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How To Buy…A Wireless Router (Part 2)

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There are currently three wireless standards that you can expect to encounter in the market: wireless G, wireless N and (just starting to creep into the top-end) wireless AC.

These standards are all different iterations of the Wi-Fi (802.11) standard. They aren’t strictly compatible with one another, but any modern Wi-Fi device will be capable of running the oldest and slowest of the three standards (wireless G), so there’s no real need to worry about compatibility in that sense.

“It’s unlikely that you’d place your router near your microwave oven, but don’t do it anyway”

Do be aware, however, that network connections will only run at the speed of the slowest device. If you buy a wireless N router, you also need to have a network adaptor that’s compatible with wireless N to get the most out of it, otherwise the connection will roll back to using wireless G. Still, you can buy a wireless N router in anticipation of upgrading your wireless adaptors in the future, and newer devices like smartphones already support wireless N, so do give it some serious consideration.

Buffalo AirStation 1750

Buffalo AirStation 1750

Without getting too deeply into the nuts and bolts of wireless standards, you should also cast an eye over the bandwidth support of a router. Wireless N can run on two different bandwidths - 2.4GHz or 5GHz – both of which have their own strengths and weaknesses. You can get single-band wireless N routers, but dual-band devices support both, giving better performance and speed because of it.

Don’t confuse the presence of dual antennas with support for dual-band. More aerials means a router’s signal strength and capacity will be better, but it doesn’t mean that one is used for 2.4GHz and one is used for 5GHz. In fact, the best routers on the market have as many as four antennas. We should point out that despite the advantages, multiple aerials isn’t an quality worth paying for unless you’re planning to connect a large number of devices (i.e. more than 32) or have reason to expect problems with interference.

Beyond entry-level devices, you should look for media-streaming features and advanced security. Some routers have built-in storage, others give you the ability to attach external storage over USB. If a router has this capability, check whether it also has the software allowing it to stream over the web. Such features let you to log into your own router from any internet-enabled machine and access files stored on the attached disk. It’s an incredibly useful feature, especially if your smartphone lacks memory card support or your laptop only has a small hard drive.

Edimax BR-6524N

Edimax BR-6524N

Is Now The Right Time To Buy?

It depends on what sort of unit you’re aiming for. If your plan is to buy a high-end, top-of-the-range model so that you can get the fastest speeds on offer, then now might not be the right time for it.

That’s because the latest Wi-Fi standard (802.11ac) is on the cusp of coming to market in earnest. If you’re planning to upgrade to a top-end model, anything you buy now could be significantly out of date in as little as a year. Even those routers that already have 802.11ac support will behind the times, because the standard hasn’t yet been locked down.

“Beyond entry-level devices, you should look for media-streaming features and advanced security”

At the very least, any 802.11ac router you buy today will probably need a firmware update to be brought into line when the standard launches properly. At worst, they may be missing some features or compatibility, and they’ll definitely lose most of their value. Even if you buy one today, there are no network cards that support the protocol, so you can’t use the faster speeds yet. For this particular situation, at least, the advice is clear: don’t buy a high-end router right now if you can at all avoid it.

On the other hand, if you’re just looking for a low-to-mid-range wired, 802.11g or 802.11n class device, there’s little reason to worry about obsolesce or price drops. 802.11g, in particular, has endured well beyond the appearance of its successor and will probably be around for ages. The release of 802.11ac devices might be what finally edges 802.11g into the bin, but it’ll still be a significant while longer before most households are running anything faster.

What Are The Technical Constraints?

The only real technical concern you should have when choosing a router is that your wireless adaptors are all compatible with whatever the access point’s minimum standard is. You only really need to be careful if your network adaptor is 802.11a, though - wireless G networks don’t support wireless A adaptors (although wireless N and AC networks do), but if you have a card that old, it’s probably time to replace it anyway (if only for the speed boost).

What Are The Technical Constraints?

The real technical constraints on routers involve checking that the operational requirements can be met. Routers need to be powered from the mains, and have an internet connection to share coming from either their internal modem or an external one - so don’t plan to place it on the opposite side of the house to your phone sockets.

What’s The Alternative?

If you don’t want to buy a separate wireless router, there is another possibility: set your computer up as a router instead.

The benefits of doing this are clear: you don’t have to pay to buy and run a router, and you don’t have to lose a plug socket and associated space to the device itself. The big drawback, however, is that you’ll need to have the routing PC switched on even if you want to access the internet from another device. You’ll also lose a portion of resources to managing the connections, but this is only likely to be a concern if you’re a gaming enthusiast, as most machines can handle the load in the background.

Although it’s slightly more complicated than just buying a router, it can also be a good way to recycle hardware, too. If you have a spare PC handy, you could set it up as a fileserver, so running it as a router as well might actually save you abandoning perfectly good hardware in the back of a cupboard.

To turn your PC into a wireless router, it needs to have a wireless card installed. All you have to do is connect your modem to it (which is normally done using a network cable or USB connector) and then (on Windows PCs at least) you can enable the routing functionality using a simple wizard in the control panel’s Network options. Just remember to enable wireless security!

You also need to make sure that there isn’t any interference. Walls, doors and floors can all block Wi-Fi signals, and the average range of a wireless device isn’t much longer than ten meters, so make sure your router is positioned as close to the devices that connect to it as possible. You should also take care to minimize electro-magnetic interference. It’s unlikely that you’d place your router near your microwave oven, but don’t do it anyway; they use the same frequencies and the more powerful microwave would disrupt your wireless connection whenever you try to make lunch. The same logic applies to other routers. If there are a lot of wireless networks in your area, it might make sense to change the channel that your router works on. All wireless bands are divided into channels, so if you’re experiencing interference from another router, try to choose a channel at least four higher than the one it’s running on for optimal performance (the channels overlap).

If you’re really in a bind, you can also try swapping the included antenna for a directional one, but only consider that as a last resort if you’re having severe problems with connection range and interference.

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