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Buying Wireless Routers


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#1 Lewis

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Posted 03 September 2011 - 08:54 PM

Wireless routers are enjoying unprecedented popularity. What was mostly a device for hardcore geeks a few years ago has become a mainstay in most homes with broadband Internet. The humble router is at the center of most home and some small business networks—providing not only wireless connectivity to the myriad gadgets in our homes, but providing wired Internet connectivity to TVs, gaming consoles, NASes (See our How to Buy a NAS Guide) and the occasional desktop computer.

The growing demand for wireless has resulted in the evolution of the router. The latest routers on the market are easier than ever to set up, and some offer blazing fast speeds to meet the demands of high-definition video streaming, VoIP and online gaming.
Yet the router remains one of the most confounding and frustrating technology devices for average users. Although vendors have worked to make routers easier to set up and configure, many still fall short in this regard. Some people manage to get a router set up, only to have it drop Internet connectivity every once in a while.

Even before that, however, there's the issue of selecting which router is right for your home or small business. There's a lot to choose from. Do you go with single-band or dual-band? Do you really need 802.11n? What about this whole issue with IPv6; is it important to have a router compatible with IPv6?
With numerous models, options, and offerings available, purchasing a wireless router is no simple affair. You may need to research the features in order to wade through the marketing hype in order to determine which router is best for your home or home office.

If you've ever had questions about selecting a router, then this if the guide for you. First, we'll cover some basics on what to look for when selecting a router that suits your needs. Then, we give you a listing of the best routers we've looked at this past year and the features they offer.

A Caution About Researching Routers
When it's time to buy a new piece of technology equipment, many shoppers are naturally inclined to read user reviews on sites like Amazon, Best Buy, or Newegg. Certainly, reading the experience others have had with a product you are interested in purchasing is of great value when deliberating.
User reviews of wireless routers however, are not always the best indicator of how the router will work for you. Take a look at any wireless router on one of the aforementioned sites, and you will most likely see comments lavishly praising the router, while others bash the product, stating they had to return it because it was so bad.

This is because a wireless router's performance is so dependent on the RF environment in which it resides. One person could have had the router in proximity to a piece of equipment that may cause interference, like a microwave or cordless phone. Maybe another set the router up in a room encased with thick, concrete walls. These people could easily go to any of these sites and write how terrible the router is, when the problem was most likely not the router, but the location where the router was deployed. For troubleshooting common router problems, take a look at How to Fix Your Wireless Internet Problems.
That's why your best bet is to consult professional reviews like the ones at PCMag, where routers are tested in controlled, non-varying environments. There are so many things besides just distance, that can affect wi-fi range and strength, including water and glass windows!

Determine Your Usage
A single home user who just wants to Web surf doesn't need the same kind of router as a heavy-duty gamer, a multimedia enthusiast or a small business. A single-band router like the $60 Cisco Linksys E1200 Wireless N Router is a basic, decent performer that would suit the needs of anyone looking for simple Wi-Fi connectivity and easy setup.
In contrast, Netgear's N750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (WNDR4000) is an excellent choice for those who want to perform bandwidth demanding tasks like high-definition video streaming or moving large files to and from NAS devices. But the N750 is more expensive, with an average street price of $150. A good rule of thumb: The more expensive the router, the more features it will contain. Higher price, however, doesn't necessarily mean better performance; in our testing, the E1200 performed just as well as pricier, more feature-rich routers.

Single Band vs. Dual Band
While researching routers, you will inevitably stumble across the term "bands." The 2.4- and 5- GHz bands are the frequencies in which wireless communications operate. 802.11 B and G devices use the 2.4 GHz band, while 802.11N can use either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band. A single-band, 2.4-GHz router—such as the $65 Asus RT-N11 EZ Wireless-N Router—is geared toward simple wireless networks. On the other hand, a dual-band router like the $119 Cisco Linksys E2000 Advanced Wireless-N supports both 2.4- and 5-GHz frequencies. The 5-GHz band is less crowded then the 2.4 GHz band; less equipment runs on 5 GHz. That's why it's better equipped for throughput-intensive work within your home network such as gaming and file streaming. You will also get better internal network performance.

The one downside of 5 GHz is that it does not sustain signal at greater distances as well as the 2.4 GHz band. So, if you are looking for a dual-band router to take advantage of the 5 GHz bandwidth—you'll want to factor in distance when placing the router in your home or office.

