Everything You Need to Know About Routers

With the rapid evolution of technology, it can at times be difficult to keep track of all the most relevant features and options on the market for a wireless router. At Smart Home Gear Guide, we have been following the trends and have compiled a list of the most relevant and up to date information on what you need to consider when purchasing a wireless router in 2020 and beyond. So whether you want to take the next leap to a Wi-Fi 6 router, expand your access coverage through emerging Mesh technologies, or simply trying to keep up with household access demands through MU-MIMO capabilities, we got you covered.

Wireless Router Options

First off – let’s explain exactly what a wireless router is. A wireless router is a device that enables you to connect other devices to the internet. These routers connect you to wireless internet, so no cumbersome Ethernet cables are necessary to get online. Wireless Routers can also help you maintain network security which helps maintain their reliability.

A wireless router works by sending data from the router to a device in form of signals. The router is connected to a cable or a modem. This enables it to receive and transmit information to the internet and the connected device.

Below we’ve gathered all the information you’ll need to know before purchasing a router. We know you’ve probably got some questions, and we’ve tried to answer anything that may have come to mind. Keep reading to learn more and become informed on how to make the best decision on your next wireless router purchase. We believe this is the most up to date and comprehensive guide to buying a wireless router on the web. 
We have made an attempt to cover as much information on different factors and considerations so for those of you who are already familiar or interested in specific sections, we have provided a table of content so you can drill right in and get straight to the point.

Features To Consider

Wireless Router Range

Range and Coverage

Depending on the size of your home and many other structural factors, you will need to consider a wireless router that can adequately provide coverage for your entire house. This is an important factor as you do not want to deal with  dead spots or poor and unreliable connectivity throughout your home. Your wireless router will also need to be connected to your internet service providers modem or service box which may also not be the optimal location in your home.

When evaluating wireless coverage, the following features need to be considered:

Note: Some routers are able to broadcast using 60GHz frequency which provides improved speeds and is less prone to interference than 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz. Please see Wireless Standards chart below.

Note: While Mesh systems can provide simplicity in forming a uniform network, research on reviews indicate that it may also lead to some frustrations if the Mesh system is not flexible enough to permit switching between bands. Some devices are only compatible with 5GHz bands and vice versa. Using a Mesh System in conjunction with Smart Connect may help ease this problem.

Wireless Router Speed

Speed

Speed and coverage are often the most important sought after feature in a wireless router. There are many factors in a router that will determine its maximum speed but ultimately the determining bottleneck will be the maximum bandwidth from your internet service provider. However, one still needs to consider data exchange speeds between devices in your home such as network storage, media centers, and printers. The rate at which these devices communicate are well within control of the router you decide to buy. 

Factors to consider when evaluating speed:

As of this writing, the fastest wireless routers are those made with the AX IEEE standard. An AX11000 router for example, is capable of speeds of up to 10.8Gbps. We've created a list here of three fastest routers on Amazon. The naming conventions used to reference speeds begin with two letters from IEE followed by the top theoretical speed the router can support.

Ideas and Recommendations
IEE Standards

Note: If you have more than 300 Mbps or faster from your internet provider, you are unlikely going to benefit from any wireless router that's equipped with Quality of Service (QoS).


Beamforming is feature that is common in most modern wireless routers and is a standard of 802.11ac. However not all 802.11ac routers support beamforming.


Wireless Standards

When evaluating your next wireless, you will be confronted with many options related to protocols and standards which are defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) which was established in 1997.  The first standard protocol was called  802.11 and the most recent is 802.11ax. While IEEE defines the technical standards for these protocols, another organization called the WI-FI Alliance is responsible for the branding of WI-FI.

