We are living in a connected age, where all the devices we use are increasingly becoming smart and joining our home networks. What started as just a way of connecting multiple computers in our homes for sharing and remotely accessing resources, has now evolved into something we rely on for a lot of additional tasks ranging from watching videos stored on a PC using our tablets, to free long-distance VoIP calls from our smartphones, streaming videos on our smart TVs, controlling our smart appliances, and a lot more. And the one thing that connects everything together is a Wi-Fi router.
For that reason, choosing the right router can go a long way towards having a frustration-free experience on all your connected devices. Though based on all the options available out there with those seemingly countless different specifications, that can be a daunting task for a layman. That's why we're here to help by breaking down all the parameters involved in selecting the right router for your connected home in a way that's easy to understand for those of us without any background in networking.
But aren't they all just routers?
Just a couple of days back while I was doing my research for this post, I told a friend about it, and her first question was: "I don't understand it - when you get a broadband connection with a provider, they supply the wireless router themselves. You don't really have a choice on the matter, do you?" And I wasn't surprised to hear this. A majority of internet users these days aren't aware of the actual role played by their Wi-Fi router; to them, they are all the same, and serve the ubiquitous purpose of letting them connect to the internet. This is especially true for situations where the broadband provider has supplied them with a single device that serves as both their DSL or cable modem and Wi-Fi router. So, before we proceed to the actual list of routers, let us take a look at the reasons why choosing the right router matters. (If you're a tech-savvy person, feel free to skip the following section.)
More than just your gateway to the Internet
When you connect a device such as your laptop, smartphone or tablet to your home Wi-Fi, you aren't directly connecting to the internet. In fact, you may even pull out the internet connection cable from the router, and your devices will still be able to connect to the router and communicate with each other over the wireless network for tasks not requiring internet access. Now your ISP-provided router may seem to work just fine for that purpose too, but there's a caveat. Wi-Fi standards keep on evolving, and new standards bring improvements in speed and connectivity. To take advantage of those improvements, both our devices and the router must support those latest standards. So, when you buy a high-end laptop, tablet or smartphone that supports the latest Wi-FI AC standard, it will mean nothing in terms of better Wi-Fi performance compared to an older Wi-Fi N device, if you've only got a Wi-Fi N router.
Wi-Fi standards keep on evolving, and new standards bring improvements in speed and connectivity. To take advantage of those improvements, both our devices and the router must support those latest standards.
Furthermore, even within each standard, there are further classifications that determine the actual performance you'll get. So, if your laptop, smartphone or tablet has a high-end AC1750 Wi-Fi adapter, you won't be able to benefit from the high speeds of that class if your router is only AC1200, despite both supporting the Wi-Fi AC specification. (Don't worry about the technical terms; we'll get to them in the next section).
Now how big of a difference that actually makes to you in the end depends solely on how you utilize your wireless network. If, for instance, you have a super-fast, 100 Mbps internet connection but your router only supports practical speeds of up to 60 Mbps, that's the speed you'll actually get on your device. As another example, if you frequently access files stored on a desktop computer's SSD (that supports speeds in thousands of Mbps) from your laptop using a quite decent router that provides around 200-250 Mbps of average data transfer speeds, that's the speed you'll be stuck with, even if your desktop computer is connected to the router via a LAN cable supporting much higher speeds than that of the SSD, and your laptop has a much faster Wi-Fi adapter supporting over 400 Mbps. This means you won't be able to take advantage of the SSD's super-fast speeds due to your router, even if all the other equipment you have does support higher speeds (albeit still not as high as that of the SSD). And if you like to play multi-player video games over your Wi-Fi network, having a high-speed router will ensure a lag-free gaming experience.
What do all these tech specs actually mean?
Confused by terms like 802.11n, AC1200, N900, single-band, selectable and simultaneous dual-band, frequency (the GHz figure), channel width (the MHz figure), number of channels etc.? These are all important factors, and understanding what they mean will give you a clear picture of your requirements. Though we realize that a lot of tech language can be difficult to understand for the non-techies among us, which is why we'll be sparing you any needless details and only explaining what you need to know as an end-user.
The 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac standards
The Wi-Fi standard is referred to as 802.11, followed by a, b, g, n or ac designating its version
Wi-Fi is a global standard, and in order to make sure devices by different manufacturers can work with each other over Wi-Fi without any hiccups, it has certain specifications that those devices must adhere to. The Wi-Fi standard is referred to as 802.11, followed by a, b, g, n or ac designating its version. The versions are all both forward and backward-compatible, so devices sporting any version work fine with those sporting any previous or later version, albeit at the speed of the lower version among the two. This means an 802.11n router will offer speeds of the g-version to an 802.11g device connected to it, while at the same time offering 802.11n speeds for any n-version clients connected, though any ac-version clients connected to it will also be limited to n-version speeds.