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#2 Lewis Re: Buying Wireless Routers

Lewis

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Posted 03 September 2011 - 08:55 PM

Know Your Standards
Knowing which standard the majority of devices on a network support is important in deciding which router is best for your network. For example, if you want to connect two slightly dated laptops which house 802.11b/g wireless adapters to the Internet, and you have no need or plans to upgrade your client devices anytime soon, you could get away with a cheaper, single-band 2.4 GHz 802.11N router. Why? You can run the router in "Mixed Mode" setting, which will let the router connect to B and G clients. Secondly, only computers and devices (called clients in networking terminology) with

Wireless-N compatible adapters can connect at the 5 GHz band, so you only need a 2.4 GHz router for older 802.11 B and G supporting clients. A decent option would be a router like the Cisco Linksys E1000 Wireless-N Router, which is available for under $60 (if you swing a little extra, the E1200 is an even better option).
If you have a mix of B, G, and N devices (as most of us do), your best bet is to go with a dual-band router. As mentioned before, Netgear's N750 is an excellent choice, but there are other dual-band routers out there that are very good as well, like the Cisco Linksys E4200 Maximum Performance Wireless-N Router or Asante's SmartHub Smart Dual Band Wireless-N Router (AWRT-600N)—which by the way, we found online for $25. That's a great buy, though it does lack Gigabit Ethernet ports.

Selectable or Simultaneous?
We are seeing more of the newer dual-band routers are shipping as simultaneous dual-band. Older dual-bands, and some current ones, like the Cisco Linksys E2000 are selectable dual-band. With simultaneous dual-band you get twice the bandwidth. You can have two separate wireless networks: one running at 2.4 GHz for devices used mostly just to web surf and another using 5 GHz for video streaming, gaming and so on. If you have a network where you are doing all of these tasks, simultaneous dual-band is the way to go.

PC vs. Mac
We have tested numerous wireless routers from a variety of vendors, and have determined that the make or model makes little difference on a Windows network. There's some anecdotal evidence from readers and the blogosphere that a network consisting of all Apple products works best with an Apple router. Many readers chimed in to that effect on an article I wrote about iPad Wi-Fi connectivity. Several readers stated they had none of the connectivity problems with their iPad when connecting it to an Apple AirPort.
There are routers that will support both Windows, Apple and even Linux clients like Netgear's N600 and N750. If you have an all-Apple or predominately Apple environment, save yourself any potential hassle and go with either a router from Apple or ensure that the router you are interested in works with Apple clients.

Throughput, Coverage Area & Antennas
Routers are increasing shipping with internal antennas. The newest on the market are coming with 3x3 antennas (the 3x3 refers to the signal transmit/receive rate) which are giving incredible throughput speed. The previous generation of routers have 2x2 antennas. The antenna configuration is what contributes to the router's throughput. While the new 3x3 routers are certainly speedy, keep in mind that you have to have a wireless client adapter in your laptop, tablet or whatever you are wirelessly connecting to the router that supports 3x3 technology. There aren't a lot of devices currently that do. My testing laptop, HP's Elitebook 8440w does have a 3x3 adapter. We should start to see more client devices coming to market with them. I also heard from a vendor to be on the lookout sometime at the end of the year or beginning of next, for 4x4 antenna router devices, which should give outrageous throughput.

Some clarifications about throughput: throughput is a measurement of the router's signal speeds. Throughput is often mistakenly confused with the term bandwidth which is different. Bandwidth is the "pipe" given to you by your ISP, for instance, many cable modem connections give you 1-3 Mbps download and 768 Kbps upload bandwidth speeds.
Router manufacturers usually list a router's throughput on the packaging. You may have seen a router advertised as 802.11 N 300 Mbps. The 300 Mbps refers to the potential maximum throughput of the router when tested in a clean lab with no interference. When you run the router at home, you will not get a 300 Mbps speed because of interference issues, channel overlap, and other factors.

I test routers in PCMag's labs, which simulates a "real-world" environment. If the router tests at close to 50% of the theoretical throughput, I am testing a device with excellent speed. Rarely do I see this!
Some routers still have external antennas, or you can opt to add external antennas to them to help extend coverage. Keep in mind, despite whatever the antenna design is, large areas may sometimes need more repeaters or extenders to boost signal range. The average range for consumer wireless coverage is 180 feet max indoors and 1,500 feet max in an open space—that's devoid of concrete walls or any other interference! A wireless extender like Netgear Universal WiFi Range Extender (WN2000RPT) can help extend a wireless signal into "dead zones."

Feature Set
Most wireless routers have some basic functionality; port forwarding, DHCP, firewall and NAT are a few of the features inherent in just about every router within the last three years. There are routers with lots of extra features for advanced users, like D-Link's DIR-657 HD Media Router 1000. While the DIR-657 did not have the most impressive throughput, it does boast some pretty unique features such as CAPTCHA graphical authentication for logging into the router and advanced IPv6 capabilities.
Those with children may want to consider a router that has built in parental controls. Netgear's latest line of routers, including the N600 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (WNDR3700) integrates the OpenDNS parental controls service for safe web-surfing.

Some routers have USB ports for connecting a printer or storage device, like the DIR-687. This particular router also has an SD card reader for wirelessly sharing images in a home network.
I do find that routers don't work great for storage sharing. If your router has a USB port for USB device sharing, best use it for printer sharing, or very small, light file sharing. If you are looking for robust file and multimedia sharing and streaming consider a NAS device.

