The right way to Purchase a Wi-Fi Router

WiFi routers are everywhere. Almost every house, apartment, shop, and sketchy van parked by the river has one. With a working WiFi router, you can easily connect your computer to a broadband internet service so that you can exchange data files and stream media between mobile / Wi-Fi devices.

Although you could opt for a wired router, we recommend a wireless model so you don't have to run the Ethernet cable at home. In addition, a WiFi router is the best way to access the Internet with your smartphone or tablet. And if you ever find that you absolutely need a wired connection, the router has an integrated switch. In the meantime, find out about the best routers on the market and our guide to securing your wireless network.

Choosing the right WiFi standard

Wi-Fi router guide to digital trends

As with smartphones, router manufacturers are constantly implementing new and more powerful wireless standards (IEEE protocols) as the technology evolves. For this reason, there are standards such as 802.11g, 802.11n and 802.11ac. These are not just random numbers, they describe the router functions.

The latest standard is 802.11ax, now commonly known as Wi-Fi 6. New routers will be Wi-Fi 6 compatible, and the latest rounds of smartphones and other mobile devices will be launched with Wi-Fi 6 compatibility. This new version includes a number of updates and revised protocols to improve speed, reliability and security, and even extend the device's battery life.

When buying a new router, it is especially important to look for Wi-Fi 6 now, even if you don't have many devices that are Wi-Fi 6 compatible. Otherwise, your router will quickly become obsolete long before the expected life has expired.

Interpret the Wi-Fi network speed

Remember that you should always take the manufacturer's speed data with a grain of salt. For example, many manufacturers state a “theoretical” maximum bandwidth on their boxes. In realistic environments where walls, doors, devices, and other barriers separate your router from its client devices, throughput from 350Mbps to 3,500Mbps (megabits per second) is rarely displayed.

All WLAN routers have integrated Ethernet for hard-wired network connections. However, cheaper routers have switches with a nominal output of only 100 Mbit / s. You won't regret spending a few extra dollars buying a model with a gigabit switch (that's 1,000Mbps).

Decide how many bands you need

Manufacturers have been selling dual-band routers for years, but now many are beginning to bring tri-band routers to the market.

Dual band usually means that the router is equipped with two radios, one working in the 2.4 GHz frequency band and one in the 5 GHz frequency band. This way, you can set up two separate wireless networks to improve speed in a crowded wireless network by switching some devices to the alternate frequency. This can also be helpful if potential interference such as microwaves and Bluetooth devices occur in the 2.4 GHz band.

In addition to switching to channels with less "noise", it should be noted that the 2.4 GHz band has a wider range, even if its speeds may not be the best. The 5 GHz band has a shorter range and works best with nearby devices.

However, make sure you read the fine print. Some dual-band routers actually have a radio that can operate in either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band, but not both at the same time. Tri-band routers contain a second 5 GHz band. This is useful when you have a lot of mobile devices on a network and need to split them across three bands for more efficiency and data management. Tri-band routers are still rare because very few people need them. They can be useful in a dorm or office, but are not required for an average house.

Manage Wi-Fi security

Wireless networks are as insecure as they are practical. If you don't take steps to secure your network, just about any troublemaker within range can eavesdrop on your online activity, interrupt your internet connection and access all files stored on your computers, infect your systems with viruses and cause all sorts of other problems.

Every router you buy should support at least WPA2 (the second implementation of the Wi-Fi Protected Access protocol). Today, many devices are equipped with WPA3, which offers even more robust security. Therefore, use WPA3 whenever possible and WPA2 only as a replacement. Remember that your network is generally only as secure as the lowest security level on a connected device.

Also note that some routers are designed for corporate or family security. These devices have many additional features, including the ability to add additional encryption, monitor devices, block unwanted users from the network, and even see what users are browsing.

Intelligent wireless management

Google OnHub heroBill Roberson / Digital Trends

One of the worst problems that plagues the average router is interference. A router is not very good if it cannot give you acceptable radio signals everywhere. Fortunately, most modern routers have some other tricks to solve this problem.