Protocol

New Naming Convention

Band(s)

Release Year

Max Speed

MIMO Streams

Notes

802.11

Wi-Fi 0

2.4Ghz

1997

1 Mbps

N/A

Unofficial / Legacy

802.11b

Wi-Fi 1

2.4GHz

1999

11Mbps

N/A

Unofficial

802.11a

Wi-Fi 2

5GHz

1999

54Mbps

N/A

Unofficial

802.11g

Wi-Fi 3

2.4GHz

2003

54Mbps

N/A

Unofficial

802.11n

Wi-Fi 4

2.4GHz and 5GHz

2009

600Mbps

4

Dual Band

802.11ac

Wi-Fi 5

5GHz

2013

3.46Gbps

8


802.11ad

Wi-Fi *

60GHz

2012

7Gbps 

N/A


802.11ax

Wi-Fi 6

2.4GHz and 5GHz

2019

10.53Gbps 

8

Recently finalized.

Mostly all wireless router models on the market will adhere to one or more IEEE standard protocol but not all will be be WI-FI certified and therefore will not bear the WI-FI logo. WI-FI certification is recommended since the responsibility of the alliance is to ensure compliance beyond IEEE standards. According to the WI-FI Alliance website,  certified products are products "which have passed rigorous testing to validate device interoperability, adherence to the latest security mechanisms, and support for advanced features".


Considering that 802.11ax is a recent standard many router may not have the WI-FI 6 certification which is highly recommended.

Ethernet and USB Ports

Most wireless routers are equipped with ports for wired ethernet and USB connections. These extra ports can come in handy if you need to connect devices directly to your router via wires for extra stability and interference free data exchange. These extra ports can also help expand your router capability. For example, a USB port can be used to add network storage capability to your home so you may share photos and videos across your entire home. 

Network Attached Storage (NAS) servers can be expensive and time consuming to manage and configure but a NAS enabled USB port on your router can make it easy to attach a drive and have the content of that drive shared across your entire home similarly if you were to have a separate NAS server.


A USB port can also provide network redundancy by enabling you to share a mobile network across your entire home in the event of an outage with your current internet service provider. Ethernet ports allow you to connect and expand your network with other devices such as printers, additional routers, and storage.


Factors to consider when evaluating wired ports:
Wireless Router Security

Security Features

Security perhaps should be the most important factor to consider above all other factors when evaluating any wireless router for purchase. Your wireless router will likely be the single point device where all data in your home will be transmitted. Consider all the IoT devices you may have in your home including security systems and cameras. Safeguarding your personal data should be a top priority otherwise your privacy and financial information is at risk. 

Here are a few security features that help you assess the safety of your router.

According to a recent Symantec's Internet Security Threat Report, wireless routers were deemed to be the top exploited device in a home. Today's wireless routers are armed with many security features to suit your needs. Below are some of the security features you may want to consider when buying your new router.

Security Methods

Protocols

Release Date

Security Rating

Comment

WPA3

WPA3

2018

Latest and most up to date protocol as of February 2020. Less vulnerable than all it predecessors.

WPA2 MGT or WPA MGT

WPA2

2004

Mostly used  in environments that demand stricter security. Mostly implemented by larger companies and not typically used in homes.

WPA2 + CCMP/AES

WPA2

2004

CCMP Replaces TKIP as a more secure alternative.

WPA + CCMP/AES

WPA

2003

Cell

WPA + TKIP | AES

WPA

2003

Defaults to TKIP if AES is unavailable.

WPA + TKIP

WPA

2003

Cell

WEP

WEP

1997

Highly vulnerable and was officially abandoned by the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2004

WPA3 is still working it's way to becoming mainstream. If you do purchase a wireless router with WPA3 support it is not guaranteed that all your devices will be ready to leverage all of the security benefits that come with WPA3. You may encounter scenarios where a device will default to WPA2 due to incompatibility. We do however strongly recommend WPA3.

For a household with children, the parental control feature is highly recommended. Not all routers will come equipped with this feature so make sure to look for one that specifically indicates that it is equipped with this functionality. The Parental control feature centralizes protection of your kids network access on the router level so that you don't have to install apps on each and every device that needs to be connected to your network. 


