How to choose a wireless router

Features James Hunt Dec 15, 2012

Whether you want to go wireless or improve your current network, we have all the details for you right here!

Routers all look pretty similar from the outside - a small box of flashing lights with an aerial (or two) sticking out of the back - but when it comes to choosing one, you have to be aware of the fairly substantial differences between a router and its immediate neighbour to ensure that you’re not wasting money or buying the wrong thing.

The most important qualities of any router are obvious: you want fast speeds and a long range. But how can you tell whether you’re getting that? Routers aren’t like many computer peripherals in that there isn’t a particularly direct relationship between performance and price. A cheap router might have a longer range and offer faster speeds than an expensive one, depending purely on the underlying technology within it.

That’s why this week we’re going to explain what to look for in a router and why you should care. We’ll explain why you might care whether a router is single-band or dual-band, why it matters how many aerials it has, and which standards you should be looking for. If you need to buy a router any time, once you’ve read this you can consider yourself fully equipped to get one.

How much should you spend?

Be careful of spending too little on a router; cheap and unbranded devices have a tendency to be unreliable and difficult to configure, but most annoyingly of all, they underperform in terms of speed and range as well: low-quality components means an inconsistent wireless signal, and that means slow communication and shorter range.

The UK’s most popular router has, for years, been the Netgear DG834G. It’s not especially powerful or fast (it’s only 802.11g and doesn’t even have gigabit Ethernet support), but it has a solid range, forms reliable connections and is very easy to set up and configure things like port forwarding and security. Despite its age, it costs somewhere in the region of £45-£50. If nothing else, what this tells us is that if you’re thinking of spending less than that for a wireless router, your expectations need to be adjusted.

If you really can’t afford to spend that much on a wireless access point, we recommend you go for a wired router instead, which should save you around £15 (although you may have to buy network cables, so it may not be that much of a saving). Keep in mind, though, that the age and enduring popularity of the DG834G means that there are loads of units available second-hand (on eBay, for example). However, we’d recommend doing a factory reset and firmware update before you actually use a second-hand router, just to be on the safe side!

If entry-level devices aren’t your thing, the ‘vanilla’ router market starts at about £50 and tops out at around £125. That price will net you a dual-band Buffalo AirStation 1750, which is capable of running 802.11g, 802.11n and even the latest 802.11ac standard, making it pretty convincingly future-proof. However, for various reasons (discussed later on) this isn’t an especially sound investment. We wouldn’t recommend spending more than £80 on a router regardless of its features, and you can certainly get away with substantially less!

Be aware that if routers have extra capabilities, such as remote storage or a built-in media server, they will cost a little more - sometimes as much as £300 to £400 if they have terabyte-capacity storage - but in those cases, you’re normally paying for the additional technology, rather than the quality of the router.

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

Entry-level and basic users can’t go wrong with anything from Netgear. We’ve already recommended the Netgear DG834G in particular, which isn’t the cheapest wireless router on the market, but it thoroughly deserves its popularity. That said, it’s starting to look a bit out of date. Its support for the older wireless G standard and single-band capabilities means that even though you’re guaranteed to get a network running on it, you won’t get the best wireless network the market can offer by a long shot.

If you want something that can take advantage of the faster wireless N protocol, we recommend you look at the Asus RT-N56U. In recent years Asus’s products have been gaining a reputation for delivering high quality at affordable prices, and this dual-band wireless N router, while slightly more costly than most, is suitably high-end. As well as offering faster network speeds than wireless G devices, it has support for advanced features, like attachable storage. It’s probably not the right router for entry-level users, but if we were updating from wireless G to wireless N, this is undoubtedly the one we’d go for.

Indeed, because it’s dual-band, there’s even the possibility that it can be upgraded to support wireless AC when the standard is ready, but don’t base your purchasing decision purely on that, because we’ve been unable to confirm one way or the other. Even if it can be done, and there’s no guarantee it will happen (although some enterprising soul will probably find a way to add support.)

If you want to know what not to buy, we suggest you stay away from routers with artistically sculpted casing: they’re all more expensive than they need to be and even have the slight disadvantage that you can’t replace an internal antenna if it breaks. Brands like Edimax and TP-Link are temptingly cheap (Edimax does a wireless N router for under £20), but reviews show their products to be often unreliable, with poorly designed back-ends. The risk isn’t normally worth it.

What Technology Should You Look For? There are currently three wireless standards that you can expect to encounter in the market: wireless G, wireless N and (just starting to creep into the top-end) wireless AC.

These standards are all different iterations of the wi-fi (802.11) standard. They aren’t strictly compatible with one another, but any modern wi-fi device will be capable of running the oldest and slowest of the three standards (wireless G), so there’s no real need to worry about compatibility in that sense.

Do be aware, however, that network connections will only run at the speed of the slowest device. If you buy a wireless N router, you also need to have a network adaptor that’s compatible with wireless N to get the most out of it, otherwise the connection will roll back to using wireless G. Still, you can buy a wireless N router in anticipation of upgrading your wireless adaptors in the future, and newer devices like smartphones already support wireless N, so do give it some serious consideration.

