Thinking Of Buying A WiFi Router? Read This First!

Buying the right routers has never been more difficult. Be warned! Wifi routers are not usually just a buy, plug and play affair.

Businesses often spend thousands of dollars to hire wireless networking professionals to perform site surveys to determine the best equipment and means to deploy a wireless network. However, our focus – the home and small businesses – do not have the resources to hire such and can feel frustrated about purchasing, setting up and maintaining a wireless router and their own wireless networks! What probably make it even more frustrating to these class of people are the barrage of technical jargon being bandied about by the manufacturers of these routers, usually more from marketing hypes than necessity.

The question now is, How do you determine the features that matter and those that do not when making your purchase? Bands, Standards, Range, etc – are all these important considerations when shopping for a wireless router? What exactly are the important features to look out for when shopping for a router?

Care to know? Then read on.

Speed

It is a tricky time to be in the market for a new wireless router. However, one key consideration before purchasing a wireless router is to determine how fast it transmits data. The speed of data transfer for any router is normally dependent on the standard.

802.11a An IEEE wireless networking standard that specifies a maximum data transfer rate of 54Mbps and an operating frequency of 5GHz.

802.11b An IEEE wireless networking standard that specifies a maximum data transfer rate of 11Mbps over the harmless 2.4GHz radio frequency.

802.11g An IEEE wireless networking standard that offers transmission at relatively short distances at a maximum data transfer rate of 54Mbps.

The above standards have all been superceeded and are not worth considering.

802.11n An IEEE wireless networking standard that offers transmission at a maximum data transfer rate of up to 450Mbps. Most popular standard at the moment and highly recommended

802.11ac The new kid on the block. Coming five years after the 802.11n, this standard promises data transmission at a maximum rate of 1.3Gbps. Caution here. All the horsepower the 802.11ac routers can offer won’t matter if the clients connecting to the devices do not have support to interface with these blazing fast speeds.

The fastest current 802.11n Wi-Fi connections max out at around 150Mbps with one antenna, 300Mbps with two and 450Mbps with three antennas. 802.11ac connections will be roughly three times faster – so that’s 450Mbps, 900Mbps and 1.3Gbps respectively. Note that these figures are theoretical maximums, the best you may likely get for the 802.11ac would be in the region of 800Mbps.

Range

Signal interference is one of the biggest culprits that might be at work if your Wi-Fi is weak. Walls and physical obstructions block your signal, so do signals emitted by any electromagnetic household object like your microwave oven, cordless phones, bluetooth devices and even fluorescent lights!

The range of your Wi-Fi signals is normally dependent on the Wi-Fi standard. Using a  router with 802.11b and 802.11g can get you as far as 95m while 802.11n can get you twice that. This range is only obtainable outdoors where there are no obstructions. Real life usage indoors will vary greatly.

Single Band or Dual Band?

While researching routers, you will inevitably stumble across the term “bands.” The 2.4 and 5 GHz bands are the frequencies in which wireless communications operate. 802.11 B and G devices use the 2.4 GHz band, while 802.11N can use either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band. The 5 GHz band is less crowded then the 2.4 GHz band; less equipment runs on 5 GHz. That’s why it’s better equipped for throughput-intensive work within your home network such as gaming and file streaming. You will also get better internal network performance. These routers are ideal for the wireless gadget heavy home because you can connect gadgets that you use primarily for surfing such as a smartphone or tablet to the 2.4 GHz band and reserve the 5 GHz band for more demanding applications like devices that stream video and music or for gaming.

802.11ac will be purely 5GHz. It differs from 802.11n

  • Do you have multiple family members streaming video, or playing games online at the same time?
  • Is streaming high-definition video a must?
  • Do you plan to stream lots of content to an iPad?
  • Are you moving high volumes of data for your home office.

If any of these apply, then you’re a good candidate for a dual-band router. If not, you can probably get away with a cheaper single band router. Well, that’s the genius of dual-band routers; they allow each device to connect simultaneously, using its preferred band. The weakest link doesn’t have to slow the other devices down. The one downside of 5 GHz is that it does not sustain signal at greater distances as well as the 2.4 GHz band. So, if you are looking for a dual-band router to take advantage of the 5 GHz bandwidth—you’ll want to factor in distance when placing the router in your home or office.

Please note that 802.11ac won’t crystallize into a bona fide standard until sometime next year

Security

You’ll definitely want to make sure the router supports the latest WPA2 security rather than just WPA or, even worse, WEP. Most current routers support WPA2, but free routers from an ISP can sometimes be really outdated. If you’re building a wired network with clients that have gigabit ethernet adapters, also look for a router that supports that fast gigabit transfer speed. Also make sure the router supports Wireless-N (802.11n) for fastest transfer speeds; Wireless-N is backwards compatible with Wireless-G (802.11g) and Wireless-B (802.11b) devices, so your older computers and gadgets will still be able to connect to it.

And for The Geeks …

Do You Like to Tinker? Consider Custom Router Firmware If you’d like to hack your router for more features and customization with free, open-source firmware like Tomato or DD-WRT, be sure to check those site’s supported routers before going shopping. Some routers—like Buffalo’s Nfiniti G300NH—actually ship with DD-WRT pre-installed.

USB Ports

If you’d like to create a shared network drive, some routers enable you to plug in a USB hard drive to the router and share that drive. It’s a useful feature, but can be very slow and/or inconvenient (forcing you to use a FTP or HTTP server to access the drive, for example). If you don’t have a network attached storage (NAS) device, however, and don’t mind the performance compromise, look for this feature in your next router.

PS: You must ensure your wireless devices support whatever router you intend to buy. There is absolutely no benefit in switching to a higher grade router when your device can not take advantage of it.

Your Wi-Fi network is only as fast as the standard of the slowest device connected to it. If you connect a 802.11g device to a 802.11n network, the speed of your network will be limited to that of the slower standard, 802.11g.

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