When considering this feature, also look for devices that provide interfaces that make it easy to configure and use.  Some routers come equipped with what's called Circle Smart PArental Control which is an easy to use parental control system that is paired with  smartphone app that makes it easy to use. An example of a good router with built in Circle Smart Parental is the Nighthawk AC2300 Cybersecurity.

Ideas and Recommendations
Parental Control

The Guest Access feature and why you absolutely need it. How many times have you had your guests ask you, "Whats your Wi-Fi password?" Your Wi-Fi credential is something you rarely hesitate to share with your friends and guests. Afterall, you invited them to your house so obviously you trust them. However, real concern is not a lack of trust. The real underlying issue here is that while your guest may not have ill intentions, the devices they bring to your network may have been exposed to malicious malware that puts your entire network at risk.


Having a dedicated Guess Access network, allows you to keep your network free from risks associated with outside threats.

Ideas and Recommendations
Guest Access

Other advanced security features to consider in addition to the above are and are commonly marketed as security features on some routers are , Time-Based Access Restrictions, Secure DNS, Automatic Security Updates, Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), Intrusion Detection and Prevention System (IDS/IPS), Malware Detection, AiProtection, Router Security, Assessment, Malicious Sites Blocking, Vulnerability Protection, and Infected Device Prevention and Block.

Ideas and Recommendations
Other Security Features

Hardware and Design

The hardware and design aspect of a router are very critical. More important than aesthetic design is the hardware that is loaded into the router to support all its functionality. The processing power necessary for encryption for example requires a lot of computation power and resources. 

The number of devices you will connect to the router for video streaming or gaming also demands significant computing power. When looking for a router, never compromise on hardware specification. Also, when it comes to design, you want to make sure it is durable and can withstand the conditions for which you will expose it to. From and a aesthetic point of view, you also do not want to buy a router that you will need to hide from view because it does not look right. Strategic placement of your router whitin your home plays a big factor in terms of how your router will perform.

What hardware to pay attention to:

Utility and Purpose

When looking to pick the perfect router, you must understand its the feature it has to offer that put them over the top. These features vary, as every user is looking for something rather unique in nature. Knowing what you need can help you pick the right router, to help you out we have listed a few features that you may consider.

Factors that determine utility and purpose:

If you are looking to buy a router for a household with kids, you may need to consider one with features such as parental control and maximum number of devices. If you have teens who are also into streaming or gaming, you will need to identify a router that is best suited for those purposes.

Ideas and Recommendations
Family

If gaming is a top priority, features such as  Adaptive QoS can boost your router's ability to effectively prioritize bandwidth and data packets. Some routers will also boast NitroQAM (1024-QAM) for added boosts to streaming and low-latency gaming.


A perfect and well equipped router for gaming is the ASUS RT AC5300

Ideas and Recommendations
Gaming

Firmware and Software

Your router is only as secure as your firmware, which is why you need a wireless router that offers you the security you need along with function. 

Factors to consider when evaluating firmware and software:

Your wireless router comes with an interface, this interface is like the hub that allows you to control your wireless router and its functions. In order to ensure you run a smooth ship, you need a router that is easy to understand and comes with a user-friendly interface. This way, even if you are not fluent in technical terms and language you will be able to set up and use every single feature your wireless router has to offer.

Ideas and Recommendations
User-Friendly

Some router have Smartphone APP's that make it easier to manage and configure your router without having to use a desktop computer. 

Ideas and Recommendations
Smartphone APP

The firmware that comes with a wireless router offers administrative controls, and security. This means the firmware is the heart of your router and helps setup barriers that sets other actions into motion. Pay attention to the software and firmware of the router you wish to purchase and ensure that it is easy to update. Frequent firmware and security updates ensure that your router  is up to date on security patches and vulnerabilities that may expose you to risks. Most routers can be setup to obtain updates automatically.

