Wireless Router Buying Guide 2018

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Access to a decent internet connection these days is essential; given that the digital divide across the globe is ever diminishing. This is evident by how most people are abstracting most of their businesses and communication needs to the cloud. Internet Service Providers are all moving away from copper cables, Microwave and Radio transmissions, to the new fiber optic cables. As a result, internet all over the globe has been improving. According to Akamai’s First Quarter, 2017 State of the Internet Report: The global average connection speed was at 7.2 Mbps, with all prospects showing that this value is expected to go up in subsequent years.

To match this massive improvement, upgrading to a new router is inevitable. With a good router, utilizing the bandwidth that you pay for becomes a cinch, thanks to the latest advancements made in router technologies.

Routers can be categorized into two broad categories; Wired and Wireless. These days, most routers come as a hybrid of these two, providing both Ethernet and wireless connections. However, the wireless side of things has proven to be more popular, especially with the advent of smart portable devices, and the headache that comes with cable management. Let’s just say that wireless is more convenient for the average folks. In this wireless router buying guide, we will primarily focus on how to get the perfect Wi-Fi or wireless router.

What to look for when buying a wireless router

Network Standards

The alphabet soup of wireless network standards (IEEE standards to be specific), have been a deterrent for most people when they try to understand them. But for you to get a wireless router that fits your needs, it is paramount that you know all the standards. Here is what you should know:

  • The most common standards are 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac.
  • Each standard is unique from each other. Hence a router’s capabilities are based on the standards it supports.
  • Below table shows a short explanation of each of the above mentioned wireless network standard.
802.11 protocol Date Released Frequency GHz Data Rate Mbps
g Jun 2003 2.4 Upto 54Mbps
n Oct 2009 2.4/5 Up to 600 Mbps
ac Dec 2013 5 Up to 3466.8 Mbps

As of 2018 and going forward, you should only care about 802.11n and 802.11ac. This is because the majority of the conventional smart devices will support these two standards or at least one of them. 802.11ac being the latest standard, make sure you get a router that supports it. As shown in the above table, this standard has more to offer, especially when used for domestic purposes.

It is also important to mention that most routers will provide a mix of both 802.11n and 802.11ac for backward compatibility. We will cover more on this under Band.

Data Security

These days we take care of everything online, including sensitive matters such as banking, investing in stocks, and education, just to name a few. The nature of such tasks requires a secure environment to ensure that important information doesn’t fall into the hands of people with malicious intent. This is why you should be very careful what type of data security a wireless router provides.

When it comes to data security, there are three security protocols; these are; WEP, WPA, and WPA2. We recommend that you stick to WPA2 at all time. In fact, never use WEP and WPA. WPA2 is by far the most secure protocol at the moment, hence should be used to secure your router. Use a strong password; this usually involves combining alphanumeric and special characters.

Router Bandwidth

It is imperative for you to understand that router manufacturers normally print the theoretical bandwidth-throughput, which when used in real life is hardly achieved. This is because they do not account for performance bottlenecks such as interference, and obstacles such as thick concrete walls, and Protocol Overhead. To avoid any disappointments, it is best to be a bit skeptical of the indicated speeds. The good news is that most of the specified speeds and bandwidth are overkill for most situations, especially for domestic use. So don’t expect to download a video at 150Mbps just because that is what the router is rated for.

For industrial or commercial applications, it is best to look for specialized routers like the Cisco Industrial Wireless 3700 Series. These are usually more expensive but will be able to provide better bandwidth and speeds for commercial purposes, especially when connecting lots of people.

Bands

When referring to bands in wireless routers, it specifies the number of radio transmitters for specific frequencies within the router. Most routers in the market right now are Dual-band, which usually has radios transmitting 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz frequencies. This is great especially for backward compatibility, because most old devices operate on the 2.4GHz frequency, while the latest devices operate on the less congested 5.0 GHz band.

When making the purchase, make sure to note whether the router supports simultaneous 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz transmissions. Some old models have dual-bands, but only one can be activated at a go. To be future proof, go for routers that support simultaneous communications on both bands.

Wireless Range

There is no exact formula when it comes to determining the wireless range of a router, especially because the signals are usually affected by the environment around them. When making the purchase, read some user reviews to find out how the router performs. If you have a big premises, then it is best to invest in Wi-Fi extenders, Power-line adapters, or Mesh routers.

Wi-Fi Extenders

An extender is a device that rebroadcasts the signal of your router, hence extending the range of the Wi-Fi signal. Extenders have a reputation of not working properly, where they can lose up to 50% of the available capacity, especially when not set up professionally. So we recommend to consider this if you are a low data use.

