apartment, business, and sketchy van parked down by the river has one. A functional wireless router allows you to easily connect your computer to a broadband internet service so you can share data files and stream media between mobile/Wi-Fi devices.
Although you could opt for a wired router, we suggest a wireless model so you can avoid stringing Ethernet cable around your home. Besides, a wireless router is the best way to access the internet using your smartphone or tablet. And if you ever discover you absolutely must have a wired connection, the router will have a built-in switch to handle it. While you’re at it, check out the best routers currently on the market, along with our guide on how to secure your wireless network.
Choosing the right Wi-Fi standard
Wi-Fi router guide
Just like smartphones, router manufacturers are constantly implementing new and more powerful wireless standards (IEEE protocols) as technology becomes more advanced. That’s why we have standards like 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac — these aren’t just random numbers, they are a description of router capabilities.
The latest standard is 802.11ax, now more popularly known as Wi-Fi 6. New routers will be Wi-Fi 6 compatible, and the latest rounds of smartphones and other mobile devices will launch with Wi-Fi 6 compatibility. This new version adds a slew of updates and reworked protocols to help improve speed, reliability, and security, and it even helps you extend device battery life. It also has features like MU-MIMO, which can increase network performance for specific mobile devices with a dedicated connection.
If you’re buying a new router, it’s particularly important to look for Wi-Fi 6 routers right now, even if you don’t have a lot of devices that are Wi-Fi 6 compatible. Otherwise, your router will quickly become obsolete long before its expected lifespan comes to an end.
Interpreting Wi-Fi network speeds
Remember, you should always take manufacturers’ speed declarations with a grain of salt. For example, many manufacturers list “theoretical” maximum bandwidth on their boxes. You’ll see anything from 350Mb/sec to 3,500Mb/sec (megabits per second), but you’ll rarely see throughput that high in realistic environments in which walls, doors, appliances, and other barriers separate your router from its client devices.
All wireless routers feature built-in Ethernet for hard-wired network connections, but cheaper routers will have switches rated at only 100Mb/sec. You won’t regret spending a few extra dollars to buy a model with a Gigabit switch (that’s 1,000Mb/sec).
Deciding how many bands you need
Manufacturers have sold dual-band routers for years, but now many are starting to roll out tri-band routers as well.
Dual-band typically means the router is equipped with two radios, one that operates on the 2.4GHz frequency band, and one that runs on the 5GHz frequency band. This enables you to set up two separate wireless networks, so you can improve speeds in a crowded wireless network by bumping some devices over to the alternate frequency. This can also help if there’s potential interference in the 2.4GHz band like microwaves and Bluetooth devices.
In addition to switching to channels with less “noise,” it’s important to note that the 2.4GHz band does have a broader range even if its speeds may not be the best. The 5GHz band has a shorter range and works best with nearby devices.
Make sure you read the fine print, though. Some dual-band routers in fact have one radio that can operate on either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands, but not both at the same time. Tri-band routers include a second 5GHz band. This is helpful if you have a lot of mobile devices on one network and need to spread them around three bands for greater efficiency and data management. Tri-band routers remain rare, because very few people need them. They can be useful in a dorm or office but aren’t necessary for the average house.
Managing Wi-Fi security
Wireless networks are as insecure as they are convenient — if you don’t take steps to secure your network, just about any troublemaker within range can eavesdrop on your online activities, leech off your internet connection, access any of the files stored on your computers, infect your systems with viruses, and cause all sorts of other problems.
Any router you buy should support at least WPA2 (the second implementation of the Wi-Fi Protected Access protocol), but today many devices come with WPA3, which provides even more robust security, so use WPA3 whenever possible and WPA2 only as a fallback. Remember, in general, your network is only as secure as the lowest level of security on any connected device.
Also keep in mind that some routers are designed with enterprise or advanced family security in mind. These devices come with many extra features, including the ability to add extra encryption, monitor devices, block unwanted users from the network, and even see what people are browsing.
One of the worst problems to plague the average router is interference. A router isn’t much good if it can’t give you acceptable wireless signals everywhere you want it. Fortunately, most modern routers have a couple other tricks to deal with this problem.
The solution is using “smart” processes that identify devices or dead zones and target them with Wi-Fi signals so they always get service. The monstrous D-Link AC3200 Ultra, for example, has SmartBeam technology to do just this. Products like Luma, on the other, encourage people to buy several routers and link them together to create a Wi-Fi web around your home that eliminates dead zones. These solutions are something to keep in mind if you’ve had bad experiences with routers in the past.
Google Wi-Fi goes a step further, baking extensive Wi-Fi functionality into an easily understood smartphone app. Other manufacturers are also taking this route, though Google’s remains a high point among the competition.
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