In the world of routers, it can be challenging to distinguish meaningful features from empty jargon. Here are a few common issues and what to look for.
Wireless coverage is probably the biggest question people have about routers, and fortunately, the answer is relatively simple. There is not a major coverage difference among correctly functioning, widely available routers. There’s a simple reason for this. The FCC regulates the maximum power of the transmitters in wireless routers, so they all broadcast with approximately the same strength. There can be minor coverage differences with some high end routers that use a feature called beamforming, but results have been mixed in real world usage.
The only surefire way to improve wireless coverage is through the use of range extenders (also called wifi repeaters) or access points. A range extender is a device which wirelessly connects to your current network, then rebroadcasts that network to improve range. An access point serves the same function, but uses a wired Ethernet connection.
There are many standards for wireless speeds, from N150 all the way to AC5300, so what do they mean and what do you need? The numbers after the standard (e.g. N150, AC1200) indicate the theoretical speed of the wireless connection in Megabits per second, the same unit your internet speed is measured in.
This means that the first factor in choosing a router is your internet speed. If your router can’t keep up with your internet connection, you will never get full speed using wifi on your connection. As wifi speeds are theoretical, speed drop-off is expected and subject to change with environmental conditions and distance. Because of this, I usually recommend picking a router rated for at least three times the total speed (upload + download) of your internet connection. This means that a customer on a 10×10 OPEN connection (20Mbps total) would be fine with an N150 router, whereas a customer with a 100×100 (200Mbps total) OPEN connection would want at least an N600 router to assure an optimal experience.
If you live in an area with other wireless networks within range, or experience random performance issues on wifi only when signal strength looks ok, I would highly recommend you purchase a dual or triple band router, which broadcasts in the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz wireless frequencies. Any router rated N450 or higher is dual band, and the extra frequency network can make a big difference in overcoming wireless interference.
Features of interest
The wireless standards and technical details are certainly the most widely marketed router features, but the underlying computing power and software can play just as big, or even bigger, role.
Quality of Service
For customers who work remotely or play online games, a steady connection is top priority. Even high speed connections can experience disruptions due to background processes, like updates, fully saturating the internet connection. Fortunately, there’s an increasingly common feature to help this called quality of service (QoS).
QoS allows your router to manage your bandwidth, so that regardless of network usage, a portion of your connection will remain free for certain uses, like gaming or a VPN connection. This is still largely a feature found on $100+ routers, but many manufacturers have finally started to implement bandwidth management on entry level routers. Many will create their own marketing name, so look for features to manage bandwidth.
If you have equipment on your premises that you’d like to access remotely (like a security camera system), a router featuring DDNS (Dynamic Domain Name Server) can make that process much easier. It allows you to access your home network through a web portal, without the need to manually configure a static IP address for your connection.
Many entry-level routers do not include functionality for a guest network separate from your primary network. If you know this is a feature you need, make sure the router you go with includes it.