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Buyer’s Guide To Choosing a Wi-Fi Router

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The router is an integral part of your home wi-fi network. It’s the bridge that allows all of your wi-fi devices to communicate with each other. It also allows them to connect to the internet. Upgrading your wi-fi router can sometimes give improved speeds, better reliability and additional features such as parental controls.

 

How To Choose A Wi-Fi Router

 

Router.jpgThe router is the centrepiece of your home wi-fi network. It bridges the connection between your wi-fi devices at home: from smartphones to tablets and from laptops to games consoles. The wi-fi router also makes it possible for these devices to connect to the internet.

 

Most of us receive a free wi-fi router when signing up for a home broadband service. The router can sometimes be quite basic but it’s not necessary to stick with that router when going online. Upgrading your router can sometimes give better speeds and improved performance. It can also add new features such as parental controls, file sharing and printer sharing.

 

Wi-Fi routers are available from a range of companies. Major manufacturers include Belkin, Netgear, TP-Link, Buffalo and Linksys. Apple is also a manufacturer of wi-fi routers: they offer the Airport Express and the Airport Extreme.

 

In this article, we provide our buyer’s guide on how to choose a home wi-fi router.

 

Wi-Fi Technology: Which Generation?

 

Wi-Fi Generations.jpgThere are four generations of wi-fi technology currently in use today. From oldest to newest, there’s the b-generation, the g-generation, the n-generation and the ac-generation of wi-fi.

 

The most popular form of wi-fi is currently 802.11n. The technology is available on almost every router today and most products manufactured in the last five years should have support for this type of wi-fi. 802.11n gives indoor coverage of up to 70m. It can also provide download speeds of up to 150Mbit/s.

 

The newest form of wi-fi is 802.11ac. Having launched only this year, there are now a few routers that support the technology. These routers tend to be quite expensive. 802.11ac promises download speeds of up to 433Mbit/s. You’ll need to have a compatible router and compatible hardware to obtain these speeds. You can find 802.11ac support on the Galaxy S4, the Galaxy Note 3 and the HTC One. Most other smartphones still lack support including the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 5C. Both are limited to using b, g & n technologies.

 

 

802.11b

802.11g

802.11n

802.11ac

Availability

1999

2003

2009

2013

Maximum Speed

11Mbit/s

54Mbit/s

72Mbit/s or
150Mbit/s*

433Mbit/s**

Indoor Range

35m

38m

70m

TBC

Outdoor Range

140m

140m

250m

TBC

Frequencies Used

2.4GHz only

2.4GHz only

2.4GHz or 5GHz

5GHz only

Side-by-side comparison of the different generations of wi-fi technology.
* Most smartphones can obtain up to 72Mbit/s (single antenna, 20MHz bandwidth). By using a 40MHz channel, maximum speeds can be increased up to 150Mbit/s. However, this is only practical with a dual-band router. Tablet and laptop devices can obtain higher speeds if they use more than one antenna (e.g. 450Mbit/s using three antennas on a 40MHz channel).
** Smartphones can obtain speeds of up to 433Mbit/s (single antenna, 80MHz bandwidth). Tablet and laptop devices can obtain higher speeds if they have more than one antenna (e.g. 1300Mbit/s using three antennas).

 

When choosing between different generations of wi-fi, it’s worth bearing the following things in mind:

 

  1. WiFiThe advertised speeds are only a theoretical maximum. In reality, it’s highly unlikely you’ll reach those speeds.

  2. The speed only refers to your internal network. In some cases, having a faster wi-fi connection won’t make your internet connection work any faster. If you’re using 802.11n, the chances are that your wi-fi connection is already faster than your home broadband connection. As the broadband connection is the bottleneck in the setup, a faster wi-fi network won’t improve download speeds. Given the speed of today’s broadband connections, 802.11ac is unlikely to improve download speeds.

  3. To benefit from a new generation of wi-fi technology, both your router & your hardware will need to support the same technology. Otherwise, the wi-fi connection will drop back to using an older technology (wi-fi is backwards compatible).

