The sheer volume of broadband plans currently in the market means it’s not hard to find yourself a good deal, but there’s a piece of hardware vital to a good internet connection that is often overlooked – your router. While the speeds and download quota provided by your internet service provider (ISP) are important, your router is what determines how that internet connection is received and distributed around your home.
To help you understand the complicated world of internet protocols, we’ve compiled a guide to choosing the best possible router to suit your needs.
What is a wireless router?
A router is essentially a device that sends and receives data from your computer and the internet. They vary in size and complexity, from a small home router to huge enterprise models. A wireless router is simply a router with an inbuilt wireless access point, which allows you to set up a local Wi-Fi network from the one device. A router is a gateway through which all internet traffic flows, so it’s worth investing in a model that can perform all the functions you need.
What’s the difference between a router and a modem?
Many people seem to think that routers and modems are one and the same since they look similar, but this is not true. They are actually two different things which serve very similar purposes, and in most situations, are used together.
A modem is provided by your ISP. It communicates with your ISP’s network by plugging into your phone line or cable provider’s infrastructure – depending on whether it’s a DSL or cable modem. Since it has to communicate with your ISP, the modem needs to work with its infrastructure: hence why they are usually given to you by your ISP.
A router, on the other hand, is used to share your internet connection amongst multiple devices, and in order for a router to work, they must be plugged into the modem via an Ethernet cable. The router then connects to the internet through the modem and the router itself then receives a single public IP address on the Internet. This allows the router to direct the internet traffic to the appropriate devices on your home network. Although the modem has to be pre-approved by your ISP, you can purchase any router you like.
When using both a modem and a router, the connection order for the devices is as follows:
- Wireless device
What do I need to consider?
There are several things you should think about before choosing a wireless router, the main ones being your budget and your internet browsing habits. Many internet service providers provide a basic wireless router when you sign up for their service, and while some are perfectly fine, others can be unreliable and have weak wireless signals. The fact that your new broadband plan comes with its own router doesn’t mean that’s the one you have to use. We highly recommend you go online and do some research into the best routers available to see if you can find a great model for your setup.
More expensive routers have powerful signals and often a greater range of Wi-Fi frequencies. More complex routers can also have built-in firewalls (for security) and a greater degree of customisation. These are great for power users, but if you’re like most people, you’re better off opting for something that’s easier to set up.
Features to look for in a router
These are the most crucial features to look for when choosing a wireless router.
This is probably the biggest thing to look for when buying a router. Does it have the connection speed to cater to all your needs? The two main Wi-Fi connectivity standards used are 802.11n and 802.11ac; the latter was introduced in late 2013 and manufacturers are gradually upgrading their products to support this new standard and the vastly improved connection speeds it offers. 802.11n has theoretical data rate limits of 54Mbit/s to 600Mbit/s, whereas 802.11ac can provide up to 1,300Mbit/s.
More expensive routers will generally support the upper echelons of connection speed, whereas cheaper or older models miss out. If you’re someone who downloads large files frequently or streams a lot of media, opting for a faster than average connection speed (802.11ac) is a good idea. Similarly, if you have many users in your home, a faster router will be able to handle the multiple connections without slowing down.
When looking at routers, it is important to consider that size does not equal speed. Just because a router is large and has multiple antennas does not mean it will be any faster than a router a third of its size. Talk to some experts when you go router shopping to identify which ones have the highest theoretical speed.
The range your router covers is another important feature, as users with large homes or business premises will need a powerful wireless signal to provide a connection in every room. The range of your router is dependent on a number of considerations, and the manufacturer isn’t always able to list these considerations on the box. In general, newer routers that operate on the newer Wi-Fi standards mentioned above will have a greater effective range, as higher-frequency signals can penetrate further through walls and ceilings. So if you’re choosing a router for its range, you should consider newer versions that operate on the 802.11ac connectivity standard.
If you still aren’t experiencing a good enough range from your router after purchasing, there are a number of hacks you can use to extend it. The most common include:
- Thwart Wi-Fi thieves with better security. More people using your Wi-Fi means it is going to struggle to reach its full potential. Make sure your password has a good combination of letters and numbers to make it impossible to guess. There are also a wide range of security programs you can use to determine if someone outside your home is using your Wi-Fi.
- Move your router to a better location. This one is fairly straight-forward. If you’re struggling to get a good signal at your current location, then it might be that your router is too far away. Moving your router to a location closer to where the bulk of your internet usage occurs will significantly reduce the workload on your software. Also try to place it in a location where there are few walls and doors to get in the way, as these can greatly interfere with Wi-Fi signals.
- Use DIY tricks. These are relatively simple, but a lot of people don’t know that they work. Granted, they will only slightly increase the power of your router, but that could be the difference between a good signal and a weak one. The most common tricks are placing tin foil on your router’s antenna, or placing it in a large cooking strainer. Parabolic surfaces such as these are perfect for collecting wireless signals and focusing them.
- Turn an old router into a repeater. Wi-Fi repeaters and range extenders can be purchased at a variety of stores in order to increase their range in certain parts of the house, but you don’t actually have to buy one if you have an old router lying around. There are many experts out there who can talk you through this process.
- Reboot your router regularly. People commonly reboot their routers when the speeds fall or they drop out, but rebooting it regularly, such as every night before you go to bed, can save you from doing this when it is inconvenient. Rebooting your router regularly can also stop it from overheating, which is a common cause of decreased performance over time.
A more specialised feature on some high-end routers is the inclusion of a built-in Virtual Private Network (VPN) service. A VPN essentially allows you to connect to an external private network to access the internet through, which results in greatly increased privacy and anonymity for the user. Picture it as a wormhole that runs from your network through to another somewhere else in the world. For all intents and purposes, your network traffic now appears to originate from the other side of this “wormhole” while the VPN is active.
Whilst most people don’t have a need for a VPN, it can be a useful tool for protecting your privacy. Therefore, if you’re after a new router with increased security features, go for a VPN model (such as ones that support DD-WRT firmware). Keep in mind, however, that VPNs are a service you’re likely to need to pay a regular fee for.
A router’s main function, wireless or not, is to provide connectivity to your entire home, and this means multiple connection points. If your household has multiple people and devices in need of connectivity, look for a router that has multiple Ethernet and USB ports for connecting other computers and mobile devices. Some Wi-Fi routers offer more connections than others, so be prepared to pay a little extra to hook up a greater number of devices. You can also do things like plug in printers to your router so you can print from any device on the premises.
Most modern routers nowadays are ‘dual band’, which means they are capable of transmitting in one of two different standard frequency ranges: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz channels. 2.4 GHz bands are more commonly used by older devices, and share frequency space with other electronic devices in your house, so there is more interference. 5 GHz band devices offer better performances due to decreased interference, and are generally better modern internet uses such as media streaming. There are now tri-band routers on offer as well, which use a second 5 GHz band to support more devices on your local Wi-Fi network. These may be more pricey, but are well worth it if you are a heavy internet user.