Is It Time to Upgrade Your Wireless Router?
Not long ago most households could get by with a basic single-band router to keep a handful of devices connected to the home network. These days you’d be hard pressed to find a home that doesn’t have multiple smartphones, gaming consoles, tablets, and laptops vying for online access. If you’re constantly losing your wireless signal, experiencing choppy video when streaming Netflix, or have to wait for Web pages to load, there’s a good chance your router is having trouble keeping up with your networking demands, in which case it’s time for an upgrade (for more common issues, see 5 Signs Your Wi-Fi Network Isn’t Up To Par). Here’s what you should consider when choosing your next wireless router.
What’s Your Budget? How Many Bands Do You Need?
Price will be a determining factor in the kind of performance and features you can expect from your new router. Single-band routers are typically at the low end of the price spectrum (around $50) and are designed for basic networking. They operate on the 2.4GHz radio band and are generally well suited for Web browsing, connecting to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and wireless printing. But they have to compete with other 2.4GHz devices such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, and Bluetooth hardware.
A dual-band router is your best bet if you’ll be connecting gaming consoles, media servers, or smart HDTVs. They operate on the widely used 2.4GHz band and the less crowded 5GHz band, which offers better throughput and less interference. With a dual-band router you can have your smartphones and laptops connect on the 2.4GHz band, and save the 5GHz band for content that requires stronger bandwith, like streaming HD video and playing video games. For maximum coverage in a high traffic home network, consider a tri-band router which gives you one 2.4GHz radio band and two 5GHz bands to share among your devices. Expect to pay upward of $150 for a multi-band router.
If You Can Afford It, Futureproof With Advanced Features
When shopping for a router you’ll have to decide if you want an 802.11n model or an 802.11ac model. Most laptops, smartphones, and printers currently use the 802.11n protocol, which is capable of maximum throughput speeds of up to 600Mbps. These routers work well in households that only have a handful of devices wirelessly connecting to the network, but 802.11n is an aging technology. If you’re using newer devices equipped with 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapters, you’ll need an 802.11ac router to take advantage of the increased speed and bandwidth that this Wi-Fi protocol delivers. For example, an AC1750 dual-band router can achieve a maximum link rate of 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1,300Mbps on the 5GHz band, while a tri-band AC3200 router can reach speeds of 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1,300Mbps on each of the two 5GHz bands.
In addition to faster link speeds, 802.11ac routers offer several new networking technologies that help increase throughput performance and wireless range. Beamforming is a technology that sends Wi-Fi signals directly to a client device rather than broadcasting them in all directions, and Multi User-Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO)technology can serve multiple devices simultaneously rather than sequentially. This means up to four clients can have their own data stream instead of waiting in turn to receive data from the router (which is how most routers work). For MU-MIMO to work, though, the router and the client devices must all contain MU-MIMO Wi-Fi circuitry, which right now, is rare since it’s a nascent technology.
Ports and Other Router Features
If your network is a mix of wired and wireless devices, make sure your new router has at least four gigabit Ethernet ports in addition to a WAN (Internet) port. Also, look for a router with at least one USB port for attaching things like external hard drives and printers. Two USB ports are even better, especially if one is a speedy USB 3.0 port. Adjustable external antennas don’t add much in terms of aesthetics, but they allow you to calibrate the router for the best possible signal reception and can usually be removed and replaced with a set of high-gain, high-performance antennas.
Common management features to look for include parental controls, which allow you to set limits on when your children can access the Internet and which sites they can visit; Quality of Service (QoS) settings that allow you to prioritize network traffic for certain applications and devices; and guest networking options. Creating a guest network allow you to give Wi-Fi access to visitors without giving them access to your entire network.
Make sure your new router offers the most current security protocols such as Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA/WPA2). WPS is a simple push-button solution that aids in the initial setup of your router and makes it easy to add compatible client devices, while the WPA and WPA2 security protocols offer stronger encryption algorithms that make your network immune to most forms of hacking. Routers with WPA-Enterprise security offer a higher level of security than WPA/WPA2, but require a Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service (RADIUS) server to authenticate each client.
Finally, make sure your new router is ready for the future. Currently, the IPv4 protocol is used to assign identification numbers, or IP addresses, to devices connecting to the Internet, but it’s about to run out of addresses due to the sheer number of devices out there. Its successor, IPv6, will offer an (almost) unlimited number of addresses and is already supported by most of today’s router hardware, but it’s a good idea to verify this feature before you buy.
For more tips, check out the 10 Best Wireless Routers we’ve tested, How to Set Up and Configure Your Wireless Router, and 7 Router Features Your Should Be Using for Better Wi-Fi.