The protocol's versions up to and including 802.11g have become pretty much obsolete by now, so we'll only be concerning ourselves with the still relevant 802.11n and the latest 802.11ac. I would highly recommend against getting a G or earlier router, or even an N router, simply because it won't be worth the investment considering the affordable AC routers available these days.
Single-band vs. dual-band
All wireless communication takes place on certain frequency bands, which may be seen as roads for your data to travel on between devices. Up to and including the 802.11g standard, all Wi-Fi devices operated on the 2.4 GHz frequency band. In 802.11n, support for the 5 GHz band was added. This was a necessary step as the already narrow 2.4 GHz band was becoming way too crowded due to a lot of home devices operating on it, ranging from microwaves and cordless phones to wireless security cameras, Bluetooth devices and other Wi-Fi networks, turning it into an overcrowded, narrow road in rush hour.
The devices that can only utilize the 2.4 GHz band are called single-band, while dual-band devices are those that can utilize both 2.4 GHz as well as 5 GHz bands, due to having separate radios for both these frequencies. The 2.4 GHz radio is referred to as the N radio, while the 5 GHz one is called the AC radio. So, devices supporting dual-band 802.11n or the newer 802.11ac standards have two roads available for their data to travel - the older, relatively narrower 2.4 GHz highway, and the much wider 5 GHz freeway. And to make things even better, while the old highway was more strict in terms of speed limits, rules on the new freeway are more lenient, allowing for faster speeds.
However, there's also a technical drawback of switching to a higher frequency band: a decrease in operating range when there are obstacles in the way. This is because higher frequency signals lose more of their strength when passing through walls, furniture and any other similar obstacles, compared to lower frequency signals. That said, there's also a feature in the AC specification called beamforming that aims to help with the range problem by transmitting signals in the direction of connected devices, rather than in the traditional spherical manner of older routers. A directional signal usually has a higher range than an omnidirectional one (that's sent equally in all directions), so beamforming can really shine in environments with few obstacles and a few connected devices where directed signals can work efficiently.
And to make things even better, while the old highway was more strict in terms of speed limits, rules on the new freeway are more lenient, allowing for faster speeds.
Among dual-band devices, there are two further types: selectable dual-band devices and simultaneous dual-band devices. As you might have figured, selectable dual-band routers let you switch between the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands to operate on, the same way as choosing a single one of the two roads as your route. Simultaneous dual-band routers, on the other hand, support utilizing both the bands at the same time, essentially providing you with two different networks that can work simultaneously, with one operating on 2.4 GHz and the other on 5 GHz.
This can come especially handy when you have certain devices such as a gaming laptop, media streaming server, NAS and the like that are all relatively close to a router installed in your living room, making range a much less of a concern for them than speed. On the 5 GHz band, those devices can take advantage of the higher speeds supported, and work with the least latency and lag. Your other, more casual and long-distance use devices such as smartphones, tablets, and even laptops on which you don't always need the highest possible network speeds (for activities like casual browsing, getting some work down that doesn't involve a lot of downloads and uploads etc.) can utilize the 2.4 GHz band at the same time and enjoy a greater operating range.
Considering all AC routers as well as high-end N routers are all simultaneous dual-band, and several good routers are available in these categories at affordable prices, there's no point in going for single-band or selectable dual-band routers. Simultaneous dual-band is the way to go!
Just the way we have lanes on roads to keep traffic flow from becoming too haphazard, there are channels in each frequency band to keep data flow smooth. The 2.4 GHz band has 11 20 MHz-wide channels available for Wi-Fi devices (more channels exist but aren't legal to utilize by consumer devices in most parts of the world). Though there's a problem: each channel overlaps multiple channels next to it. Imagine how chaotic things would get if a lane on an 11-lane highway overlapped four lanes next to it. This diagram explains it further:
The only viable solution in such a scenario is for all traffic to choose a few lanes that don't overlap with each other, and stick to them while ignoring the overlapping lanes. In this case, the maximum number of non-overlapping channels you can get is three: channels 1, 6 and 11, represented by the green curves in the above figure. If your router's performance seems sub-par, the reason could be too many Wi-Fi networks operating on the same channel in the same area. Fortunately, almost all routers allow you to switch to a different channel from their user interface, so you can try a different one among these three and see if that helps. Do remember that if there's a roughly equal number of Wi-Fi networks operating on each of these channels in the area, there might not be any noticeable improvement. Nevertheless, it's worth a shot and can actually help in many situations since most people just run their networks on whatever channel is set by default, usually channel 1.
