Wireless Router Basics
A wireless router is the heart of a wireless network, working much like the base station of a cordless phone with multiple handsets.
The latest wireless router technology standard is 802.11n (also called Wireless-N). Most new routers use this technology, although you'll still find 802.11g (Wireless-G) routers for sale.
If you bought a Wireless-N router before September 2009, it was labeled Draft 802.11n. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has officially ratified the Wireless -N standard, and all of those draft routers now automatically comply with the official standard.
Because it was technically still draft technology -- and because Wireless-N chipsets have traditionally cost more than Wireless-G chipsets -- many users, especially businesses, have stuck with Wireless-G routers. If you're thinking about upgrading, here's what experts say about Wireless-N versus Wireless-G:
- Wireless-N is faster than Wireless-G -- up to five times faster, according to PCMag.com. Some Wireless-N routers "can deliver upwards of 200 Mbps, and can theoretically reach 300 Mbps," PCMag.com's Mario Morejon reports.
However, you can't exceed the speed provided by your ISP and modem. Unless the wireless router has a built-in modem, it must be connected to one via an Ethernet cable, and the quality of that connection also has an effect on your maximum speed. An older Ethernet standard, Fast Ethernet or 10/100 Ethernet, is still quite common, and allows data transfers of up to 100 megabits (Mbits) per second (the original Ethernet was rated at 10 Mbits per second). A newer standard, Gigabit Ethernet (GbE), has a top speed of 1 gigabit per second, and some more expensive wireless routers have this feature.
- Wireless-N routers have a longer range than Wireless-G routers -- theoretically, twice the range. In practice, this means that when you're far away from the router in your house, you'll be more likely to connect at a high data rate with a Wireless-N router, a test at Wi-FiPlanet.com concludes. With a Wireless-G router, you may fall to a lower data rate as you get further from the router.
One of 802.11n's key features is multiple input, multiple output (MIMO). In general, MIMO routers use multiple antennas and different transmission technologies to improve speed and range, and MIMO routers have an easier time pushing the signal through obstacles like walls and doors. Computerworld's David Haskin found, "The increased range of 802.11n will mean fewer 'dead spots' in homes served by a single Wi-Fi router." (Dead spots are areas with no signal.)
- Wireless-N routers cost more. You can find major-brand Wireless-N routers for $50 or less. However, owners complain that these basic models constantly drop their Internet connections. A top-rated Wireless-N router such as the Linksys WRT400N (*Est. $115) still costs more than twice as much as a top-rated Wireless-G router like the Linksys WRT54GL (*Est. $55).
- Wireless-N routers are backwards-compatible with Wireless-G (and earlier) devices -- but mixing the two can slow down the whole network. Many Wireless-G devices can be easily upgraded to Wireless-N; for example, certain Mac computers can be upgraded from 802.11g to 802.11n with a $2 software update from Apple.
Don't expect a Wireless-N router to make your older equipment run faster. Tim Higgins of SmallNetBuilder.com cautions that a Wireless-N router "could end up causing problems with very old gear."
- Wireless-G is a fading technology. "In three or four years, we're not going to be talking about 802.11a/b/g anymore," Kelly Davis-Felner of the Wi-Fi Alliance certifying body tells TelephonyOnline.com. "The only thing you'll see those technologies in will be thermostats and other super-low power devices."
Experts recommend considering these features when selecting a wireless router:
- Determine your needs for speed and range. If you play games online, trade files heavily or your network consists of distantly separated rooms, Wireless-N (802.11n) will work better than Wireless-G. Wireless-N may help reduce interference as well.
- Base your purchase on the networking equipment you plan to continue to use. If you already have networking equipment in good working order, make sure the router you buy is compatible.
- Manufacturer claims of range are inflated. Experts say you can expect about half of what's promised. Going through walls -- especially brick or concrete -- or going up or down floors will also greatly diminish the effective range. Many manufacturers make accessories to extend the range of their routers, including repeaters, bridges and extra antennas, but these add a lot to the cost of the network.
- You'll also need network adapters for each computer you add to the network. Your desktop or laptop may already have installed wireless networking components, but you may have to purchase an internal or external network card; consult your manual. Reviewers suggest buying a wireless router and adapters made by the same company if you can. This facilitates both setup and technical support, sometimes necessary for compatibility.
- Interference from cell phones, microwave ovens, cordless phones and other household electronics may cause annoying interference with a wireless network. If you have a cordless phone that uses the 2.4 GHz bandwidth, you can avoid interference by upgrading to a 5.8 GHz or 1.9 GHz DECT phone. Wireless-N routers can operate on either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz bands; newer dual-band, dual-radio routers can work on both at once.