Without getting too deeply into the nuts and bolts of wireless standards, you should also cast an eye over the bandwidth support of a router. Wireless N can run on two different bandwidths - 2.4GHz or 5GHz - both of which have their own strengths and weaknesses. You can get single-band wireless N routers, but dual-band devices support both, giving better performance and speed because of it.
Don’t confuse the presence of dual antennas with support for dual-band. More aerials means a router’s signal strength and capacity will be better, but it doesn’t mean that one is used for 2.4GHz and one is used for 5GHz. In fact, the best routers on the market have as many as four antennas. We should point out that despite the advantages, multiple aerials isn’t an quality worth paying for unless you’re planning to connect a large number of devices (i.e. more than 32) or have reason to expect problems with interference.

Beyond entry-level devices, you should look for media-streaming features and advanced security. Some routers have built-in storage, others give you the ability to attach external storage over USB. If a router has this capability, check whether it also has the software allowing it to stream over the web. Such features let you to log into your own router from any internet-enabled machine and access files stored on the attached disk. It’s an incredibly useful feature, especially if your smartphone lacks memory card support or your laptop only has a small hard drive.

Is now the right time to buy?

It depends on what sort of unit you’re aiming for. If your plan is to buy a high-end, top-of-the-range model so that you can get the fastest speeds on offer, then now might not be the right time for it.

That’s because the latest wi-fi standard (802.11ac) is on the cusp of coming to market in earnest. If you’re planning to upgrade to a top-end model, anything you buy now could be significantly out of date in as little as a year. Even those routers that already have 802.11ac support will behind the times, because the standard hasn’t yet been locked down.

At the very least, any 802.11ac router you buy today will probably need a firmware update to be brought into line when the standard launches properly. At worst, they may be missing some features or compatibility, and they’ll definitely lose most of their value. Even if you buy one today, there are no network cards that support the protocol, so you can’t use the faster speeds yet. For this particular situation, at least, the advice is clear: don’t buy a high-end router right now if you can at all avoid it.

On the other hand, if you’re just looking for a low-to-mid-range wired, 802.11g or 802.11n class device, there’s little reason to worry about obsolesce or price drops. 802.11g, in particular, has endured well beyond the appearance of its successor and will probably be around for ages. The release of 802.11ac devices might be what finally edges 802.11g into the bin, but it’ll still be a significant while longer before most households are running anything faster.

What are the technical constraints?

The only real technical concern you should have when choosing a router is that your wireless adaptors are all compatible with whatever the access point’s minimum standard is. You only really need to be careful if your network adaptor is 802.11a, though - wireless G networks don’t support wireless A adaptors (although wireless N and AC networks do), but if you have a card that old, it’s probably time to replace it anyway (if only for the speed boost).

The real technical constraints on routers involve checking that the operational requirements can be met. Routers need to be powered from the mains, and have an internet connection to share coming from either their internal modem or an external one - so don’t plan to place it on the opposite side of the house to your phone sockets.

You also need to make sure that there isn’t any interference. Walls, doors and floors can all block wi-fi signals, and the average range of a wireless device isn’t much longer than ten metres, so make sure your router is positioned as close to the devices that connect to it as possible. You should also take care to minimise electro-magnetic interference. It’s unlikely that you’d place your router near your microwave oven, but don’t do it anyway; they use the same frequencies and the more powerful microwave would disrupt your wireless connection whenever you try to make lunch. The same logic applies to other routers. If there are a lot of wireless networks in your area, it might make sense to change the channel that your router works on. All wireless bands are divided into channels, so if you’re experiencing interference from another router, try to choose a channel at least four higher than the one it’s running on for optimal performance (the channels overlap).

If you’re really in a bind, you can also try swapping the included antenna for a directional one, but only consider that as a last resort if you’re having severe problems with connection range and interference.

What’s the alternative?

If you don’t want to buy a separate wireless router, there is another possibility: set your computer up as a router instead. 

The benefits of doing this are clear: you don’t have to pay to buy and run a router, and you don’t have to lose a plug socket and associated space to the device itself. The big drawback, however, is that you’ll need to have the routing PC switched on even if you want to access the internet from another device. You’ll also lose a portion of resources to managing the connections, but this is only likely to be a concern if you’re a gaming enthusiast, as most machines can handle the load in the background.

Although it’s slightly more complicated than just buying a router, it can also be a good way to recycle hardware, too. If you have a spare PC handy, you could set it up as a fileserver, so running it as a router as well might actually save you abandoning perfectly good hardware in the back of a cupboard.

To turn your PC into a wireless router, it needs to have a wireless card installed. All you have to do is connect your modem to it (which is normally done using a network cable or USB connector) and then (on Windows PCs at least) you can enable the routing functionality using a simple wizard in the control panel’s Network options. Just remember to enable wireless security!