Power-line communication

This is the use of your home or office electrical wiring to create a network connection. Wikipedia has a much granular explanation on how the technology works, but the basic set up is you connect a pair of power-line adapters; one will have an Ethernet cable from your primary router then connects to a wall socket. The other one you will connect to a wall socket in the room where you need iterant, then it will provide an Ethernet cable to a second wireless router. This way you will not lose significant bandwidth compared to Wi-Fi extenders. However, these do not work well with old wiring, and can lose some bandwidth.

Mesh routers

These is a set up where there is one main router, and a number of access points, which you can spread around your house for better coverage everywhere. With seamless communications between the mesh access points, they switch your devices to the nearest access point making sure you get better speeds no matter your distance from the primary router. This is what we recommend for large residential premises. If you end up going for this option, we recommend Google’s Home Mesh  or Eero Mesh Wi-Fi routers. They cost much more compared to the other two options, but will provide better coverage.

Network Management

Network management can be a hassle, especially for the non-techies. This is why it is best to go for a router that has a user-friendly user interface, and automatically takes care of important management tasks. Not all routers are made equal when it comes to network management; this is why you need to understand the various tasks involved in network management. Here are some of the features to watch out for.

User management

Get a router that makes it easy to manage all the connected users. You should be able to block or add new users at will.

Bandwidth allocation

This is one of the most important features to understand. While every router does this automatically, it is best for you to have manual override capabilities. When someone is hogging your network with heavy downloads, you can simply cap their speed.

MU-MIMO (Multi-user, Multiple-input, Multiple output)

Most people are not aware of this, but most of the old routers can only connect to one device at a time. So even though you might connect a number of devices at once to your wireless network, what your router is doing is switching between the devices so quickly you hardly notice it. However, this technique has lots of limitations, and that is why MU-MIMO or Multi User – MIMO was created. A router with MU-MIMO can simultaneously connect and communicate with different devices. This tremendously improves speeds and user experience for the connected devices. Make sure you go for a router that has this capability.

Smart Queue Management (SQM)

This is usually very important if you are looking for an online gaming wireless router. SQM is used to control buffer bloat in a router. In simple language, buffer bloat is the latency caused by a router buffering too much. This is usually because data packets are queuing up inside the router, or even getting dropped because other computers or data intensive applications and devices are “eating up” the available bandwidth. If you use real-time applications or play online games, then such latency is a nightmare, specifically since it prevents your actions from being registered. Imagine shooting a rival but the shot is not registered by the server. Well with a router that has SQM, you can forget buffer bloat.

Third party firmware compatibility

This is a very important feature that you should never overlook when buying a router. This feature will allow you to change the original firmware of a router to that of a third party, which in most instances happen to be much better, with more enterprise features that consumer grade routers lack. The big three third party router firmware are DD-WRT, OpenWRT, and Tomato.

For instance, if you get a router that doesn’t come with SQM out of the box, you can get that by installing the OpenWRT custom ROM.

CAUTION! Make sure that your router supports the custom ROM prior to installation. Also back up the original ROM in case you need to restore it. If you are looking to get a new one, find out from their respective websites which routers they support, that way you are sure of a successful custom ROM install. Beware that installing third party ROMs will void your warranty.

Physical connections (Ethernet ports, USB ports, etc.)

When everything is going wireless, you might wonder why your router should need physical connections. Well, it never hurts to be prepared, and a router that offers various connections types helps you get prepared. For instance, if your router has a USB port or SIM Card slot, you can use a USB modem or SIM Card as backup in case your primary internet source experiences downtime. A hard drive can also be connected via the USB port and act as a backup for your computer or other devices on your network, think of it as make-shift NAS (Network Attached Storage). It is also important to have two to five Ethernet ports and some patch cables lying around in case you need to connect old computers or reinstall faulty Wi-Fi drivers. Make sure you get a router with Gigabit Ethernet which supports data rates of up to 1Gbps.

Build Quality

When purchasing a router, most people tend to overlook the build quality, which is something you shouldn’t. When making the purchase, it is best to consider the routers design, how it blends with the surrounding, and what other accessories it comes with, for instance, mounting gear. Pay close attention to the material used, and level of water proofing, especially if you will be placing your router on a desk, prone to drinks and beverages.

That brings us to the end of our wireless router buying guide. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we did writing it, and hopefully it helps you get the perfect wireless router. If you feel like we left something important out, or want clarification, feel free to use our comments section and we will be glad to get back to you.