There’s not much glamour to the humble Wi-Fi router. It works away in the background and the only time we’re really aware of it is when it’s not functioning properly. But they are necessary—and having the right one can really improve your online experience by providing fast, reliable internet while reducing technical headaches. Read on for some helpful tips about home networking so you can easily identify different types of routers and pick the best Wi-Fi router for you and your family.
1What is a Wi-Fi router?
Wi-Fi routers take the wired signal that comes into your home from your internet service provider (ISP) and convert it into a wireless signal that can be accessed by Wi-Fi-enabled devices such as phones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, TVs and game consoles. Most also have multiple Ethernet ports to support wired connections as well. Chances are your ISP provided you with one when you signed up for their service. However, there are plenty of reasons you might want to purchase your own, such as:
- Cost: If you’re renting a router from your ISP, not using their hardware and owning your own is much cheaper over the long haul.
- Performance: If the router provided by your ISP isn’t a match for the download and upload speeds in your internet package you may be able to get better performance from a router you choose.
- Range: Buying a router that provides a stronger signal over a wider range might do a better job spreading the signal throughout your home.
- Extra features: Optional features such as guest networks and parental controls tend to be more robust in consumer routers.
2Types of Wi-Fi network devices
- Router: A router is a key component of your home network, serving as the point of contact for all of your connected devices.
- Modem: A modem is the device that turns the raw signal provided by your ISP into a usable internet connection. Your modem then connects to your router to enable your Wi-Fi devices to access the internet.
- Gateway: A gateway is a modem and a router combined, providing an all-in-one solution. Sometimes ISPs provide a gateway instead of a separate modem and router.
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Is there a place in your house where your router signal doesn’t reach? That’s called a dead zone. And a Wi-Fi router extender is probably the best, cheapest solution. Whether the troublesome spot is blocked by thick walls or floors or is simply too far away, Wi-Fi extenders fix the problem by acting as a signal relay. Some people use multiple extenders—creating what’s known as a “Wi-Fi mesh system”—to ensure every corner of their home has a strong internet connection.
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4Your internet service provider (ISP)
Not all internet is created equal. It can come into your house in a variety of ways, ranging from DSL and cable to fibre and satellite. These technologies have varying costs and offer different experiences. For example, DSL is relatively slow by modern standards but typically inexpensive, while fibre is currently the fastest and most reliable option for home users but can be quite costly.
How does this relate to routers? As mentioned, your ISP has likely provided you with a router. However, there’s no guarantee that this router is delivering the best possible Wi-Fi experience. You can test this speed in different areas around your house (visit a site like Fast.com to do an instant speed test on each device). Now you can evaluate whether your ISP-provided router is delivering the promised experience.
5The big three features: speed, range and wireless connection
When buying a router you’ll likely find you have three main considerations: speed, range and wireless connection. To help you choose the right router, here’s what each term means and how they relate to router performance.
- Speed: This is the rate at which data is downloaded from and uploaded to the internet. It’s measured in megabits per second (Mbps) and, more recently, gigabits per second (Gbps). You can usually determine speed from a router’s name. For example, a router name that begins with “N600” will support download speeds up to 600Mbps, while a router with “AX1500” can handle speeds up to 1500 Mbps (or 1.5Gbps).
- Range: Range is the distance your Wi-Fi signal will reach. It’s typically measured in feet or metres. However, while a router may have a range of 200 or more feet, that doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to reach every corner of your home, since obstructions such as walls will significantly weaken the signal as it passes through.
- Wireless connection: There are three main types of Wi-Fi router connection standards: Wireless-G, Wireless-N, and Wireless-AC. Like speed, you can usually identify a router’s standard within its name (for example, an N600 router would use the Wireless-N standard). Here’s how these three standards compare:
|Wireless-G||Supports speeds up to 54Mbps, which is suitable only for light tasks such as web surfing and email. This won’t be enough for most modern families.|
|Wireless-N||Supports speeds up to 600Mbps, making it suitable for moderate-bandwidth activities, such as streaming music and lower quality videos.|
|Wireless-AC||Supports speeds up to 1Gbps (and in some cases slightly higher), making it ideal for high-bandwidth tasks such as streaming 4K video, playing games online and downloading large files.|
The takeaway: Think about how you use the internet. How many people are in your family? How often are they online? What sort of activities do they use the internet for? Then select a router with the performance you need.
If your family mostly uses the internet for work and school, consider saving a little money and look at an N600 router. But if you have a family full of gamers and movie lovers who download or stream often, you’ll be much better served by a high-speed internet plan and a gigabit router, such as an AC1200.
6Other router features to consider
All routers provide internet access, but some come with more advanced features your family may find useful. Some examples:
- USB ports: Some routers have one or more USB ports, which can be handy for folks looking to connect a printer or external hard drive to share on the network.
- Remote access: This lets you access your router’s settings from your phone, which is useful if you want to see who’s currently using the network or alter parental controls while away from home.
- Dual/Tri-band: Additional frequency bands can improve your router’s speed with a range of devices. Dual-band routers use 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, while tri-band routers add an additional 5GHz band to improve performance when multiple high-bandwidth devices are connected simultaneously.
- Beamforming: This advanced feature is meant to improve communication with a specific device by aiming the wireless signal directly at that device rather than letting it spread in all directions.
7Wired vs wireless router
Wi-Fi has come a long way, but wired connections are still king when it comes to fast, reliable internet connections. A gamer downloading a large, 100 GB game file will generally see a quicker download time from a wired than a wireless connection. And the download speed will generally be more constant, since there’s no signal obstruction or interference.
Keep in mind that some ISP-provided routers skimp on Ethernet ports, but most consumer Wi-Fi routers come with at least four. The main drawback to wired connections is they require the connected devices to be close to the router, unless you’re willing to run Ethernet cables through walls or along baseboards to other locations.
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Pretty much all modern routers use encryption, firewalls and login credentials to protect your data as it streams through the air. But there are some additional security features you may want to consider as you browse routers, including:
- Guest networks: Designed for visitors to your home, a dedicated guest network adds an extra layer of security by providing password-protected access to the internet but not the rest of your home network.
- Quality of service: This feature will allow you to dive into the router menu to select devices to which you want to assign priority—like your TV streaming 4K video—when the network is experiencing high traffic.
- Parental controls: A robust set of parental controls will let you control what each of your kids is able to access online by automatically blocking certain types of sites or specific sites you choose.
- Port forwarding: This advanced feature allows for improved two-way data traffic, and is often used by online gamers and work colleagues sharing large files.
More home networking products
- Lifewire Tech for Humans. Wireless Standards Explained.
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