Router Buying Guide

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What is a Router?

A router lets you distribute the Internet connection in your home to a variety of devices, including desktop computers, laptops, smart phones, tablets, Internet-capable TV sets, and streaming media boxes. If your Internet service provider (ISP) is your cable company, then your router will plug into a cable modem, which provides your link to the Internet. For other types of service, such as Verizon FIOS, the router may in some cases be combined with a broadband modem in a single box that your provider supplies when you sign up. If you don’t want to buy or rent a router from your service provider, you can still get one on your own.

A router typically includes both wired and wireless capability. Wired, or Ethernet, connections are better because they’re faster and more secure than wireless. They’re also less prone to interference from other devices in the home, such as cordless phones and microwave ovens. Of course, you’re better off with a wireless connection if you’re using a laptop or other mobile device. Wireless also eliminates the clutter that cables bring.

Besides the obvious reason that your router is broken, you might want to consider a new model because:

You already have a broadband modem directly connected to a single computer, but want to go online with multiple devices.
Your router has only wired connectivity, but you want to go online with wireless devices, such as a laptop or tablet.
Your existing router is too slow or its wireless range is too short to reach important places in your home.

The size and layout of your home will affect the performance of your router. So before you go shopping, do a quick assessment of your house or apartment. Do you live in a large house with many rooms and more than one floor? You’ll want a router with a long range and strong data throughput at a distance. You should place the router in as central a location as possible. In our Ratings, look for a model with excellent or very good throughput in “far” situations.

Do you have a small apartment, where the router will be just a room away, or even in the same room? Distance won’t play as big a role, but you’ll still want speedy throughput capabilities. In our Ratings, look for a router that performs with excellent or very good throughput in both “near” and “typical” situations. Remember to activate the router’s security features, especially if you live in close proximity to others, such as an apartment building or a crowded urban area.

Other aspects of your home might also interfere with your router’s performance. Drywall, plaster, hollow doors, and uninsulated doors and floors cause some signal degradation. But the biggest offenders are aluminum studs (found in office buildings and modern apartments); insulated walls and floors; glass; and solid brick and stone. And of course the more floors, walls, and windows of any kind in the way, the worse for the signal. Throughput will be slower because of the weaker signal strength. With enough obstruction, the signal could eventually drop altogether.

Router Types and Standards

Every device that accesses your Wi-Fi network will communicate using a wireless standard set up by IEEE, an engineering association. The newest, fastest standard is 802.11ac, but lots of equipment uses the previous standard, 802.11n. You’ll have to decide whether to buy a router that supports the new standard.

There’s no compatibility issue to worry about. Every previous version of 802.11–and there have been several–is supported by every new device. You won’t be making a glaring mistake if you decide to buy an 802.11n router, which will probably be less expensive than an 802.11ac model. (To be precise, the 802.11ac-specific radio in your new router or laptop won’t support the older standard, but the device makers include 802.11n radios to keep everything working together.)

Here are the versions of 802.11 you can expect to see in current routers.

802.11n routers were the first to transmit over both 2.4- and 5GHz frequency bands. This means if the router is using both frequency bands simultaneously, you’ll see two routers with two different IDs listed if your device supports both bands. Computers and other wireless devices must log into each separately. Many appliances such as cordless phones and microwave ovens also transmit in the 2.4GHz frequency range, so the 5GHz channel on many modern routers offers a connection in a frequency range that is far less crowded and less prone to interference. Using a technology called MIMO (multiple-input-multiple-output), these routers have multiple antennae that are used to transfer more data at the same time.

Routers using the latest wireless standard, 802.11ac, are significantly faster than those using 802.11n, especially at close range. Like 802.11n routers, they use MIMO. But with 802.11ac, you can set them to get double the streams through which data is transmitted, as well as wider channels for sending that data.


