How to buy a router
A router buying guide
When you need to connect your computers and electronic devices to the Internet, a router can be the right tool for the job. Choosing which router to buy requires some thought, because there are many options and features to consider. Different types of routers have different purposes, and features of routers vary considerably from unit to unit.
>> What's a router?
A router connects your personal computing devices (laptop, printer, tablet, game console, phone) to the Internet to enable sharing of your Internet connection. Routers also transfer data among computing devices in a home network. Buying a router lets you create both your home network and your Internet connection at the same time.
>> Where will you use it?
The first thing you need to think about when learning how to buy a router is the setting in which you'll use it. For most people, this falls into one of two categories:
- Home network - might include multiple computers, consoles and wireless electronic devices. Typical uses include browsing the Internet, gaming and streaming movies.
- Small office network - might include several computers and wireless electronic devices. Typical uses include creating text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, email, performing file transfers and Internet browsing.
Usually, home networks require a higher-performing router to move information around more quickly within the network. The ability to do this is called a router "data transfer rate" or "bandwidth". Gaming and streaming movies takes up considerable bandwidth and requires a top-rated router. Sending email or files around a small office requires only a modest amount of bandwidth.
Remember, though, that your Internet connection speed is limited by your Internet service provider (ISP), not your router. The extra speed benefits of various routers occur only within your home network.
>> Router bandwidth
Bandwidth is usually implied by the networking standard a router supports, rather than stated explicitly. The table below shows the various networking standards supported by routers. What types of signals do your wireless devices accept?
|802.11a ||54 Mbps (megabits/second) |
|802.11b ||11 Mbps |
|802.11g ||54 Mbps |
|Super G/G+ ||108 - 125 Mbps |
|802.11n ||900 Mbps |
|802.11ac ||1000 Mbps/1 Gbs (gigabits/second) (dual-band) and 500 Mbps (single-band) |
In real-world settings, expect to get about half of the bandwidth that a standard supports. Check your computing devices to determine which standard(s) they support, so that you buy a compatible router.
Note: A router's maximum data transfer rate requires a wireless network adapter that supports at least the same rate.
>> Wired vs. wireless
When you explore how to buy a router, you need to decide whether you prefer a wired or wireless model.
|Wireless || |
- No wire required to let devices communicate with the Internet
- Connect to the Internet anywhere you have a signal from the router
- Connect more devices than there are ports on the router
- Guests can connect to Wi-Fi
- Connect a smartphone/tablet
- Make free calls with mobile apps on wireless devices
|Wired || |
- Dedicated connection
- No interference
- Higher security
- Running a home security system
Devices add up quickly in a home or office. If you have a computer, Internet phone, gaming console and a movie-streaming device, you have four devices. Most routers include only four connection sockets, called Ethernet ports. Given the explosion of computing devices in the home, and that they're in widely separated locations, most people can benefit from a wireless router.
>> Wireless security
Security is a vital concern for wireless network users. Unguarded routers allow people you don't know to use your Internet connection for their own purposes. Fortunately, all routers include a type of security called encryption, which makes the information you send and receive look unreadable to everyone outside of the network. The table below explains the most popular security protocols.
Level of Security
How it works
|WEP ||Fair ||Your data goes through encryption before transmission, and a passcode allows access at the router and your computer. |
|WPA ||Good ||Builds on WEP to encrypt your passcode, making it harder to break into your network. |
|WPA2 ||Best ||Improves on WPA by using a stronger encryption protocol called AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) |
>> Dual-band vs. single-band
If you opt for a wireless router, you will come across "single-band" and "dual-band" routers. Wireless signals transmit at two frequencies:
- Dual-band also called 2.4 GHz. This type of router has a longer range and also goes through walls. However, household appliances like your phone or garage door opener cause interference.
- Single-band - also called 5 GHz. This type of router has a shorter range, a more powerful signal and carries more data. Not all devices accept a 5 GHz signal, so check your wireless devices for compatibility.
If you're wondering which will be the best router to buy, consider your uses and household. If you already have several devices using the Internet, you will probably prefer a dual-brand router. These routers offer more flexibility, compatibility and a more consistent signal than single-band.
>> Do you want an internal modem?
If you have a DSL Internet connection through your phone company, consider a router that includes a DSL modem. DSL routers combine two technologies into one unit and are available as both wired and wireless. The primary DSL router advantage is that you can replace two network components with one device, because it both interprets the signal from your provider and sends it out to your devices.
If you currently rent a DSL modem from your Internet provider, purchasing that modem can add up to substantial savings over time. There are also cable routers that offer the same features but are compatible with cable Internet service instead of DSL.
>> Other features
Besides the considerations discussed in this router buying guide, you will also want to look at warranties, operating system compatibility and the various features included in a router's software. Some routers include mobile cloud software that facilitates easy communications between smartphones and your router and even certain models of printers.
WPS routers are also a popular option to consider because they make setting up a wireless network easier. Rather than manually configuring the router to connect to a device, you can push a button, and the router will connect with a wireless device automatically, like a Bluetooth headset pairs itself with a nearby phone. The trade-off with WPS is that it's not as secure as other connection methods.
Router technology evolves quickly, but you should buy a router based on the way you use your network rather that what the latest and greatest routers feature. This routers buyers guide gives you the basic factors to consider, so you can determine the best router to buy for your needs.