Wired vs. Wireless
This may be the absolute biggest feature to look for when purchasing a router. If you use your smartphone or your tablet at home, you NEED a wireless router. However, if you do mostly desktop computing, you only need a straight wired router and perhaps a way out of the year 2002. This is not to say that wired connections are useless. The vast majority of people use a mix of both wired and wireless devices, so our main concentration will be on wireless routers as they provide both wired and wireless connectivity. It is important to note that if you have a device that doesn’t move around a lot like a television, DVR, game console, or desktop your preferred method of connection is wired, as they will be able to utilize the maximum speed of your router.Throughput Throughput is a fancy router term for speed. We’ll start off with wired first. The numbers that you want to pay attention to here are “10/100 Mbps” and “10/100/1000 Mbps.” Now this is one of those scenarios where faster isn’t necessarily better. If you just need the router to connect your device to the internet, you can save some money by sticking with the 10/100 throughput. Nobody’s internet is running anywhere near 100 Mbps unless they’re Google or Apple or Microsoft, and they’re all shelling out some serious dough for those speeds. If, however, you’re intent is to network several computers together – and why else would you be reading this – then go for the 10/100/1000 speed. It’s going to make a huge difference in transfer rate, and it’s not that much more expensive these days. Wireless throughput uses different terminology so bear with me here. What you’re looking for these days are wireless standards 802.11g and 802.11n. During your search you may see 802.11a and 802.11b compliancy but these are practically ancient standards and they should be available on any router you purchase for backward compatibility features only. Disregard these because chances are you don’t need them. Now what’s the difference between 802.11g and 802.11n? Well 54 Mbps and 600 Mbps respectively. I will point out that the speed increase is also directly related to a price increase, but these days it’s not that bad. I will point out that if you’re running older hardware, let’s say anything made before 2009, you’re not going to need 802.11n unless you’re thinking about upgrading soon. Devices made before this time are still more commonly wired for 802.11g. If your hardware is 3 years old or newer, you’re more than likely able to get 802.11n speeds. I recommend buying an 802.11n router because to be honest, it’s not even the future anymore – that would be 802.11ac – and there’s not much point in connecting your computers together just to transfer files super slow. 802.11n routers are backward compatible so you’ll still be able to use your old hardware. Range Additionally 802.11n has a much greater range than 802.11g so if you like to use your laptop or tablet in the backyard or by the pool, “n” is the winner. Ports Ports are important because depending on how many wired devices you have, you may have to shell out more or less money on a router. Typically, home use routers have about 4-8 ports in the back. You’ll see a WAN port which is normally a different color and separated from the others. The WAN port is what connects your modem to your router. The other ports should just be labeled 1 through whatever, and are designated as LAN ports. These ports connect your computers and other devices to your router. Additionally, if you end up getting new wired devices and run out of router ports, you can pick up a switch for really cheap. A switch is like a power strip for your router. It allows you to plug in more devices than the router normally allows. Security We’ve talked about wireless security before, and we came to the conclusion that WPA is better because it’s harder to crack. However, WPA is also harder to remember, so be sure to write your password down somewhere. Now when looking at routers, WPA2 encryption is currently the best security so pick one that has that. Bands Believe it or not wireless routers don’t use some fancy technology to transmit data back and forth. The truth is they all use radio signals. Now most routers operate on 2.4ghz frequency, but the problem with that is, everything runs on that frequency. You’re going to get a lot of interference on your signal because Bluetooth, cordless phones, and even your microwave can disrupt that frequency. Newer routers, however, use a 5Ghz band. This will provide less interference, but there are a couple of downsides. Because higher frequency signals oscillate at a faster rate, they dissipate faster, and they also have trouble going through objects. This means that signal range will decrease, and walls will become an obstacle for your signal. This doesn’t mean you have to keep everything in one room, but you may have weaker signal within closer proximities. There is a way to fix this. The routers that do run on 5Ghz typically also run on 2.4Ghz so look for a “Dual-band” router. This allows the router to transmit on both bands simultaneously.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________Many routers come with software and firmware features that allow managing your network easier. We’ll get in to all that stuff later on, but when you’re buying a router, consider those features. Keep checking back for our weekly network series “Making Your Network Work.”