Features of Routers

LAN ports

LAN ports are used to connect a computer to the router using an Ethernet cable.
USB ports

USB ports on a router are used for connecting to a flash drive, external hard drive, or a USB printer if the router has a built-in print server.
Print server

This device connects printers to other computers over a network, and manages the data being sent and printed.
Quality of service (QoS)

If you’re the type who likes to play with your computer settings, you might appreciate the flexibility this feature offers. You can optimize the router’s performance depending on what you’re doing at a given time. For example, you can change the settings to work best for streaming videos, making Skype calls, playing games, or streaming music.
Other features to look for

Most routers are DLNA-compatible (Apple routers are not), which means you can use them to stream content like videos or share photos among other DLNA-compatible devices. If you’re a big iTunes user, you might want to look for a router that lets you share your iTunes account across devices. Finally, a guest network lets guests in your home log in without a password.


Router Shopping tips

The top speed of almost any new router is bound to exceed the speed of your broadband connection. Take that into consideration when you’re making a buying decision. The router that got the best throughput of those we tested, Apple’s Airport Extreme, achieved upward of 200 megabits per second at close range. Others weren’t far behind. But that won’t necessarily improve the streaming performance of Netflix and YouTube videos. Across any network, data only moves as fast as the slowest connection. In most cases, the slowest connection for Internet traffic is the one between your house and your Internet service provider (typically your cable, fiber, or phone company). Average throughput in the United States, according to Akamai, which measures such things, is just over 11mbps. That’s way slower than what these routers are capable of. You can sign up for a faster connection from your service provider, which may improve your streaming performance. But unless you pay for connection speeds in excess of 100mbps, you’re unlikely to run up against the performance capabilities of most 802.11n routers. That said, if you’re feeling optimistic about the future of broadband speeds in America and would like to future-proof your purchase, it might be worth spending the extra money on one of the fastest 802.11ac routers.

Save a few bucks. If you don’t need the absolute fastest router on the market, consider this: One of the highest rated models we tested, the Netgear N750, performed almost as well as the best 802.11ac router, Netgear’s AC1900 Nighthawk. And at $90, it costs half as much.

Get a faster router if you move a lot of big files between two computers in my home. If you’re transferring large video files or lots of music from one device to another and they’re both on your home network, that’ll happen a lot faster with a speedier router. In fact, that’s where a router will perform to its fullest potential.

Do you share your connection with guests in your home? If you often do, use the guest network, which is available in all the routers we tested. It’s a second network that provides online access without the inconvenience of guests having to enter your router’s regular security password. (It also prevents them from having access to the computers, tablets, and other devices on your home network.) If you have concerns about neighbors piggybacking on your guest network without your permission, you can always set up a password for the guest network that’s different than your regular password.

How much security do you need? You should secure your router with a password using WPA2 encryption. It’s not much of an inconvenience, because you normally only need to enter the password into each wireless device you use just once and the device will remember it.

If you really want to lock down your network, you can take advantage of a feature called MAC filtering, which lets you limit access to your router to just a select list of devices. If you have children, consider routers with parental controls that can block websites (you may have to enter the URLs manually) and also help protect you from identity theft and scams.

Getting the most from a router

Extending its range. Obstacles such as walls can keep a router’s signals from reaching distant rooms. A repeater (sometimes known as a range extender or signal booster) is a device that brings the router’s Wi-Fi signal to hard-to-reach places in the home.

The best location for a repeater is a spot where there aren’t many obstacles (such as thick walls) between it and the router and also between it and the rooms that need Wi-Fi coverage. To find the best location, you may need to move the repeater a few times, each time checking the strength and speed of the signal in the target room. (A repeater typically reduces the transmission speed of a wireless Internet connection by about half to the rooms it services.) Repeaters typically cost less than $100.

Connecting a distant desktop computer. It’s typical to locate a router in the same room as the desktop computer you use most often, since that makes it easy to set up a wired connection. But you may need to go online with a computer located elsewhere in the house that doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi. Running cables through walls, floors, and ceilings is very expensive. For $15 to $30, a USB device called a wireless adapter will give the desktop computer Wi-Fi capability.

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