Security
We are beginning to see a few router manufacturers phase out support for WEP. This could be a problem for you if you have really older clients that cannot use WPA or WPA2. Still, most network devices from the last four years at least support WPA. The best practice is to use WPA2, but be aware that many older devices cannot support it.
More of the advanced routers, like Belkin's N750 Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router, offer the ability to set up guest access. This is a great security feature because you can allow guests to use your Internet connection but not give them access to any devices or files on your private network. Guest access is handy for a small business, such as a café or a sales office with a waiting room perhaps, because it gives clients Wi-Fi.

Wired Connectivity
Most wireless routers have Ethernet ports for hard-wiring devices to can take advantage of the greater transmission speeds that wired Ethernet has over a wireless connection. For faster transmission rates, invest in a router that has Gigabit Ethernet ports, such as the Netgear N600. Use the Gigabit Ethernet ports to wire gaming consoles, NAS drives, or any other type of multimedia server that haa Gigabit Ethernet adapters to take advantage of the faster performance.

After Your Purchase
After buying a router, you've still got to manage it and yes, sometimes troubleshoot. Read the three stories below to bone up on the networking knowledge that can help you create and maintain a fast, robust, and secure network.
Fix Your Wireless Internet Connection Problems
Wireless router problems got you down? Here are some common router problems and how to fix them.
Secure Your Wireless Network
Are you the only one enjoying your home network? Here's how to detect trespassers and block them from sucking up your bandwidth.
10 Ways to Boost Your Wireless Signal
Is your Wi-Fi signal not reaching all your PCs? We've got great tips that can help you extend your router's range, no matter what your budget is.

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#3 Lewis Re: Buying Wireless Routers

Lewis

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Posted 03 September 2011 - 08:56 PM

Some of Our Favorite Routers
Dual-Band Routers:
Posted Image Belkin N750 Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router
Posted Image
$130.00 list
Belkin's N750 offers excellent 5-GHz band throughput and very good 2.4-GHz band throughput. It has tots of features, and an easy setup. Two USB ports are on the chassis for adding storage and printers. However, some software issues were encountered during testing.
Posted ImageNetgear N600 Wireless Dual Band Router ADSL2+ Modem Router (DGND3700)
Posted Image
$151-$175 street
Netgear's DGND3700's best feature is it can work as a DSL modem and a router. It's also got good performance, if not the best we've seen from a Netgear router. But users looking for a DSL modem/router combo will be satisfied.
Posted ImageNetgear N750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (WNDR4000)
Posted Image Posted Image
$130 street Netgear's N750 is a throughput thoroughbred in the 5 GHz band. Performance at the 2.4 GHz band is slightly above average with other top 2.4 GHz routers on the market. Advanced features and easy setup makes the N750 a router to easily recommend, despite anemic NAS capabilities.
Posted ImageBuffalo AirStation Nfiniti Wireless-N Dual Band High Power Router & Access Point (WZR-HP-AG300H)
Posted Image
$82-$119 street
Buffalo's AirStation router is a hard-core networking geek's router. With lots of advanced features thanks to the DD-WRT firmware tailored for it, enthusiasts will forgive its less than spectacular throughput.

Posted ImageCisco Linksys E4200 Maximum Performance Wireless-N Router
Posted Image
$179 list
Cisco Linksys' E4200 router is the router of the future; unfortunately, its speed is limited by the client adapters available on the market. It's a good option for those planning future proof high-performance networks. For others, it may be overpriced and unnecessary.

Posted ImageAsante SmartHub Smart Dual Band Wireless-N Router (AWRT-600N)
Posted Image
$60
Asante offers a good networking box in the AWRT-600N. Still, a somewhat sloppy interface and no true 802.11N-only 5-GHz mode option, keeps this router from coming up aces.

Single-Band Routers:
Posted ImageCisco Linksys E1550 Wireless-N Router with SpeedBoost
Posted Image
$80 list
Cisco touts the E1550 as a more robust performer than its excellent entry-level router the E1200. Unfortunately, the E1550 costs more, but offers no better performance.

Posted ImageCisco Linksys E1200 Wireless-N Router
Posted Image
$60 MSRP
Excellent throughput, easy setup, and a great price make Cisco Linksys E1200 Wireless-N Router our favorite single-band router.

Posted ImageEdimax 300Mbps Wireless Broadband iQ Router (BR-6428N)
Posted Image
$40 list
Yes, it's inexpensive has an attractive interface and two cool features. Unfortunately, underwhelming throughput, a frustrating setup process and overall bugginess, far outweigh anything good about this router.

Posted ImageAsante Smart HotSpot Wireless N Router AWRT-550N
Posted Image
$109 list
Asante may not share the limelight with the likes of Cisco/Linksys, D-Link, and Netgear, but its Smart HotSpot AWRT-550N can hold its own with other routers in its class thanks to its ease of setup, performance, and feature set.

Posted ImageCisco Valet Plus
Posted Image
$83-$130 street
Ever wanted a router that's a fast performer but still easy enough for networking newbies to set up? Meet the Cisco Valet Plus.

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