Which router is right for you? We give you ten tips that should help you pick the best one for your needs.
Almost every broadband router destined for the home market these days has Wi-Fi capability. In fact, it's been ages since we reviewed a router that didn't include radios for wireless networking. That means you've got a ton of choices when it comes to selecting the right router for your home or small business. It can be confusing, even to seasoned professionals.
One way not to choose is to go by the makers' advertised speeds, which seldom have much to do with reality. Some vendors go as far as using the "300" megabits-per-second speed in the names of routers that can't achieve anywhere near that throughput in the real world. Your best bet is to avoid any pitch that tells you about the speed of the router. Instead, you should look at many features that you might need and that might be buried deep down in the feature chart. Fortunately, the market is flooded with Wi-Fi routers, so finding a good one could be simpler than you might think, if you know what you're looking for. I've put together a list of the ten key points you should consider when choosing a Wi-Fi router:Is 802.11n (N) really that much better than 802.11g (G)?
Yup. Believe it or not, the 802.11g Wi-Fi router, which uses a technology that has been around for seven years, is still popular, especially in the corporate world. Small businesses buy G routers because they are cheaper and perform adequately. Some 802.11g routers include specialized functions that are essential in business, such as powerful policy-based firewalls and threat-management features. In the home, however, speed is far more important, and there the 802.11n Wi-Fi router is king. Some N routers, such as the TrendNet Gigabit, can deliver upwards of 200 Mbps, and can theoretically reach 300 Mbps. N routers often deliver as much as five times as much throughput as G routers in real-world testing.Are dual-band routers better than single-band routers?
N routers come in two flavors—single-band and dual-band. Single-band routers use the 2.4-GHz band, the same frequency used by G routers. Dual-band N routers support 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. Even at 2.4 GHz, N routers are faster than G routers because they make better use of the frequency range in the band, and they're better at bouncing signals off surrounding surfaces such as furniture and walls. Average throughput for single-band N routers is usually five times as fast as G routers. And switching a dual-band N router from 2.4 GHz to 5 GHz is like trading a Toyota for a Maserati. Some routers can achieve as much as 100 Mbps more by switching up. The answer is, therefore, an overwhelming yes: Dual-band band routers, though generally more expensive, outperform single-band (2.4-GHz) routers.What about a simultaneous dual-band router?
Simultaneous dual- band N transmission is a recent development used by some manufacturers to simplify switching between bands. Routers with this feature, such as the D-Link DIR-825 Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit Router and the Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station 802.11n, transmit the N signal simultaneously in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. By using both frequencies, the routers achieve longer range and better signal strength, and, as you might expect, they don't require manual switching between bands. Simultaneous dual-band routers are also more efficient in their throughput. Some, such as the D-Link DIR-825, can even manage the bands without any input from users. Simultaneous dual-band can help stabilize the overall throughput on your network. These routers are generally more expensive than regular dual-band routers, but they are worth the extra few bucks if you've got the cash to spend.Do I need two, three, or four antennas, or maybe hidden ones?
Because the speed in N routers depends heavily on signal bouncing and multiple transmitters and receiver antennas, the ideal antenna configuration is 4 by 4. This means the router has four antennas, each of which has a transmitter and an antenna. Generally, however, most high-end N routers come with a 3-by-2 or 3-by-3 antenna configuration. While antennas come in all shapes and sizes, most are visible, tubular antennas. Vendors like Apple, Netgear, and Linksys by Cisco have redesigned some antennas so they are hidden from view, as in the Apple Xtreme, the Netgear RangeMax Wireless-N Gigabit Router WNR3500, and the Linksys by Cisco Dual Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router WRT320N routers. During testing, however, I haven't found any noteworthy performance advantages of one antenna design over another. The crucial point to consider is the number of transmitters and receivers built into the router.What is guest access?
Guest access is one of the most useful, and most underrated, features of a wireless router. Routers with guest access, such as the Belkin N+ Wireless Router (F5D8235-4), can separate a Wi-Fi network into two. This capability allows friends to use your broadband access without knowing the password for your network. You can achieve a similar configuration with routers that support virtual LANs (VLANs), but the steps in setting up multiple VLANs are more difficult. I highly recommend this feature.What about Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS)?
Wi-Fi Protected Setup is a standard for securing your laptop with a Wi-Fi router. The technology simplifies the encryption process that users otherwise have to go through to secure a Wi-Fi network. Is the technology simpler to use than the schemes that preceded it? That depends on the laptop and operating system you use. Vista's Windows Connect Now (WCN), for instance, is compliant with WPS. When WPS does work, it's a simple process. Getting the configuration to work on laptops that don't support it (in both software and hardware), however, is quite an ordeal. Should you then look for this feature in a router? No. WPS isn't essential, and, all too often, some part of your setup won't be compatible. Still, many N routers offer it, and, when it does work, it's worthwhile.How many wired ports do I want?
The more the merrier. While most Wi-Fi N routers come with a standard five-port block, you'll be surprise how many don't—the Apple AirPort Xtreme and Apple Time Capsule, for example, have only four ports apiece. Adding a NAS device, an Xbox 360, a VoIP phone, and a PC will max out a five-port router (the last port connecting to your DLS or cable modem). If your router has only three free LAN ports, you'll have to buy a switch to accommodate extra network devices.Is a router with a strong firewall important?
Luckily, most routers include a firewall, and many use the SPI (stateful packet inspection) firewall, which is considered to be better than the older NAT firewall. A few routers, such as the SMC Barricade N Wireless Broadband Router (SMCWBR14S-N2), provide a range of manual settings on a firewall. Are these routers better? Not really. Typically, manual firewall settings are designed for specific usage needs and not for enhancing the overall capability of a firewall. As long as a Wi-Fi router has a SPI firewall, that's enough for most us. On a side note: most N routers support WPA2-PSK encryption, which is what I recommend.Can home routers meet the needs of small businesses?
For the most part, yes. However, sometimes businesses need extra security or technologies that are not available in some home routers. There are a few home routers, such as the SMC Barricade N Wireless Router and the ASUS RT-N11 EZ Wireless N Router, with advanced features, such as 802.1X authentication, routing, and VLANs that make them particularly attractive to small businesses.What's the best way to access your router remotely?
Routers like the Netgear WNR3500, which support dynamic DNS—as in the Dyndns.org or TZO.com services—are the best to buy if you want to access your network remotely. With dynamic DNS, you can gain access by using a domain name like myhomenetwork.net instead of using the IP address provided to you by your ISP. Since ISPs rotate IP addresses, the easiest way to find your network on the Web is by activating a dynamic DNS account in your router.Pcmag