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Let’s face it, most of us wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if our internet went out. It is the lifeblood of our homes, powering our PCs, televisions, smartphones, and smart devices. At the heart of your network lies your router. This device works behind the scenes to ensure that all your gadgets remain connected to the internet.
Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) controls your bandwidth and speed, but it’s your router that makes or breaks how well your network performs. There are a wide range and variety of routers available on the market today. Each home environment is different, so you’ll have to determine which one makes the most sense in your house.
Of course, many ISPs will provide a router/modem combo device which you can pay a monthly fee to use, however, it might make sense for you to purchase your own router. You can also consider range extenders or a whole-home wifi mesh system, but we’ll talk more about those later.
Finding the best wifi router for your home can be complicated and overwhelming. If that’s the case for you, hopefully, this guide will help you learn and understand some home networking basics.
Finding the Right Router: Where to Start
This might get a little confusing but bear with me. You’ll want to have at least a little understanding of networking and what technologies are and how they’re supported by routers.
Newer routers available on the market support 802.11ac. It’s the letters that are important. These letters refer to the wifi generation and potential speed supported by the router itself. If you have any experience with wifi then you know that previous standards were a, b, g, and n.
The vast majority of routers are backward compatible, so if you have older devices, they should be supported. This includes your smartphone, laptops, and other media gadgets.
So, now that you know what 802.11ac is, you should know that this generation only supports 5GHz band (which we’ll discuss later). 802.11n supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. When you’re shopping for a router, instead of seeing these bands, you might see AC1900 or AC3000.
AC1900 is telling you the theoretical speed of the data transfer at the 2.4GHz level, while AC3000 does the same for the 5GHz band. This may be a little misleading since devices cannot be on both bands simultaneously. Additionally, there will be environmental factors that prevent you from getting anywhere near those speeds.
Also keep in mind that there are several links in the wifi chain, and each one has its limitations. So if you have a device that only supports 802.11n, it’s not going to go faster than what it can support. Even if your router can provide faster speeds, your device can’t go any faster. When selecting the best router for your home, keep that in mind.
Standard Router or Mesh Wifi?
In order to prepare your home network for the future, finding an 802.11ac router is your best bet. Having an 802.11ac router means you’ll have the latest technology, have the ability to support gigabit speeds, all while providing coverage of up to 2,500 square feet. If possible, you should put your router in a central spot in our home. This helps to minimize dead spots in your home while maximizing our coverage.
If for some reason a router isn’t fast enough or doesn’t provide the coverage you need, then you can expand your network via additional access points or through wifi extenders. Additionally, there are high-end mesh systems you can use. These systems have a dedicated connection used only to send data to your router.
A typical wifi mesh network can provide up to 5,000 square feet of coverage. Of course, this depends on the layout of your home and the number of nodes included with the system. These systems have a main piece of hardware which is wired to your modem along with one or more nodes that work together to provide blanket wifi coverage throughout your home.
Mesh networks are great for novice users who want to get things set up quickly and easily. However, keep in mind that if you go this route you may not get the customization options you typically see with a more traditional router.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember as you look for a router or mesh network is the cost. Just because it’s more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean its better. Mesh networks require multiple pieces of hardware, which can quickly add up based on the number of nodes you need for your home.
While the modem/router combo provided to you by your ISP will get the job done, more than likely you’re paying a monthly fee to rent it. You’ll be much better off asking if there are any restrictions on routers and purchasing your own. If you aren’t sure, ask yourself one question. Would you rather pay $100 for a router that will provide great performance or $10 each month for a piece of junk given to you by your ISP?
Your router will pay for itself in less than a year. Plus, you’ll hang on to it for at least a few years. Don’t forget that the majority of modems will offer you the same performance regardless of price, while your router is where you’ll see the biggest difference in quality.
Just like its name says, a wifi extender is an easy way to extend your home wifi network. All you need to do is put the extender 20 to 40 feet away from your router. It connects wirelessly to your router and broadcasts the signal.
Just remember that typical wifi extenders only produce about half the speed of your router. This is because the device has to both send and receive the signal on the same frequency. Be sure that you verify compatibility before you make a purchase. Some wifi extenders only support certain routers or wifi mesh systems.
Mesh vs. Extenders
Wifi extenders with a router and a mesh network are virtually the same with a few caveats. The units within a wifi mesh system are designed with the intention of working with one another. These devices are typically easy to use and don’t require much interaction on the part of the user.
This means you can move a node throughout the house and not experience an interruption. However, mesh wifi network are typically more expensive than buying a router and a few extenders.
Faster Isn’t Necessarily Better
Just because you go out and spend a ridiculous amount of money on the fastest router on the market doesn’t mean it’s the best one for your home. To begin with, router speeds are theoretical. This means you’d have to be in the perfect environment, void of anything that might cause interference.
The fact of the matter is, this just isn’t going to happen. You will never experience the speeds from an AC1900 router that the box claims. Remember, the connected devices scattered throughout your home contribute to loss of speed as well. Those older devices that sit on your network can really take a toll on it since they don’t completely support the newer technology.
More than likely you’ll experience closer to 50 percent of the speed advertised when transferring information within your network. If you are streaming or downloading content from the internet, you should experience the max speeds you’re paying for through your ISP.
We’ve discussed some of the different types of options for your home network, but what about features? Routers have many features and functionalities that you may or may not need Here are some that you might look for as you go about determining which router works best for your home.
2.4GHz and 5GHz bands
These two bands are the radio frequency which your wifi uses to transmit signals across your network. Simply put, they are the highways your devices use to connect to your wifi signal. Your 2.4GHz band can handle obstacles better, however, it is not as fast as the 5GHz band.
