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.
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
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:
Dual-Band routers are popular and available with most wireless routers on the market. With "dual-band", routers are capable of transmitting data using two distinct frequencies (2.4GHz and 5GHz). The 2.4GHz band is better when dealing with structural obstacles such as walls, insulation and floors, it has some drawbacks. It is slower than its 5GHz counterpart and is more likely to suffer from interference that are often emitted from common home devices such as the microwave and cordless devices that also use 2.4GHz. Some routers have the ability to dynamically pick an optimal band, otherwise having "dual-band" gives you the option that best suits your needs based on the given circumstances.
Routers equipped with this feature typically consists of the main wireless router along with one or more satellite devices that you can strategically place around your house for optimal coverage. This feature may also be referred to as "Mesh WiFi" or "Whole Home WiFi". While it is tempted to confuse the Mesh WiFi with repeaters and extenders, the main distinction with the Mesh WiFi is that the Mesh system forms a single and uniform wireless network that consists of a single SSID and password. For further clarification on the differences between repeaters, extenders and mesh systems, click here.
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.
Routers with the Smart Connect feature have the ability to intelligently identify and provide the most optimal connection for devices connected to it. Older devices tend to work better on a 2.4GHz frequency band while newer devices prefer 5GHz. Other circumstances such as interference and overload is also addressed with Smart Connect as it dynamically evaluates the performance of the connection to the device and automatically adjusts for optimal band frequency. This is typically done manually by the device end user in the absence of Smart Connect.
While the recent mesh systems and tri-band wireless routers can often suit the needs of most homes, there are circumstances that warrants additional coverage. A wi-fi antenna can provide a significant boost in coverage and range. Check out our list of recommended long range wi-fi antennas.
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.
One thing to note when assessing the speed of a router is the fact that the numbers after the IEEE standards is the basically the sum of speeds from all the bands supported by the router. So for example, the 10.8Gbps speed from a AX1100 wireless router with Tri-band is derived from a combination of (1.2Gbps + 4.8Gbps + 4.8Gbps). Since a device can only connect to a single band, the maximum speed any device connected to an AX1100 is 4.8Gbps. Therefore, what really matters is the maximum speed of a single band.
Bands and Frequencies
MU-MIMO (Multi User “Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output”) enabled routers allow for simultaneous data exchange between devices and the router without alternating between devices. Another important fact about multi user MIMO is that it only works on the 5GHz Wi-Fi band. MU-MIMO increases only the download speed, not the upload speed. MU-MIMO is highly recommended in homes with a large number of devices.
The QoS feature in a router is beneficial as it allows management of bandwidth prioritization and distribution across multiple devices based on content and traffic type such as gaming, video streaming , and general browsing. While generic QoS especially on older model wireless routers which requires user configuration and setup, newer models are equipped with advanced QoS which are automated via algorithms. These advanced QoS are typically labeled as Dynamic QoS, Intelligent Qos and Adaptive QoS. With these advanced QoS features, the burden of configuring and setting up QoS is removed from the user.
Quality of Service (QoS)
Wireless routers that support beamforming have the capability of optimizing speed and strength to devices connected to it. It does this by focusing Wi-Fi signals in the direction of the devices connected to id as suppose to broadcasting in all direction. This is a great feature as the throughput of the connected devices are subjected to less interference. When review beamforming, you may also come across different variations of it such as Implicit or Explicit Beamforming. The key difference between the explicit and implicit version is that the implicit uses various algorithms to attempt to connect to older devices that are not compliant with 802.11ac.
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.
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.
New Naming Convention
Unofficial / Legacy
2.4GHz and 5GHz
2.4GHz and 5GHz
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:
When it comes to ethernet ports, pay close attention to the router specifications as they can support speeds up to 10Gpbs. We have seen routers with ports supporting various speeds such as 1Gbps, 2.5Gbps, and 10Gbps.If you are already connected to the next generation of the internet, then you will benefit from investing in a Gigabit router. Something that holds the capability to withstand a gigabit ethernet capability. If you are not looking to go touch the 1000 Mbps speed barrier, then any lower speed router will work well for you.
