Wifi routers are essential devices in a world filled with mobile phones, laptops, and tablets. Although you can buy just about any router and use it to allow your devices to connect to the Internet, buying the right router can prevent a large number of problems later—such as connection issues, security issues, and uptime issues.
The simplest consideration for a router is its speed. Almost all new routers sold today use wireless-N technology, also called 802.11N. This is a generic name for the type of connection used instead of its speed.
Speed is determined by how many antennas you have available. Almost all wireless-N routers will come with at least two antennas; higher end routers may come with up to four antennas—the more antennas, the faster the router will be. To take full advantage of the speed, your mobile device will need to have more antennas also; however, most wireless cards only come with one or two internal antennas, limiting their maximum speed.
Check out this NETGEAR X6 Tri-Band WiFi Router. It has 6 antennas for more speed. It also adds slower devices to different channels.
Whether or not you should buy a more expensive router with extra antennas depends on how you plan to use the router. If you have an extremely fast Internet connection (faster than 100 megabits per second, mbps), you will need the extra antennas to download at maximum speed over wireless. Similarly, if you hold huge LAN gaming parties or similar events on your wireless connection, the extra speed will keep things running smoothly.
But if all you do is check email, watch YouTube videos, and other basic Internet activity, a router with two antennas is entirely sufficient.
Keeping your router secure is more and more important every year, so it’s essential that you buy a router with good security. Perhaps even more important is that you buy a router that makes setting up a secure connection easy for you—some routers offer great security, but you need a degree in computer science to figure out how to use them.
WPA2 is the current state-of-the-art in router security, although it has a large number of versions for different situations. The two main features you want are WPA Pre-Shared Keys (PSK) and WiFi Protected Setup with PIN-disable.
PSK is highly standardized—almost every modern router supports it. It’s a feature which lets you set a password on your router which other people have to type in to their device in order to use the router.
Wifi Protected Setup routers can be identified because they have a special button on top. Pressing the button allows a mobile device to configure its connection during a brief security window so you don’t need to use passwords. This is essential for simple devices without screens or keyboards such as wifi-enabled printers.
However, Wifi Protected Setup also has a PIN mode that was found to have a security flaw, so you need a router that allows you to disable the PIN feature. Unfortunately, this feature is not well advertised, so you will either need to search reviews or buy a model that was designed after mid-2012. (The flaw was found late 2011, but it took time to convince manufacturers that it was a real problem.)
All wireless-N routers have essentially the same range. More important factors in the range of your wifi network are the quality of wifi equipment in your mobile device and the number of walls and other obstacles in the location where you plan to use wireless.
That means the only thing you can effectively do is buy a router and then test it out with each of your devices in each of the locations where you typically surf the web. If your router doesn’t have enough range, you can buy a wireless-N repeater and range Extender to get the coverage you need.
Although there are still plenty of basic routers on the market, many routers today provide special features that aren’t directly related to providing wireless connectivity. Some of those features are:
- USB (or, rarely, eSATA) Network-Attached Storage (NAS) support. These routers have one or more USB ports on them which allow you to connect USB external hard drives. After connecting the drive, you configure it on the router’s setup screen and the router creates a disk drive all the computers on your home network can access. This makes it great for backups or for sharing files between several computers and devices.
- Media Servers. These routers start with a NAS as described above, but then also provide audio (and sometimes video) output so you can connect the router to your home entertainment system and play music or streaming Internet radio from any mobile device in your house.
- Print Servers. Although many printers today come with built-in wifi support, that’s not always the case, so some routers include USB printer support. You simply connect your printer to your router and then you can print to it like normal from any computer or mobile device in your house. If you use your printer rarely, this is a great way to move your printer off your desk and into a less-used part of your home or office next to your router.
- Alternative Firmware support. Some devices today advertise support for DD-WRT, a Linux-based operating system for routers which allows you to use your router as a mini Internet server. Although using DD-WRT is very geeky, it’s the ultimate in customizing your router as you can do anything with your router you can do with a regular Linux computer, within the limitations of your hardware. Some examples include: setting up your own home voice-over-IP (VoIP) server, running a website from home, and hosting a game server for a LAN party.
The most important thing to look for in a router is wireless-N support—all modern routers should have this. Then make sure the router advertises WPA2 security support and you’ll have everything you absolutely need in a router. From there, check the special features if you want more from your router than just an easy way to connect to the Internet from your mobile devices.