Given the lack of hardware currently supporting 802.11ac, we’d recommend sticking to an 802.11n router. If you have a big budget, there’s no harm in choosing an 802.11ac router. It’s future-proof and you’ll be fully ready to take advantage of the technology. However, you’re unlikely to get any immediate benefits from using the new technology.

 

802.11n: Higher Speeds Require a Dual-Band Router

 

In order to transmit more information, wi-fi networks need to use a larger amount of spectrum.

 

A standard wi-fi network uses 20MHz of bandwidth. The 2.4GHz range, which was traditionally used for wi-fi, has a total of 71MHz available for use. Dividing the 71MHz by 20MHz per network, we see that it’s only possible to have three non-overlapping networks. In the UK, wi-fi networks normally use the channels 1, 6 and 11. If there are more than 3 wi-fi networks in the area where you live, congestion can occur and download speeds could be reduced for all users. With 802.11n technology, the maximum download speed on a 20MHz channel is 72Mbit/s.

 

Wi-Fi Channels.png
A standard wi-fi network uses 20MHz of bandwidth (plus a 1MHz guard band on each side). In the UK, this gives three non-overlapping channels: channels 1, 6 and 11. CC-licensed image by Michael Gauthie (adapted from Wikipedia).

 

A 40MHz channel is required for better speeds.

 

With 802.11n, the maximum advertised download speed is actually 150Mbit/s (this is assuming a one-antenna device e.g. a smartphone). To obtain 150Mbit/s, you’ll need to use a double-sized wi-fi channel. This would require 40MHz of bandwidth rather than the 20MHz required on a standard network.

 

In the UK, there is only 71MHz available in the 2.4GHz band. A 40MHz wi-fi network would use more than half of the bandwidth available to all users. Due to the high bandwidth requirements, a 40MHz network will cause lots of interference with neighbouring networks. This will reduce performance for both you and your neighbours. Unless you live in a rural area without many neighbours, it’s recommended you avoid using this feature in the 2.4GHz range.

 

40MHz is more practical with a dual-band router.

 

A recent innovation has been the introduction of dual-band routers. In addition to using spectrum in the 2.4GHz range, dual-band routers can also use spectrum in the 5GHz range. The advantage of 5GHz is that there’s a lot more spectrum available for use. In the UK, there’s 455MHz available for indoor wi-fi. This corresponds to 18 wi-fi networks (20MHz bandwidth) or 9 double-sized wi-fi networks (40MHz bandwidth). As there is much more spectrum in the 5GHz range, it becomes much more practical to use a 40MHz channel. This makes it possible to obtain the higher speeds.

 

 

2.4GHz Band

5GHz Band

Amount of Spectrum Available

71MHz

255MHz (outdoors)
455MHz (indoors)

Number of Channels

13 channels
Channels 1-13

50 channels
Channels 36-64, 100-140

20MHz networks (non-overlapping)

3

8 (outdoors)
18 (indoors)

40MHz networks (non-overlapping)

1

4 (outdoors)
9 (indoors)

In addition to the 2.4GHz range, dual-band routers can also access the 5GHz range. 40MHz networks are more practical in the 5GHz range.

 

If you’re buying an 802.11n router, it’s best to opt for dual-band. This will give less congestion and the possibility of higher download speeds. For 802.11ac, all routers are dual band as the new technology only works at 5GHz.

 

Dual Band Routers: Pros & Cons of Using 5GHz Wi-Fi

 

5G Wifi.jpgBy operating a wi-fi network in the 5GHz band, it’s possible to obtain higher download speeds. The amount of interference is also reduced: both from neighbouring networks and from other sources. At 2.4GHz, wi-fi needs to compete against microwave ovens, baby monitors, video senders and Bluetooth devices. At 5GHz, there’s virtually no interference from other sources and there’s currently very few neighbouring networks to share the spectrum with.

 

The downside of using 5GHz is that radio waves won’t propagate as far. If you have a large home, wi-fi coverage could be worsened by using 5GHz. 5GHz also suffers from a lack of hardware support. Many devices are still limited to using 2.4GHz networks.