The primary benefit of the 5 GHz band over 2.4 GHz is that it isn't being crowded by the likes of Bluetooth devices and your home appliances such as cordless phones and microwave ovens, leaving it relatively unoccupied for Wi-Fi usage. In addition to that, the 5 GHz band is wider, resulting in a lot more room for non-overlapping channels, essentially offering the traffic a lot more lanes to choose. This greatly lowers the chances of interference, as multiple networks in the same area could all be set to use different channels to avoid any interference with each other. The available non-overlapping channels over the 5GHz band include 36, 40, 44, 48, 149, 153, 157, 161 and 165, and most AC and high-end N routers support them.
Router Class and speed
Differentiating between the different versions of the protocol is usually easy enough; it's their class that can complicate things, even for some of the tech savvy among us. If you take a look at the naming scheme of routers, you'll see that apart from the manufacturer's name and any model branding, there's a part that's appears to be a model name but is common to many routers by different manufacturers, and follows a pattern. It's the router's Wi-FI version in uppercase (A, B, G, N or AC) followed by a three or four-digit number. That number is the router's class. So, a class 1200 Wi-Fi 802.11ac router will always have the AC1200 designation, and a class 900 Wi-Fi 802.11n router will always have N900 in its name or specifications, regardless of its manufacturer. It's this number that's extremely important and must not be neglected, as it is based on the maximum link speed supported by the router. In general, the higher this number, the faster the router, though it might not always be the best decision to go for the highest class router, as laptops, tablets, smartphones and other such devices supporting that class might not even be available in the market.
Do note that the numerical part of a simultaneous dual-band router's class isn't its actual link speed. For example, AC1200 does not translate to a link speed of 1200 Mbps; it's the combination of the router's link speeds on 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, which are 300 Mbps and 867 Mbps respectively. (The result is rounded off to the nearest 100.) The following table shows the maximum link speeds of all modern simultaneous dual-band router classes over each of the two bands.
These speeds are the theoretical maximum link rates at which your devices would be able to connect to the router. According to Tim Higgins of SmallNetBuilder, who's considered an authority on networking, the actual data transfer speeds that you get (also called throughput) will be 50% of the link rate at best, and more along the lines of 20%-25% on average. This means on a high-end AC1750 router, you should expect speeds of up to 650 Mbps at best and between 260 - 325 Mbps on average, on the 5 GHz band, provided, of course, that the computer, smartphone or tablet you're using has at least an AC1600 Wi-Fi adapter in order to support the maximum link rate of 1300 Mbps offered by the router on this band.
Also keep in mind that these speeds are all expressed in Mbps (megabit per second) - the same unit used by your ISP for your internet connection's speed. However, we mostly talk about our download and upload speeds in MB/s (megabyte per second). The capital B stands for byte, while the small b denotes bit. Since a single byte is made of eight bits, any speed in Mbps is eight times the same speed in MB/s. So, to convert the above mentioned speeds from Mbps to MB/s, we must divide them by eight. 650 Mbps then becomes 81.25 MB/s, and the range of 260-325 Mbps turns into 32.5-40.625 MB/s. Since it's these speeds that you'll be seeing when downloading or uploading any files, it's important to be able to differentiate and convert between the Mbps and MB/s units, and avoid any disappointment caused by mistakenly expecting eight times higher speeds due to unit confusion.
Choosing the right router for your requirements
We are all naturally tempted by the products boasting the highest specs, as they appear to be the best. However, keep in mind that going for the most top-end router might be a waste of money if you can't utilize its top-of-the-line features. Anything that's the best available in its class doesn't generally come cheap, but prices fall quickly in this fast-paced industry, so if your current laptop, tablet and smartphone only support 802.11n and you don't plan on upgrading any of them within, let's say, a year, buying a new AC router right now would be pointless if you already have a decent N router. Finding out the speeds of your laptop, phone or tablet's Wi-FI adapter is usually as easy as a Google search for its specs, though getting info on their class might require digging deeper, usually by looking up the specs of the Wi-Fi adapter itself after finding out its name and model from the previous search.
In addition to speeds, there are also several other factors to consider when buying a router.