Ideas and Recommendations
Firmware Update Frequency

For those who aren't sure about what to look for in a firmware, it is worthy to learn about DD-WRT. DD-WRT is an OpenSource firmware that is well adopted and is widely used by many people around the world. While DD-WRT is popular and some router come equipped with it from the factory, some will not and you may need to flash your router which we only recommend for advanced users although there are many instructions available on the web. You will also need to make sure your router is compatible with DD-WRT otherwise you risk permanently damaging your wireless router.


Check our list of router that work with DD-WRT.

Ideas and Recommendations
DD-WRT
Factors to consider Smart Device Connectivity:

Amazon Alexa controls consists of API's that make it easier for routers to integrate. Routers that are compatible with Amazon Alexa gives you the flexibility to control your router via voice commands. For example, once you have your router configured to use Alexa you may ask Alexa to activate the guest network or shut access to your network for a particular device.


Ideas and Recommendations
Amazon Alexa

Wireless routers that are compatible with Google Assistant allows you leverage features of your router via voice controls that are submitted to a Google Assistant device. The setup is similar to that of Amazon Alexa. 



Ideas and Recommendations
Google Assistant

Apple's HomeKit-enables routers promise to provide improved security and protection of compatible devices that are connected to it. Currently, only a few wireless routers are compatible with Apple HomeKit and our favorite is the Linksys WHW0303.

Ideas and Recommendations
Apple HomeKit

The Samsung SmartThings wireless router combines a mesh router and a smart home hub in a single solution. Not only is the Samsung SmartThings router compatible with popular protocols such as Zigbee and Z-Wave, it provides an impressive coverage of up to 4500 sq. feet with a three pack. There are more than 100 devices that are compatible suc has doorbells, cameras, and speakers.


Ideas and Recommendations
Samsung SmartThings

It important to understand the interoperability requirements for the devices that will connect to your router in your home as they may have specific requirement beyond 2.4 GHz bands. 

Ideas and Recommendations
Smart Home Hubs (Iot)

Z-Wave and Zigbee are both popular protocols that enable communication between smart devices. While these well established protocols are designed to operate on low frequencies it is important to check if the devices you will use to make your home smart will not pose any compatibility issues.

Pricing and Budget

When it comes to picking a wireless router that offers you the features you need and fits your budget you might feel lost. Fortunately for you, knowing what you want can help you cut down the overall cost of the router. As mentioned before there is an endless choice for routers available in the market today. 

Offering an endless supply of features and you might be interested in, with others that you may never use.

The key to picking a router that fits your budget and offers you the service you need is to shortlist the features based on your unique requirements. Starting from the beginning, and coming to the end; only pick the features you feel will benefit your overall use for years to come. Once you have listed down what you need you will be able to find a wireless router that matches your requirements and budget.

This is a simple process that ensures you do not end up paying a great deal extra for features you will never use, or understand. For instance, why splurge for parent control, device connection limit, or added security; when you are simply enjoying a standard home connection. A great way to ensure you get the speed and coverage you need without the added features that keep piling on your grand total.


Before making your final decision, we suggest you go through each aspect mentioned in the article, a simple way to double-check you are not leaving out a feature that you may need to ensure a smooth working system. Once you have double-checked you can purchase one of the many options you have available in your budget range.

The 802.11ax specification is a recent and official IEEE standard. It wasn't until September 16, 2019 that the Wi-Fi Alliance officially launched certification for Wi-Fi 6. It will be months or years before there are sufficient number of Wi-Fi 6 client devices to make a Wi-Fi 6 router really worth it (benefits are only for Wi-Fi 6 clients), and by then, the next generation of "Wi-Fi 6 certified" routers will be out.


One other thing to note is that 802.11ax compatibility requires hardware modification that cannot be solely supported by a typical firmware update. So while it is impossible to guarantee that any routers or devices purchased prior to September 16, 2019 are Wi-Fi 6 compliant, Wi-Fi 6 certification is worthy of checking moving forward with any of your purchases.

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