 

In reality, most dual-band routers will simultaneously operate on both frequencies (both 2.4GHz and 5GHz at the same time). Older devices can still get online by connecting to the legacy 2.4GHz network. Meanwhile, newer devices can benefit from increased download speeds on the 5GHz network.

 

 

2.4GHz Wi-Fi

5GHz Wi-Fi

Maximum Speed (802.11n)

Up to 72Mbit/s

Up to 150Mbit/s

Maximum Speed (802.11ac)

N/A

Up to 433Mbit/s

Range

Decent Coverage

Poor Coverage

Congestion

Highly Congested (many wi-fi networks using 2.4GHz)

Less Congestion
(fewer networks at 5GHz)

Interference Sources

Microwave Oven
Baby Monitors
Cordless Phones
Bluetooth

 

Hardware Support

Universal (All Wi-Fi Devices)

Limited (Newer Devices Only)

There are both benefits and downsides of using 5GHz wi-fi.

 

Security: Protecting Your Wi-Fi Network from Unauthorised Use

 

When buying a router and setting up your network, it’s worth taking a moment to think about security. Adding password protection to your network will stop others from using your connection. It will also help to keep your data safe.

 

WPA2 is the recommended technology for protecting your network. Almost all routers now support it and all wi-fi devices manufactured since 2006 must support it. If you own a device made before 2006, it might lack support for WPA2. In this case, it may be necessary to use an older technology (for instance WPA, WEP or WEP2). It’s strongly recommended not to use WEP or WEP2. Both solutions are incredibly insecure and make it very easy for hackers to access your network.

 

WPS.jpgWi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS)

 

Many wi-fi routers support a feature called Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS). It’s intended to simplify the process of connecting to a network: users press a button on their router when adding a new device and activate the WPS functionality on their wi-fi enabled device. WPS is supported on most Android devices including the Galaxy S4, the HTC One and the Xperia Z.

 

At the end of 2011, it was discovered that WPS had significant security problems. For this reason, it’s highly recommended you disable it on your router.

 

Wi-Fi Routers with an Integrated Modem

 

In the UK, home broadband can come through a telephone line, a fibre connection or a cable connection.

 

If your broadband connection comes through a telephone line, it’s possible to choose a router with a built-in modem. This will save you from having to use a separate modem. We recommend choosing a modem-router with built-in support for ADSL2+. This will give the best speeds and is fully backwards compatible with ADSL and ADSL2.

 

If you’re connect to the internet through fibre or cable, it may be necessary to attach a separate modem to your router.

 

Parental Controls: Keeping Your Family Safe Online

 

It’s important to keep your family safe when going online.

 

With a desktop computer, it’s possible to take certain precautions such as placing the computer in a common area and using parental control software to block access to certain websites.

 

The recent explosion in web-connected devices has made it difficult to control your kid’s internet usage. The internet can now be accessed from a whole range of devices including PCs, laptops, smartphones, tablets, MP3 players, e-book readers, game consoles and smart TVs. Given the number of web-connected devices, it’s often easier to implement parental controls directly on the router. Parental controls on the router will automatically apply to all devices using your home broadband connection.

 

 

Software-Based Parental
Control

Router-Based Parental Controls

Devices Covered

Individual devices that have parental control software installed.

All devices using home broadband connection.

Blocks unsuitable websites?

Yes

Yes

Protects personal information?

Yes

No, only blocks access to specific websites.

Per-User Controls

Yes

No

Time-Based Controls

Yes

Yes

 

Based on features and flexibility, parental control software still comes out as the most powerful solution. For instance, you can have different controls based on the person using the device (something which isn’t possible on router-based controls). Parental control software can also detect when personal information is submitted to websites. Router-based controls are unable to do this.

 

A good parental control system should use a combination of both technologies.

 

Sharing Printers & Storage on your Home Network

 

Printer.jpgSome wi-fi routers will allow you to attach a printer or an external storage device.

 

  • Printer. If you have a printer that you want to share across the network, investigate a wi-fi router that allows you to attach a printer. The router will normally need to have a USB port (though check that your printer is compatible with the router).

