The Wonder of Tech welcomes Jamie Lee, a tech writer for eBay, who explains how to choose which wireless router is the best one for you. You may think that the router you got from your Internet provider is your only option but you have many choices, though knowing what to look for can be overwhelming. Find out from Jamie what you should look for when shopping for a wireless router.
Accessing the Internet isn’t what it used to be.
Depending on your age, you likely remember plugging your home phone line into your oversized PC to experience the World Wide Web via a dial-up Internet connection.
These days, though, it’s all about wireless, particularly if you are looking for mobility so that you can access your home Internet via tablet, laptop, cellphone, or a number of other devices. Unfortunately, purchasing the right wireless router for your home isn’t as easy as it sounds. The various specifications and features make shopping for one akin to learning a new language.
Don’t be overwhelmed, though. The following tips will help you make an educated decision without first earning an IT certificate.
1. What are you connecting?
If you are in the market for a wireless router, you are clearly looking for mobility in your home. Keep in mind that a single user looking to power an iPad needs a simpler Wi-Fi connection than someone looking for a high-definition gaming experience. If the former describes you, a single band (2.4-GHz) router will likely serve your needs, although many devices including household appliances use this band, making it prone to interference and channel overlap.
If you are looking to power multiple devices, like a TV or a few other wireless devices, you should purchase a dual-band router that boasts both a 2.4-GHz band and a 5-GHz band. The 5-GHz band doesn’t sustain a signal as well as its counterpart, so the location of the device in your home will be important.
Remember that some devices only work with a specific band, so one that requires a 5-Ghz band won’t work with a 2.4-GHz band. And not only is connectivity at issue here, but so is price. Single-band routers are less expensive than dual-band versions.
2. How fast and how far?
When shopping for a router, you will become very familiar with the number 802.11. This is the industry standard for wireless technology. While this remains consistent from router to router, pay attention to the lower case letter that is appended to it.
- 802.11g: This is an earlier, slower standard that emerged in 2002 and 2003. With speeds of 54 Mbps, it is ideal for email and chat, and it can connect multiple devices. It doesn’t lend itself to more intensive activities, like streaming music or gaming, and it also provides limited coverage of the home.
- 802.11n: This standard replaced 802.11g builds upon its predecessor with higher speeds (up to 900 Mbps) and broader signal range, making it better suited for advanced media and gaming. It has been the standard for some time, and remains a satisfactory solution for most homes.
- 802.11ac: This newest and fastest standard has the highest speeds (up to 1.9 Gbps) and broadest signal range that is available (although a superior 802.11ad is on the way), but it is a new technology and is in an early adoption phase. Unless you live in a large, multi-user home, this may be overkill, until the technology becomes more widespread.
There are a couple of additional things to remember about router speeds:
- Although you will encounter routers that advertise various speeds, these are often referred to as “theoretical maximums,” and the routers generally deliver far less than what is advertised.
- Your Internet service provider dictates the speed of the Internet that comes to your home, rather than the wireless router. That said, your router can prevent you from fully realizing your Internet speed if it is too slow.
3. Is security a concern?
There was a time when “unsecured” networks – meaning anyone could log in to them and access the Internet freely – were prevalent. This is no longer the story and most people opt to password secure their network to:
- prevent neighbors from using it,
- reduce chances that outsiders can access important or confidential files, and
- limit the risk of hackers gaining access to their network.
You should too. Even though most wireless routers on the market utilize WEP, WPA, or WPA2 security types, it is worth double checking. WEP (Wired Equivalence Privacy) is better than open security, but it is less secure than its peers. WPA stands for Wi-Fi Protected Access and is the preferred security type. If you have the option of WPA or WPA2, choose the latter.
4. How tech savvy are you?
Installing a wireless router can be a challenge, and even if you are able to complete installation, you may find yourself grappling to find a solution if it should go out for any reason. For those who are tech savvy, neither will be an issue, but if this isn’t you, consider purchasing router that has allows you to configure it by clicking through a series of instructions. Manufacturers often denote the type of setup on the box or in the product description. Many routers with the easiest setup, such as those from Belkin, come with a startup disc that will guide you through step-by-step. If you have questions about setup, ask a salesperson or the online retailer for additional information.
Additionally, look for one with tech support in the case that you need help with the installation or with troubleshooting support over the life of your device. Manufacturers will often advertise their toll-free number, calling hours, and email response time on the box. The more available they are the better.
While these tips will help you navigate the wireless router marketplace, don’t be afraid to ask questions when shopping for your new router. Ask a sales person or the online retailer that you are purchasing your router from. If you are renting or leasing from your internet service provider, your call center representative or install tech should be knowledgeable on these devices, too. Understanding this technology is complex and ever-evolving. A few questions could be the key to finding the perfect fit for your home.
Jamie Lee is a freelance writer, father and extreme tech enthusiast. He covers consumer technology and wireless devices for eBay. You can find him on Twitter: @lee_jamie76.
* Wireless router image courtesy of Brenderous
* Computer image courtesy of Luke Chesser via Unsplash.