The solution uses “intelligent” processes that identify devices or dead zones and target them with Wi-Fi signals so that they are always operated. For example, the monstrous D-Link AC3200 Ultra uses SmartBeam technology to do just that. Products like Luma, on the other hand, encourage people to buy multiple routers and connect them together to create a Wi-Fi web around your home that eliminates dead zones. You should consider these solutions if you have had bad routing experiences in the past.

Google Wi-Fi goes one step further and integrates extensive Wi-Fi functions into an easy-to-understand smartphone app. Other manufacturers are also following this path, although Google is still a high point in the competition.

In addition, many routers these days offer voice assistant technology, compatibility with Alexa and other VAs, so you can control them with your voice. This may currently be of limited use, but you can use voice commands to switch modes or add guests, which can be useful. Parents may find voice commands more useful because a simple "Alexa, remove Timmy's smartphone from the Wi-Fi network" ensures that someone is focused on their homework.

Finally, keep in mind that the more automatic and security features it has, the more difficult it is to work. Many-function routers should also have multi-core processors to manage everything while allowing the expected speeds.

USB connections

Karma Wi-Fi hotspot USBJessica Lee Star / Digital Trends

You will find USB ports on many routers, but it is important to find out what this port is used for. With some routers, this is only used to transfer setup information (e.g. network ID and password) from the router to a client using a USB memory key. With better routers, you can connect a USB mass storage device to add NAS (Network Attached Storage) functionality. Connect a large USB hard drive to your router and every device on your network has access to this storage resource – it's like a cheap server.

You should also pay attention to the generation of the USB connection. Many routers have a combination of USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports. Some only have one or the other. At least one USB 3.0 port is a smart feature that you can purchase if you want to attach accessories.

Router with MU-MIMO

MU-MIMO is a new router technology that means multiple users, multiple inputs and multiple outputs. Basically, MU-MIMO routers can simultaneously establish a direct connection to several mobile devices (currently up to four devices). Instead of mixing data packets very quickly between devices, the network can maintain direct connections with devices without changing focus. This makes internet connections faster and more reliable.

MU-MIMO is likely to be a dominant technology in the future as it is included in Wi-Fi 6 (as well as a separate feature on some "AC" routers). Over the next few years, you can expect a slow and secure transition to MU-MIMO functions that you should think about in the future.

Do you need a mesh network?

A mesh network consists of multiple router devices that work together, overlap their signals, and create a single, reliable network. Mesh networks have become increasingly popular in recent years, as models like Google Wi-Fi show.

Mesh networks usually have the same functions as normal routers, although they may have lower speeds than others in their price range (this is less important if three different routers work together, but is still worth mentioning). They are particularly useful in two cases. First, if you live in a smaller room like an apartment, you may only be able to buy a mesh router at a low price and use it like a traditional router. Second, a mesh network is the ideal solution for your large space and is likely to work better than a traditional network if you have a large house (e.g. 3,000 square feet or more) and have had problems with wireless connectivity in the past routers.

Routers and games

PlayGlenn Carstens-Peters / Unsplash

The ideal online connection for games is always a wired Ethernet cable as it offers the best performance and stability. However, this is not always possible for consoles in hard-to-reach places or for mobile games that are intended for on the go.

The good news is that your router may be able to help. Some routers have special game functions that prioritize data packets for games and connections to game servers. If you're interested, look for models like that Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000 to get the most out of your wireless connection while playing.

What to Spend: Price vs. power

The router prices vary greatly depending on functions, antennas, connections and much more. Generally, the best routers available today vary between $ 100 and $ 250 or more. You can find smaller routers below this area and large corporate routers above it, but most fall somewhere along the line. If you're on a tight budget, you can find some decent routers for $ 50 or less, but they don't offer the latest and greatest features.

A cheap router with below average performance is not a bargain. Product ratings give you an indication of what to expect. However, if you set one up in your own home, you can be sure how the router will behave in your unique environment. When purchasing, make sure that the retailer you do business with has a liberal return policy if you are not satisfied.

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