    If you can’t connect a printer directly to your router, consider sharing it via a PC instead. This is a simpler solution but requires your PC to be on before the printer can be shared.

  • External Storage (Network Attached Storage). Look for a router with a SD card slot or support for USB storage. This is a great way to share multimedia content across your home network. You can use it to share a library of music and videos which can then be accessed on any device connected to the network.

Ethernet Ports: A Wired Connection to your Router

 

Ethernet Cable.jpgIf you have a PC or laptop that’s located close to the router, consider attaching it with an Ethernet wire. Most routers will have four Ethernet ports.

 

A standard Ethernet port will give you speeds of up to 100Mbit/s. With a Gigabit Ethernet port, you can obtain ten times higher speeds (up to 1000Mbit/s). In reality, however, this is unlikely to make any difference when accessing content online. It’ll only affect the speeds when transferring data internally within your network.

 

5 Ways to Improve Wi-Fi Coverage

 

If you’re having problems getting good wi-fi coverage, consider the following steps to improve it:

 

  1. Check the positioning of your wireless router.
    Ideally, it should be placed centrally within your house.

  2. Reduce interference from other devices.
    If you’re using wi-fi at 2.4GHz, there could be some interference from microwave ovens, cordless telephones, video senders and baby monitors.

  3. Microwave Oven.jpgChanging your Wi-Fi channel.
    Choosing a less congested frequency can often improve performance.

  4. Using an external or high-gain antenna.
    This can improve signal strength particularly when indoors.

  5. Using a wi-fi repeater to extend coverage.
    A wi-fi repeater can boost signal strength a long way from the router. It does this by picking up your wi-fi network and re-broadcasting it as a new network.

For more information, see our full guide to improving wi-fi coverage at home.

 

Summary

 

In this guide, we’ve summarised the main things to consider when buying a new a wi-fi router:

 

  • Wi-Fi Technology. For most people, an 802.11n router will do the job just fine. The latest version of wi-fi (802.11ac) can offer even higher speeds but hardware support is quite limited

  • Dual Band. A dual-band router has the potential for higher download speeds. If you live in the city, it’s definitely worthwhile to get a dual-band router.

  • Security. Look for a router with WPA2 security. If possible, avoid using WEP as this is known to be insecure. WPS is also insecure and should be turned off to secure your network.

  • Parental Controls. Some wi-fi routers have built-in parental controls. This can be useful in a family environment.

  • Sharing Printers & Storage. Some wi-fi routers will allow you to attach printers and external storage. It’s a great way to share resources across your home network.

  • Availability of Ethernet. If you’d like to connect using a wire, it’s essential to have a router with Ethernet ports. Whenever possible, look for a router that has Gigabit Ethernet ports. This will give the best speeds.

  • Coverage Issues. If you’re experiencing coverage issues, follow this guide to improve home wi-fi coverage.

Ken Lo writes about mobile technology and the mobile industry at Ken's Tech Tips.

13 Comments
prophet
an excellent blog, very detailed and informativeSmiley Happy
veteran
That cleared up a lot of questions I had. Good article, looking forward to more!

Wow! This is seriously extensive and a super educational blog post...Big ups!

sensei

I'm surprised by the lack of fibre-based modem/routers.

I've had to have a separate modem, with an additional router, to get fibre fitted in my property.

It's such an ugly solution. Smiley Sad

 

P.S. Will you be doing a 4G mobile broadband dongle blog soon? It's just a thought. Smiley Happy

cim
phenomenon

Outstanding level of detail there and well presented thanks @kenlo

giffgaff pensioner

Thanks Kenlo ......... Excellent  WiFi guide  ......  thumbup.gif

navigator
A very good article. I am still waitng for my ADSLconnection to catch up with my router.
enigma

Great blog, thanks! I got the standard SuperHub from Virgin Media, which is the intergrated Modem with Router (NetGear I think). It's alright for household coverage and fairly reliable too. But it's good to have this info, and useful for ways to improve the signal (wouldn't mind a range extender, so I can go online in my garden). Smiley Happy

nice guide
pupil

Great blog. Some good detail explained very well.