So at Christmas time you’re expecting to get some new Android gear, or perhaps you’re going to be giving some to a loved one in your house. The reliable old router at your house may not be up to the job anymore or can’t provide the speed of connection your new toys can support; what’s the best router to upgrade to?
Much like the world of mobile phones there is a minefield for users who don’t have the necessary knowledge to navigate through the marketing to figure out the specs of the routers they’re looking at. Unfortunately there won’t be a catch-all answer of buy a certain make and model of router, the answer (much like mobiles) will depend on your wants, needs and budget.
Know your network
The first step to figuring out what router you need is to know what gear is on your network. When it comes to Ethernet connections, if you don’t have anything that’s gigabit speed now, you will when you next buy or upgrade so make sure your new router has gigabit ethernet ports. Most do these days, but it’s worth checking.
WiFi is another challenge: our device reviews cover the WiFi protocols that devices have. What most people see is 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac and its highly likely that the devices on your network will have different connection capabilities. Older devices may only have 802.11 g which is fine but most new devices have either n or ac which can cause you some issue with router selection. The problem may arise by mixing 802.11g and faster devices on the same router, with some routers this will cause the traffic to all devices to run at the 802.11g protocol rather than allowing newer devices to operate at their potential capacity.
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The solution to this is to buy a dual-antenna router that has capacity to support both 802.11g and 802.11n or ac connections simultaneously. This will get the best performance from your various devices, but will cost a little more and require a little attention to detail when doing your research to ensure that you do have dual antenna.
All of this is before you get to checking out individual manufactures which in itself can be a nightmare. There are literally dozens of them out there with their own pros and cons but there is a bit of a theme you’ll see with them, the better names cost more and you’ll get more for your money; not only in functionality, but security (to a level at least) and longevity of your purchases.
Most people would have heard of Cisco, Linksys (who are under the Cisco parent company), Netgear, Billion, Asus, D-Link, Belkin and TP Link. That is a very short list of the names that most of the big name retailers such as Harvey Norman, The Good Guys and JB Hifi are likely to carry.
What to look for
We’ve already given you a list of some of the more recognised names in the game, that doesn’t mean that the name makes it good. There’s a few things you really should be looking for when you decide on a router. The first would be that it fits into the space that you have available; some routers are very plain looking, “boxy” and fit nicely into small space where others look something like a small spaceship with antenna off each corner that simply won’t work in some areas set aside for the hardware.
In terms of placement, think about your router being somewhere near to the centre of your house, if possible. This will allow maximum signal reach around your place. This won’t always be possible, but it is worth considering. You will have a happier experience if your router is near the centre, as the signal will reach further into the rooms of your house, minimising dead spots.
Of course, if you can’t achieve this, and you find that you do end up with deadspots, WiFi extenders exist which can (mostly) solve the issue, though these are not without their own complications for mobile devices; for desktops and laptops which predominantly don’t move too much around the house, WiFi extenders are great.
There is no substitute for knowledge of your own network, some research into routers and working to a budget; don’t let a salesman sell you a router with features you don’t want or need, and equally, don’t go too cheap — some low cost routers really are more hassle than they’re worth.
Some key features to look for:
- Dual Band – This means that the router can work wirelessly on both 2.4 GHz as well as 5 GHz bands; some older devices will only work on 2.4GHz and new will perform better on 5GHz so dual band is going to be the ideal solution to this.
- Security – WEP, WPA or WPA2; ideally you want to have WPA2 encryption because this the more modern wireless authentication and will offer the best security to your network. WEP is quite old and easily broken where WPA/WPA2 (as long as you set a reasonable password) is much more secure. It’s pretty rare these days to find anything that only supports WEP.
- USB ports – This may seem a waste to some users, but the convenience of having your printer hooked up to your router, essentially making your printers wireless may be very attractive to some users. The other excellent feature offered by having USB on your router is to setup network based file sharing, it’s not as full on as having a NAS or your own server running 24/7 but can offer most of the same convenience by simply plugging in (and configuring) a portable hard drive to the router.
Three of these manufacturers have companion apps for your mobile devices that can greatly improve the speed and ease of installation for your router. The apps are compatible with most of the mainstream options from the respective manufacturer, but if you’re looking at using the app; make sure you check quickly if the one you’re looking at is compatible with the app.
The earliest (actually functional) app to the market was Netgear Genie which offers users some really handy insight into their network including easy graphic setup, connected devices, access to parental controls, a traffic meter and if necessary the ability to reboot your router via the app.
Asus Router is probably the latest player into the home networking field. Their app has many of the same features as the Netgear offering a network map (of sorts), real time traffic monitoring, specific details of connected devices (Ip address, MAC address and the interface speed) and various interface options that allow you to control the router.
Linksys Connect & Smart Wifi apps are available for different router options in the Linksys/Cisco range of devices. Both are very simplistic and offer some very basic options in terms of configuration and monitoring of your network. There is no access via the app for advanced functions or even detail such as traffic monitoring. The app is clearly aimed at users who want a guiding hand to get setup, connected to the internet and are happy with just being connected.
In the end there’s no substitute for a bit of networking knowledge and knowing your equipment. A bit of time in researching the various options out there can avoid frustration and disappointment as there are options that can appear to be “the same” but cost hundreds of dollars difference, to the average user this can be hugely confusing.
Hopefully this has cleared up some of the potential information for you and allowed you to make a better educated decision on home hardware to get the most of your mobile gear.
Can the team assist you with some other hardware information to help you get the best from your mobile gear?