Link Aggregation which also commonly referred to as Link Aggregation Control Protocol (LACP) or 802.3ad is an IEEE specification that allows for grouping of two ethernet ports to double data transfer speeds. For example with link aggregation you can link two gigabit ports to double the speeds to 2 Gbps (1 Gbps + 1 Gbps). This capability is great for attaching NAS devices for speedy file transfers.
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.
At the heart of security for all wireless routers is the security protocol that provides the necessary encryption that protects access to your network and privacy of data across all devices connect to it. Below is a table with all security methods used in a wireless router. We recommend picking a router that uses WPA3 for security. Not only is it the most recent protocol available, it is also the most secure and prone to less vulnerabilities.
Encryption and Wireless Security Protocols
Latest and most up to date protocol as of February 2020. Less vulnerable than all it predecessors.
WPA2 MGT or WPA MGT
Mostly used in environments that demand stricter security. Mostly implemented by larger companies and not typically used in homes.
WPA2 + CCMP/AES
CCMP Replaces TKIP as a more secure alternative.
WPA + CCMP/AES
WPA + TKIP | AES
Defaults to TKIP if AES is unavailable.
WPA + TKIP
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.
Built-in VPN feature in a wireless router allows you to add additional protection and privacy for your entire home network. In the absence of VPN configuration, all your browsing history is accessible to your internet service provider and are vulnerable to those who may have access to that data legally or maliciously. Although it is easy to install VPN apps on a smartphone or desktop computer, VPN configuration at the router level guarantees that all devices on your network will leverage the added benefit of the VPN.VPN configuration requires a VPN provider. When evaluating a VPN provider keep in mind that some will have limitations and caps on number of devices and bandwidth. We recommend Windscribe as it offers plans that include unlimited bandwidth and devices.
Virtual Private Network ( VPN )
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.
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.
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.
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:
When purchasing a router check to ensure the processor speed is not lower than 800MHz (single-core). This is a minimum requirement in modern models and helps you run the load smoothly in a small-sized home. If you are looking to invest, it would be best to choose a router that comes with a dual-core or quad-core.
Another thing to focus on is the RAM your router carries. It should be at least 128MB, as it will help ensure that it is running a smooth process. Offering everyone a stable speed and respond speed. Moreover, this is just the basic, if you are looking for a seamless service then you should consider a router with 256MB RAM or more.
Single, Dual, or Tri Band - Working mostly on two different frequency bands - 2.4Ghz & 5GHz. The former is used in most common wireless routers and is mostly seen in home setups. While the 5GHz offers a clean and faster connection. If you choose a single band then you only get one frequency. While the dual-band wireless routers offer both 2.4GHz & 5GHz that work simultaneously.
The range your router covers will matter a great deal, so choose one that offers good coverage. It is common to use a WiFi booster to spread the signals far, but try to ensure max coverage with the router you get. The perfect way is to ensure you choose the right spot, somewhere in the center that does not come with breakage points.
If you are already connected to the next generation of the internet, then you will benefit from investing in a Gigabit router. Something that holds the capability to withstand a gigabit ethernet capability. If you are not looking to go touch the 1000 Mbps speed barrier, then any lower speed router will work well for you.
The appearance of your router matters a great deal, especially when it is displayed in plain sight. So choose a sleek model that comes packed with top of the line technology, mostly found in new models. If you wish you can choose a model based on its visual appearance and colors that easily blend in your space.
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:
One of the main aspects to consider when choosing the right wireless router is the size of your home. Knowing which device can offer you the coverage you need is essential, which is why you must consider devices that come with a spectacular range for a larger home, or at least a booster ability that spreads it to every nook and cranny of the home.
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.
Routers come with device limitations, which means only a certain amount of devices can be connected to the router. If you are looking to create a smart setup, then you need a router that serves your family's connection related needs. Taking on everyone's devices and other smart appliances you have in your home.
Device Connection Limit
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.
Some router have Smartphone APP's that make it easier to manage and configure your router without having to use a desktop computer.
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.
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.
Smart Device Connectivity
Smart Home - Running a smart home requires constant connection, which means you need a reliable router that understands and supports your smart home interface. Allowing you the opportunity to connect as many devices as humanly possible, so everything in your home is in complete sync. Allowing you the opportunity to handle your smart home from your main interface.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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