With the increasing number of devices that require Internet access, a wireless router is a must for those who can no longer survive with the single connection offered by cable or DSL modems. Wireless routers also eliminate the cable clutter that surrounds most computers and let you use Internet-enabled devices throughout your home. Even if you’re already familiar with the world of wireless routers, new changes have made the certain knowledge of a few years ago a thing of the past. Pronto’s Wireless Router Buying Guide will get you up to speed on the latest wireless routers.
Many devices bear the “wireless” name, so make sure that the product that you’re getting is actually a wireless router. Wireless access points are not the same as wireless routers. Look for a product that references LAN, Ethernet or router.
The most popular home use wireless protocol is 802.11g, which operates on the 2.4GHz frequency and transmits up to 54Mbps. 802.11b wireless protocol also operates on the 2.4GHz frequency, but it only transmits 11mbps and is rapidly becoming outdated. The A protocol uses a 5GHz frequency that reduces interference. Still in development is 802.11n, which can transmit up to 600 Mbps and boasts an extended range.
With home Internet connection speeds anywhere between one and six Mbps, even the slowest wireless protocol is faster than an Internet connection. Choose a faster router only if you’re networking PCs in your home that will share large files. An 802.11g router is best if you just need to connect to the Internet.
To prevent unauthorized wireless network access, look for a wireless router with WPA or WPA2 security protocols. The Wired Equivalency Protocol, or WEP, is outdated and provides minimal protection. For added security, look for MAC address filtering that only allows address-authorized devices to access your network. To protect PCs from attack, look for a built-in firewall.
If you want to reduce your number of network connection devices, look for a wireless router with an integrated cable or DSL modem. To ensure maximum compatibility, buy wireless devices by the same manufacturer. If you intend to update your wireless router as technology changes, look for a manufacturer that provides regular firmware updates at no extra charge.
The standard method to connect a computer to a cable or DSL modem, peripherals or another computer. This term can refer to the plug, port, cable or connection protocol.
Software contained in a hardware device that can be updated. Wireless router firmware determines access methods and tells the router how to perform.
Local Area Network, a small, closed network set up between computers and peripherals such as printers.
Megabytes per Second, a standard measurement of data transmission speed. Higher numbers provide the potential for faster data transmission.
Multiple Input, Multiple Output, a feature that incorporates several antennas into a wireless router for faster, more reliable data transmission.
A standard accepted in the computer industry, typically describing the behavior of a hardware connection.
A device that sends information from a computer or the Internet to a computer through a system of unique numerical addresses, similar to the way telephones connect through phone numbers.
Wireless Area Network, a type of LAN that uses wireless connections.
Wireless Access Point, a device that is capable of connecting to a wireless network.
When you’re shopping for a wireless router, it’s important to have a basic idea of what it should do. A lot of manufacturers use the word “wireless” to describe their products. When browsing wireless peripherals, you’ll see wireless access points, wireless adaptors, wireless USB connectors and wireless PCI cards, to name just a few.
Specifically, wireless routers manage Internet connections for multiple devices by creating an invisible network in your home. This lets you connect PCs, video game consoles and other Internet-enabled devices through a single online connection without covering your baseboards in wires. Wireless routers use wireless access point (WAP) technology and include features such as an Ethernet router and a switch. When shopping for a wireless router, look for key words like LAN and Ethernet.
One of the most difficult things for shoppers to figure out is what all of the letters associated with wireless routers mean. You’ll see things such as A, B, G and even N. Sometimes these letters follow an “802.11”, but they all tell you how the wireless router communicates.
B and G are the most common wireless router protocols. Unfortunately, they operate on the 2.4 GHz frequency shared by cordless phones and other appliances, making them prone to interference. The B protocol transmits up to 11 megabytes per second (Mbps), while G is faster, transmitting up to 54 Mbps. The G protocol is backwards compatible, so if you buy an 802.11g wireless router, your 802.11b wireless device will still connect to it—albeit at the lower speeds supported by the B protocol.
The A protocol operates on the 5 GHz frequency, which makes it much less prone to interference than B or G. Like G, it transmits up to 54 Mbps, making A the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, very few consumer devices use the A network, so you’ll need to check for compatibility with your devices before you buy.
The newest wireless router protocol is N. The N protocol offers incredibly fast speeds, up to 600 Mbps in some test situations, and it boasts extended signal range thanks to integrated multiple antennas, or MIMO technology (Multiple Input, Multiple Output). Many manufacturers already offer 802.11n devices. However, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has not yet finalized the N protocol, which means that this protocol may still change, creating compatibility issues.
If you choose an 802.11n wireless router, make sure you understand its update policies, as it will need firmware upgrades until the N standard is finalized. Some manufacturers charge for updates, while others include them in the wireless router’s price.
While the 802.11n protocol is definitely the fastest, that doesn’t necessarily make it better. When putting together a home network, the speed of the wireless router can be hampered by your Internet connection.
High-speed Internet connections vary tremendously in speed capacity, but the high end of the spectrum boasts sustained speeds of five to six Mbps. The average home gets one to two Mbps, if that, with occasional higher bursts. The slowest B wireless router protocol operates at 11Mbps, which is significantly faster than the best home Internet connections.
Don’t pay for speed you don’t need, and think about whether you need a wireless router for simple Internet connections or to network several PCs in your home. If you’re setting up a home network and you need several computers to share large data files, you’ll want to make the extra investment in an 802.11n wireless router. For Internet connectivity, 802.11g offers more than enough wireless router speed to the average home user.
Security is a very valid concern if you’re using a wireless router. In densely populated areas, it is not uncommon for neighbors to “borrow” the Internet from your wireless router. Unsecured wireless routers are also subject to “friendly hacks,” where someone will shut you out of your network to teach you a lesson about security.
These are nuisance problems, but a far greater threat lies if you use the Internet for banking or shopping, or if you store identifying personal information on your computer. An unsecured wireless router leaves you vulnerable to data and identity theft, so you need to shop for a wireless router with good security protocols and use them.
The most common security protocols to restrict access to a wireless router network are Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). The basic WEP protocol doesn’t provide stellar protection and is becoming outdated. For increased security, look for wireless routers that provide WPA or the newer WPA2. Some wireless routers also offer Media Access Control (MAC) address filtering, which restricts connectivity to devices that have specifically received permission via their unique MAC addresses to connect to the network. To protect PCs from attack, look for wireless routers that offer a built-in firewall.
Range is the distance that a wireless router can transmit. Most wireless routers offer a range of 120 to 150 feet, which is more than enough for most homes. If you want to send the signal to the garden or a detached garage, look for a wireless router with longer range.
Some wireless routers offer integrated cable or DSL connectivity, which eliminates the need for multiple devices. For maximum compatibility, buy a wireless router and wireless connection devices from the same manufacturer. If your wireless router resides in a visible location, shop for a stylish model for maximum visual appeal.