Older devices in your home rely on the 2.4GHz band, and can oftentimes cause interference. Both bands have their own strengths and weaknesses. What it really boils down to is the setup of your home. 802.11ac will only work on 5GHz, while 802.11n works with both 5GHz and 2.4GHz. The good news is that current routers include both bands.
Dual-band and tri-band
Dual-band routers transmit two signals: one on 2.4GHz and one on 5GHz. By comparison, a tri-band router broadcasts three: one on 2.4GHz and two on 5GHz. These bands all work at the same time to receive and transmit data from various devices throughout your home. This helps your network to run smoothly.
There are some wifi mesh systems that make use of the third band for backhaul purposes. This allows devices to communicate with one another without using up wireless bandwidth. Routers that are only dual-band don’t have a second 5GHz band, however, some automatically determine which band has the better signal and assign the device to that band.
The purpose of antennas can be a little confusing, so if you feel a little overwhelmed after reading this section, don’t worry. Just keep in mind that routers need antennas. Some are outside the router like you might see on an insect, while others are hidden within the housing of the router.
A 4×4 multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) router has four sending antennas and four receiving antennas. You may also run across 3×3 and 3×3 routers with 802.11ac support. Each antenna on your router wirelessly receives and sends data to and from the devices on your network. These devices also have antennas which send and receive data.
Sends multiple streams of data at the same time means better network reliability. So if one of the streams sending and receiving information is incomplete, then another stream can jump in with the missing data so your router doesn’t have to resend the entire package. The stream can then proceed to the next piece of information that needs to be sent to that device, or it can move on to a different unit.
Typically, the more streams you have the faster your network speed. However, just because you have more antennas doesn’t mean you’ll always get better performance. Your router needs antennas for both the 2.4GHz band and the 5GHz band. That means that there are often times when your router isn’t using all its antennas.
For example, simply saying that your router has four antennas might require further explanation. The router could theoretically use each antenna for both bands, or for only one of them. This depends on the hardware of the router.
Many mesh systems have internal antennas only, so you might not be able to determine how many there are. If you go with a router or system that supports 802.11ac, it will support up to eight antennas and eight streams on the 5GHz band. Currently you will not find support for more than 4×4 antennas offering four streams.
How you position your antennas can also have an impact on your wifi. If you set the antenna in a vertical position, the signal broadcasts horizontally. If you need better wifi signal upstairs or in the basement, position one of the antennas so that it lies horizontally. For better signal with a specific band (2.4GHz or 5GHz), make sure you’re moving the correct antenna.
Often you’ll find that the antenna or router will have a label telling you if the antenna only works for one band. If it’s not labeled, try to find the manual, or head over to the product website to make a determination. Sometimes dual-band antennas support both bands at the same time.
Lastly, when it comes to antennas, remember that the device connecting to the network factors into what your router does. For example, if the device you’re using only has one antenna, then the router will only be able to use one antenna to receive and send information. Similarly, if your laptop has three antennas, your 4×4 router can use three antennas to send and receive data.
Most routers nowadays come with only one USB port, however, you might find one that works for you that has two. A lot of the mesh systems you’ll find don’t have any sort of USB port. These USB ports can be used to connect various devices to your network.
For instance, you might hook up an external hard drive so you can back up your data. Or you could use it to stream media or photos, access your data when you’re not at home, or find files on another device on your network. USB ports can also charge your smartphone and connect to your printer. This allows you to print using any device connected to the network.
The majority of the router you’ll find on the market have ethernet ports for wired connections. Your ethernet port is the part of your wifi chain that provides internet to your home. Some high-end routers have up to eight ethernet ports, however, typically you’ll find four.
There are a few routers out there that have what’s called “Link Aggregation.” This gives you the ability to combine two single ports so you have a 2Gbps connection.
Router Security Features
Security is a major concern for any home network. This is even truer today as many homes have multiple smart devices connected to their wifi. Thankfully, a lot of the newer router models include additional software that helps to protect from ransomware, viruses, and malware that attack your network.
Some of these routers provide the additoinal security for free while others might require you to sign up for a paid subscription. Either way, it’s always a good idea to have an added layer of protection. Especially when it seems like there is always another data breach in someone’s network.
Router Network Prioritization
This feature is really nice to have because it gives you additoinal control over your network traffic. Using network prioritization lets you determine which types of data or devices should be first in line.
For example, if you’re downloading a large file while streaming the latest espisode of your favorite show, you can tell the network to make sure the stream gets the majority of the bandwidth. This helps to prevent buffering while you’re watching. Of course, these settings will vary based on your router type, so if it’s important to you, be sure to find a router with network prioritization.
A lot of routers on the market today provide an application you can download to your smartphone or tablet. This app helps you set up or manage your wifi network. They’re a little more limited than what you would find in a web-based user interface, but apps let you monitor devices on your network or make changes on the fly if need be.
Some apps will allow you to monitor and manage your wifi network even if you’re not at home. However, keep in mind that you’ll have to register your device with at least an email address if you want that type of control.
You can also be alerted via mobile app when a new device attaches to your network, or if you need to know when a device is using up a certain amount of bandwidth. Some newer mesh systems and routers work with smart assistants like Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Unfortunately, the voice controls are typically limited to turning wifi off or on.
What Works Best for You?
The simple truth is that only you can determine what type of router is best for your home. Do your research and determine which of the features listed here are the ones you need. When it’s time to purchase a router you’ll be able to make a smart, informed decision. If it can wait, do as much research about a router as you can before making your purchase.
Just remember that everyone has a different home and a different environment with which they must consider. It might not make sense for you to have a mesh network since you live in an apartment. Or maybe you need network prioritization since your children are always hogging the bandwidth. Either way, determine which features work best for you so you can find the best router for your home.
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