This article is part of the Hardware Buying Guide series:
- Buying an SSD: What to Look Out for
- Buying a Monitor: What to Look For
- Buying a Keyboard: For Work, Play, and Everything in Between
- Buying a Mouse: DPI, Sensors and More
- Buying a Processor: What You Need to Know
- Buying a Case: Drive Bays, Form Factor and More
- Buying a Motherboard: Form Factor, Ports, More
- Buying Memory/RAM: What to Know
- Buying a Power Supply: Wattage, Efficiency and More
- Buying a Sound Card: Benefits, Pricing and More
- Things You Need to Know When Buying Ethernet Cables
- What You Need to Know When Buying a Router for Your Home
- Graphic Card Buyer’s Guide 2019: What to Look for When Buying a GPU
When buying a router there are a number of factors to take into consideration. In this article we’ll explain everything you need to know to make an informed buying decision the next time you go shopping for a router.
Buying a Router: GHz, Antennas and Range
Wireless routers operate on one of two bands: 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. Let’s quickly discuss the difference between the two bands and what you should be using for your router.
- 2.4 GHz WiFi operates on the 2.4GHz spectrum. This spectrum is rife with interference from household objects and other nearby networks on the same spectrum, but it’s the most common form of WiFi being used. This is because it supports the widest range of devices with only newer devices being able to take advantage of 5GHz spectrums.
- 5GHz WiFi operates on the 5GHz spectrum which is significantly less cluttered than the 2.4 GHz spectrum. However, not all devices will support this spectrum, and it does suffer from a shorter range. These are the main drawbacks.
When buying a router you’ll want to go for one that supports both spectrums active at once. Generally, you’ll want to move all 5GHz-capable devices to the 5GHz spectrum, but there’s a reason not to do this that we’ll go over in a second.
Range, meanwhile, is determined by the combination of three factors: the number of antennas on the router, what spectrum it’s using and the standard it uses. When buying your router, go for one with at least two, preferably three, antennas for the best coverage. Meanwhile, 2.4 GHz offers a low-quality but high-range signal, while 5GHz offers a high-quality but low-range signal. Read the section below to learn more about the standards and how they further affect speed and range.
Buying a Router: Understanding 802.11 Standards
Wireless routers use 802.11-based standards. While most people don’t know about these standards, they’re an easy way to easily read into the speed and other specifications of a router.
- 802.11 – The original standard, using a 2.4GHz band and offering a max speed of 2Mbps. Very slow, very low range.
- 802.11a – Provides up to 54 Mbps and opens up to 5GHz. An old standard, usually adopted in enterprise scenarios.
- 802.11b – Uses 11 Mbps transmission on a 2.4GHz band. The first big WiFi standard adopted by consumers.
- 802.11e/g – Adds “QoS” (quality of service) and multimedia support while still being backwards-compatible with previous standards. An old, common consumer standard.
- 802.11n – Allows increased range and combines many features of previous standards, one of the most popular for routers. Offers a max speed of 100 Mbps.
- 802.11ac – Offers speeds of up to 1.3 Gbps and operates exclusively in 5GHz. The “Wave 2” variation boasts max speeds as high as 6.93 Gbps.
Either the 802.11n or 802.11ac are the only ones I’d recommend you buy in 2017 and onward. While older standards are notable for what they’ve done, the increased range, quality and features offered by 802.11n and onward offer the best possible experience for your wireless network.
If you can’t afford 802.11n or higher, I consider 802.11e the bare minimum you should purchase. However, if you’re going to buy a router, you need to do so with future-proofing in mind.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need to invest in an 802.11ac router if you don’t have a beefy enough connection to use all of that speed. However, newer standards also boast increased range and reliability. In general, the more devices you have in the house, the faster and newer you’ll want your wireless router to be.
Buying a Router: Firmware and Customization Capabilities
Another thing to consider when buying a router is the firmware it’s running and whether or not it supports you customizing it on your own. This information can admittedly be tough to see on the outset, and the only real way to learn if custom firmware exists for your router is to look at the model name and do some googling.
Two prominent custom router firmwares, OpenWrt and DD-WRT, offer Wikis that show a list of supported devices. If you’re interested in those, just give either name a click to see. Here is more custom router firmware you can check out.
If your router isn’t customizable, or you’re just not interested in customizing it, that’s fine too. Just make sure that it’s an up-to-date router with firmware that supports QoS (Quality of Service, traffic shaping/prioritization), a firewall, DDOS protection, etc. Any recently-made router from the likes of ASUS, Linksys or Belkin/Cisco should do the trick, but don’t be afraid to read reviews of a router before making a purchase.
Conclusion and Other Considerations
Finally, let’s talk about one last topic: gaming, and other latency-dependent applications such as streaming or high-quality VoIP.
If you’re doing any kind of gaming, not even the best wireless router is going to offer the performance and consistency of an ethernet cable. If you’re doing latency-dependent things with your network, you’ll want an ethernet cable running from the device doing it directly to your router or your modem.
That being said, you now know pretty much everything you need to about buying a router. In short, shop for at least a router that supports at least 802.11e, but get 802.11n or 802.11ac if you can. Make sure your router supports both 2.4 and 5GHz, and move as many devices as possible to the latter spectrum.
Finally, be smart. Only purchase routers from trustworthy manufacturers like Cisco, Linksys or ASUS, and make sure they’re highly-rated online before making the plunge.