Usually, every new iteration in technology brings improvements, and that was true for the range of Wi-Fi routers from 802.11a up to 802.11n. However, as explained earlier, the switch to 5 GHz from N onward actually reduces range due to the limitations of the higher frequency when it comes to obstacles. Though the same routers continue to offer the higher range of N over their 2.4 GHz radios, allowing you to connect to them in 2.4 GHz N mode when out of the faster, 5 GHz AC mode's range. And within the range for both N and AC, you'll get a much higher speed at the same distance on AC compared to N.
There are many other, rather complicated factors also involved in determining a router's range. The way its hardware is built, how the antenna is connected, the material and quality of the antenna itself, and the strength of the router's signal all matter significantly. Though most high-end routers by reputed manufacturers should be able to offer around 150 feet of indoor or 300 feet of outdoor coverage in N mode, with range in AC mode depending more on obstacles and the number of connected devices: the fewer the connected devices, the more efficient the beamforming, and thus, the higher the range.
Before you buy a router, it'll be a good idea to get an idea about its range, either by connecting to it yourself if you have access to a place where it's installed (via a friend, relative, workplace, coffee shop etc.), or reading online reviews of users who have bought it. You can also increase the range after having bought a router by replacing its antenna(s) with higher-range one(s). This is only possible if the router has replaceable antennas in the first place, of course, so that's something you should confirm before buying.
Number of simultaneous connections
Another important factor to consider is the maximum number of devices that can be connected to your router at the same time. N routers support up to 30 maximum concurrent clients, while for AC routers, the number is much higher, closer to 100. While for most of us, even 30 is more then adequate but if you throw parties at your place often, getting an AC router might be a better idea.
Software and security features
If you need to be in full control of everything that goes through your router, go for one with advanced firmware that includes a decent firewall and offers any additional features you may require, or supports installation of third-party advanced firmware like DD-WRT that can offer those features. If you are concerned about your children being exposed to inappropriate information on the internet, choosing a router with built-in parental controls can be useful. Some routers even let you allow and restrict internet access for your children based on time slots, and offer guest access for your visitors so that you won't need to provide them with your primary Wi-Fi password.
Other potentially useful features
Several routers come with yet more features that can make your connected life easier, such as support for network printers, or even the ability to plug in a USB disk drive directly into the router and access its data from any device connected to your network. This can come real handy if you have a lot of data such as movies that you want to access from one central location across your home, without having to invest in a dedicated network storage server, or keeping a computer powered on 24/7 for the purpose. If the external storage drive you plan to use for the purpose supports USB 3.0, you should be looking for a router with a USB 3.0 port to take advantage of the drive's high speed. And speaking of wired connections, make sure your router has Gigabit ethernet (LAN) ports if you want to connect one or more PCs to it via a LAN cable for a super-fast connection.
Built-in home automation support
As of late, routers with integrated support for popular home automation protocols such as ZigBee, Z-Wave and INSTEON have started to surface, the most famous among them being the Kickstarter-backed Securify Almond. However, that seems to be the only option in this category that's available for purchase at the time of this writing, with the other ones still being under development or available only for pre-order. And considering the Almond is an N300 router, I wouldn't recommend buying it now when AC devices are fast becoming the norm. If it were even an N900 router, it might have been a good investment, but N300 seems just way too outdated. Their upcoming Almond+ AC1750 router seems quite promising though, and I'm personally looking forward to its release to the general public (so far, it has only been available to its Kickstarter backers). There's also the much-hyped, tablet-based Soap smart router and home automation hub, which would definitely be worth considering in this category when/if it materializes.
When it's time to upgrade, we often go for the highest-end device available in order to future-proof, but that might not always be the best decision. For example, there's no point in spending over $250 on an AC1900 router right now just for future-proofing if you plan on upgrading your other devices like laptop, tablet or smartphones next year, because till then, a $100 router will serve you just fine, and by next year, AC1900 routers will also be available in the $100 price range.
What to do with your old router(s)
So, now that you've got your shiny new router, what are you supposed to do with your old one? Unless it's a relatively recent model, or a very high-end model from within the last year, it isn't likely to have a lot of resale value, considering how fast the industry is evolving. A better idea might be turning it into an access point or a bridge for extending your network to parts of your home that currently get a poor or no signal. It might not offer the speeds of your brand new router in those areas, but getting some sort of coverage there would be better than no coverage, right? The process of doing that is beyond the scope of this post, but a quick Google search should find you several guides for the purpose. And if you're into DIY, you can even install a custom firmware such as OpenWRT on it to turn it into your home automation hub.
Equipped with all the above information, choosing the right router should now be a piece of cake for you. And to make things even easier for you, we'll be next bringing you our own pick of the best-in-class routers available in the market right now, so stay tuned!