device to add NAS (network-attached storage) functionality. Plug a large USB hard drive into your router and every device on your network will have access to that storage resource — it’s like having a cheap server.
You should also pay attention to the generation of the USB port. Many routers have a combination of both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports. Some only have one or the other. At least one USB 3.0 port is a smart feature to purchase if you plan on attaching any accessories.
What to spend: Price vs. performance
Router prices vary greatly based on their features, antennas, ports, and much more. Generally, the best routers available today vary from $100 to $250. You can find smaller routers below this range, and large enterprise routers above it, but most fall somewhere along the line. If you’re on a tight budget, you can find some decent routers for $50 or less, but they won’t offer all the latest and greatest features.
A cheap router that delivers sub-par performance is no bargain. Product reviews will give you a hint as to what you can expect, but setting one up in your own home is the only sure way to know how the router will perform in your unique environment. When you buy yours, make sure the retailer you do business with offers a liberal return policy if you’re not satisfied.
This article was originally published by Drew Prindle November 14, 2012.