Internet users with more than one computer or networked device should be familiar with the concept of a router, a machine designed to deliver data to devices across a network.
While most consumers use routers to allow their household’s many connected devices access to an Internet connection, routers can be used to transfer data between computers, phones and tablets on a local area network.
There are several makes and models of routers, all serving different goals. Some are designed to be cheap wireless access points, while other, more expensive models are suited to homes and users with high-bandwidth needs.
Here’s a few points to consider when using or looking for a new router:
Wired or wireless
The sheer number of wireless devices in use by consumers makes a router with wireless capabilities a necessity. These routers also generally come with a few switch ports (usually at least four) for wired access.
While free roaming devices like phones and laptops will definitely be used with wireless, it’s important to consider, when possible, using a wired connection for stationary devices with bandwidth concerns, like desktops or media center devices.
A wired connection will generally be faster and more reliable than wireless, which can be subject to signal and throughput issues. Wired connections are a good choice for streaming media devices, home servers and online gaming systems, which can benefit from a stable, constant network connection.
Wireless connections are convenient, but a well-rounded home networking approach uses wired connections when possible.
Specs and speeds
When looking for a new router, the main spec you’ll want to start with is the router’s advertised wired and wireless bandwidth speed.
For wired, the speed describes the networking bandwidth of the included switch ports. For consumers, gigabit (1000 Mbps) is the fastest and usually is available on more expensive routers. Some routers save on costs by offering a 100 Mbps switch, which will be slower when transferring data between devices. Users transferring a lot of data across the network will want a router with gigabit ethernet.
Wireless routers also have advertised speeds. Wireless N is the faster consumer speed and should be the target of users that want to stream video or anything bandwidth-intensive over the network. This speed is more or less a standard feature in most wireless routers, so there isn’t a reason not to get it.
Some wireless routers are dual-band, which means they include radios for transmitting data across both the 2.4ghz and 5ghz bands. Some devices support transmitting on both or either of these spectrums; splitting network traffic between the two can help optimize your home network and make it run more efficiently. Dual-band features may or may not be worth the extra cost, depending if you have the devices, environment and expertise to configure it correctly.
Most routers bought at retail will suffice for most consumer tasks, but local users with the highest Internet speeds will need a router that can handle it. The router’s WAN (Internet) to LAN (local network) throughput determines if it can handle very fast web bandwidth, like a 100 Mbps internet plan offered locally by an internet service provider. To check what a router’s throughput might be, view the router’s listing on a router performance and review site like SmallNetBuilder (http://www.smallnetbuilder.com).
With routers being a popular home item, online reviews are plentiful. The best purchasing feedback I’ve seen comes from reader reviews on sites like SmallNetBuilder, Amazon (amazon.com) and Newegg (newegg.com).
Check reviews not only for price and performance information, but possible deficiencies. Some routers are prone to heat issues, which can affect performance and device life. If reviews mention this, look for ways you can cool the router in your home, like adding a separate fan to it or mounting it in a cool area. Other reviews might mention specific firmware or software updates that help the router run better.
Conversely, be sure to leave a review on popular sites to let others know about the router you’re using. Consumers are our own best resource; leave information about your router online as a warning or recommendation for others.