How to Buy a Wireless Router

It's hard to imagine a modern home or business network without a wireless router, but that doesn't mean it's easy to pick the right router. Our guide can help you pick the best one for your network.
Routers are an essential element of modern business network, and they're an indispensable tool in the home, too. A wireless router lets your computer connect to the Web so that you can read favorite Web sites, check e-mail, IM friends, or teleconference with colleagues. If you want to do this without cluttering your setup with Ethernet cables, a wireless router is a must. And, if it's your first time going wireless, don't worry about giving up wired speed. All wireless routers offer at least some degree of wired connectivity, allowing you to get the best of both worlds.
The wireless router market offers many different types of routers that are tailored to tackle specific needs. Vendors offer everything from very basic single-band routers designed to simply get your computer online to advanced dual-band routers that contain bonus features (such as a built-in digital photo frame). 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. Our Wireless router buyer's guide will help you do just that.
Determine Your Usage
A single home user who just wants to Web surf doesn't require the same type of router as a heavy-duty gamer or small business. A single-band router like the $149 Cisco Valet Plus is a basic, decent performer that would suit the needs of anyone looking for simple Wi-Fi connectivity and easy setup. By contrast, the $359 D-Link Xtreme N Duo Media Router has power-user features such as Traffic Prioritizing; Virtual Servers and UPnP support. The Xtreme N is likely to be more of value to gamers, multimedia enthusiasts or anyone with advanced networking needs. 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 Cisco Valet Plus 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 standard 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, like 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 better equipped for throughput-intensive work within your home network such as gaming and file streaming. In fact, as mentioned in our "Setup and Small Home or Business Network" article, you will also get better internal network performance.
Know Your Standards
Knowing which standard the majority of devices on a network support is important in deciding which router is best for your setup. For example, if you want to connect two slightly dated laptops which house 802.11b/g wireless cards 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 N routers can connect at the 5 GHz band, so you only need a 2.4 GHz router for B and G clients. A decent option would be a router like the Cisco Linksys E1000 Wireless-N Router, which is available for under $60 (if you can swing the extra $70, however, the Valet Plus is the 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 simultaneous dual-band router like the $169 D-Link DIR-825 Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit. This model excels at automatically connecting devices to the appropriate band, without user intervention. There are other dual-band routers that are good choices as well, like the $119 Linksys by Cisco Dual Band Wireless N Gigabit Router. This model requires user to be savvy enough to know how to configure settings so that all devices (be they B, G or N) can connect to the correct 2.4-GHz or 5-GHz band.
PC vs. Mac
We have tested numerous wireless routers from a variety of vendors, and have determined that it 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 chimed in on an article 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.
Routers should theoretically work across the board for Windows, Apple and Linux clients. If you have an all-Apple or predominately Apple environment, save yourself any potential hassle and go with a router from Apple.
Coverage Area/Antennas
Router antennas can either be external or internal, with the former seemingly delivering stronger signals. One of the fastest Wi-Fi routers we have tested is the $79.99 D-Link DIR-825 Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit, which has two external antennas. In some cases, it's possible to purchase signal amplifiers or upgrade the antenna to one that's more high-powered. The one drawback with external antennas is that they can be more problematic to discretely situate in a home than a router with internal antennas such as the Linksys Ultra RangePlus Wireless-N Router, which is built with Linksys/Cisco's familiar sleek design. Also, it's true that anything that sticks out can be broken off.
Accordingly, don't discredit routers with internal antennas. For most home purposes, new routers like the $179 Cisco Linksys's E3000 High Performance Wireless N Router have an almost unheard of 6 internal antennas with 2x3 transmit/receive. We have not tested the router yet (look for the test soon) but the E2000, which is the mid-router in the E series, was a decent performer that only has 3 internal antennas.
Keep in mind, despite whatever the antenna design is, large areas may sometimes need more than one wireless router for coverage. The average range for 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!
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 the $129 Belkin Wireless PlayMax Router. The PlayMax has features like Guest Access, Channel Bonding (to boost wireless signal), Access Control and a Bit Torrent client. While we can't recommend the Play Max at this time, (further testing on it is to follow) because of underwhelming performance, the features set is truly impressive and is one that should appeal to avid gamers, torrent users, or even small businesses.
Some routers have USB ports for connecting a printer or storage device, the D-Link Xtreme N Storage Router. Not only does it have USB ports, but it has a slot for 2.5-inch SATA drive and doubled as a digital photo frame. This may not be a router option for anyone, but if you have additional networking needs and may be low on space on ports to connect extra devices, a fancy router like the Xtreme N Storage may be a good bet. Prepare to shell out some cash as this router listed for $300.00 at shipping.
Most routers currently support standard WEP security as well as the more secure WPA and WPA2. If you want to control what users can access when they are connected to the router, you are doing to want one that offers decent Access Controls. Cisco's Valet Plus has very effective Access Control settings plus Parental Controls that allow limiting internet use based on time of day. Guess Access and an ability to create multiple SSIDs are also important security measures if you are using the router for a small business. Together, these two features let you, for example, segment your network into seperate areas for guests and trusted users.
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 like the Netgear RangeMax Wireless-N Gigiabit Router. Use the Gigibit Ethernet ports to wire gaming consoles, NAS drives, or any other type of multimedia server that have Gigabit Ethernet adapters to take advantage of the faster performance.
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