Buying a home wireless router is about as chaotic and confusing a shopping experience as you will ever encounter.
Walk down the aisle where some distracted clerk points you and you’ll see boxes marked cryptically as G, N and N+. And then another bunch of codes like 150, 300 and 600 as well as some marked dual-band. There are boxes next to them with things called “Powerline.”
Try asking a clerk and you’ll still be confused, except that maybe you’ll be told that the most expensive one is the best.
You are going to need a little help.
Some retailers, like Best Buy, and manufacturers like Belkin and Netgear have come up with display charts and lists that show home networking products in a “good, better, best” continuum, with solutions based on what you want to do with your network.
But with wireless routers ranging from $35 to $160 and up, do we really need the best? What you are looking for is “good enough.”
The real question many people want answered is, “Do we need a manufacturer’s expensive router if we’re playing online video games or watching Netflix?”
Here are the questions that really need answering when you are considering buying a wireless router.
DO I EVEN NEED ONE? To get an Internet signal from your Internet service provider’s modem to a PC at the other end of the house, you’ll need a wireless router.
In fact, because routers act as firewalls, helping to keep out malicious hackers, everyone should have a router, even if you have only one computer connected via Ethernet cable to the Internet.
Bottom line: Buy a router.
WHAT KIND SHOULD I BUY? The most common standards for routers are 802.11g and 802.11n. The N technology lets wireless signals travel farther than G, and can attain a higher transmission speed. Netgear’s WNR2000 N router costs $50, just $15 more than its WGR614 G router.
So-called N+ routers denote nothing specific; it’s a marketing term that implies the addition of various features depending on the manufacturer.
Bottom line: Always get an N router.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I SPEND? Some home routers cost as much as $400. Wireless N routers like the TRENDnet TEW-652BRP are available at B&H Photo for as little as $23; and the D-Link DIR-601 is $28 from Amazon.
Leo Laporte, host of the Tech Guy radio program, recommends always going for the least expensive. “The chip sets in different routers are all the same,” he said. “It’s the firmware that adds different capabilities.” (Firmware is another techie word for the software.)
Bottom line: Spend as little as possible once you know which features, discussed next, you want. At that price, you can always buy another if it breaks.
WHAT SPEED DO I NEED? Wireless routers using the N technology can typically transmit a signal at up to 300 megabits per second. But an Internet signal is typically around 5 to 7 megabits per second; so why do you need a superfast router if the incoming signal is so much slower?
You may not. The high advertised speeds are meant to impress and to leave some wiggle room — by the time that 300 Mbps signal has traveled upstairs, across your house and through multiple walls and beams, it may have lost as much as 70 percent of its speed, according to Nandan Kalle, Belkin’s networking business manager. (According to Mr. Kalle, there is no simple consumer test that can check a router’s speed.)
The higher the starting speed of a router, the more it’ll have left after it tries to reach the hinterlands of your house. “You want to make sure that the wireless router is not your bottleneck,” said David Henry, Netgear’s senior director of product marketing.
The benefit of a higher-speed router is that you can take advantage of its speed when transferring files within a house. For example, if you want to send a movie file that’s already on your PC to your TV, a higher router speed could enable a sharper picture that plays smoothly.
Higher router speeds are also useful if you want to back up files to a central hard drive connected to your router and available to everyone else on the network, or you want to send movies, music and photos from one PC to another.
Also, if several people in the home are transferring files around the home and accessing the Internet simultaneously, a higher router speed can help things move along more smoothly.
Bottom line: If you’re using a router to simply bring the Internet to every computer (and other devices) to your home, you don’t care about moving data from one device to another and your home isn’t overly big, then don’t worry about speed. Any N router will be fast enough.
DUAL OR SINGLE BAND? The newest N routers carry the signal on either the 2.4 Ghz (gigahertz) band, or on both the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz bands. (If you get a dual-band router, the box may indicate a 600 Ghz speed, indicating the combined speed of both bands; if you use only one band, you get only half that maximum speed.)
Because microwave ovens and cordless phones use the 2.4 Ghz band, a router placed too close to those devices could lose its signal, forcing you to regularly restart your modem and router. The 5 Ghz band is less prone to interference and has more capacity than the 2.4 Ghz band, which means that even if your neighbors are on wireless, their signal shouldn’t interfere with yours.
On the other hand, a 5 Ghz signal does not travel as far as its lower-speed counterpart. And if your PC or other device is not compatible with a 5 Ghz signal, it won’t work on that band.
Bottom line: If your router is in your kitchen or other area that regularly runs cordless phones or vacuum cleaners, consider a dual-band router. Otherwise, you probably don’t need it.
WHAT’S THIS POWERLINE STUFF? The convenience of wireless often outweighs its problems: the likelihood that you will lose your signal from time to time.
Wireless connections are slower than wired ones. According to a study by Epitiro, a quality-of-service research group, a wireless signal is typically 30 percent slower that a wired one.
For the most reliable and fastest Internet experience, a wired connection is the answer. But unless you’re willing to string Ethernet cables along your floor or able to stuff them in your walls, that may not be practical.
Another solution is called Powerline networking, or HomePlug: using your home’s electrical wiring to transmit the Internet signal. To do so, you need to buy two Powerline AV transmitters (they’re available from Belkin, Netgear and other manufacturers). One is connected to the router using an Ethernet cable, and the other is plugged into the wall where you want the Internet signal to pop out. You connect that second unit to your PC (or Internet-capable TV or Blu-ray player), using an Ethernet cable.
Bottom line: When possible, create a wired, not a wireless network. Or you can bridge the wireless gap with Powerline technology — but it’s best to always maintain a wireless connection as a backup in case your Powerline system goes down.