Choosing a Wireless Router
These days, no one expects to be tied to their desk when they need to get online. A wireless network makes it possible to connect to the internet from anywhere in your home. The first piece of equipment you need to set up a home network is a router. Many companies -- Linksys, D-Link, and Netgear among them -- make affordable wireless routers that sell for less than $60. Our research found a number of cheap wireless routers that are adequate for most home networks.
Pricey vs. Cheap Wireless Routers.Inexpensive wireless routers are basic devices. They may not be the speediest or most potent, but online reviews indicate that the best budget models are up to the demands of casual users. That is, they can keep you connected from most anywhere in your home and move data along at a fairly rapid clip. If you plan to use your network primarily for web surfing, email, and connecting an ebook reader or iPad, a slower and cheaper router will work just fine.
Dual-Band Routers.Some top budget routers have extra features that used to be confined to pricier models, including dual-band capability. Whereas a single-band router sends wireless signals on the 2.4 GHz frequency band, a dual-band router can also use the 5 GHz band. Other electronic devices, such as cordless phones and wireless baby monitors -- not to mention other Wi-Fi networks -- share the 2.4 GHz frequency and can interfere with a router's performance. For gamers and those who stream a lot of video or have a lot of close neighbors, the 5 GHz band is preferable.
Wireless Standards.All routers support a specific wireless standard or standards. This refers to a set of specifications created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, that governs how the router operates. The most common wireless standards for home networks over the years have been 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac. Routers, like many devices, are backward compatible to previous standards, so older devices can be used with a newer router. Although the 802.11g standard is still around and 802.11ac now claims the bulk of review sites' attention, 802.11n is the most popular, and many wireless-N routers are very cheap.
All our picks support the wireless-N standard, which can, in theory, transfer data as fast as 600 megabits per second. The newest standard, 802.11ac, is very fast -- up to 1,300 Mbps -- but also very expensive. The cheapest AC routers have slower transfer speeds (a.k.a. throughput) and may not outperform wireless-N routers.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Wireless Router Reviews: What We Considered
We consulted a variety of sources when conducting our research, including wireless router reviews by experts on sites such as PC Mag and CNET. These authorities are familiar with the vast selection of routers on the market, have conducted hands-on testing, and are aware of the capabilities of the best affordable routers. We also took note of comments by consumers who had purchased routers on sites such as Newegg and experienced the products firsthand. Experts favor routers that are fast and reliable and give extra points to models with additional features. Meanwhile, home users want a routers that doesn't drop connections and is easy to set up and manage. Our top choices take into consideration both expert and consumer preferences.
Speed.Wireless-N is available with a variety of theoretical maximum speeds, commonly 300 Mbps (labeled N300) and 600 Mbps (N600). "Real world" speeds are quite a bit slower in expert testing, however -- typically about 40 Mbps to 100 Mbps. Even N600 routers are not terribly fast at the budget end of the market. Still, wireless router reviews confirm that those speeds are more than fast enough for basic home networking, and the models we recommend meet the needs of typical internet users, including video streaming.
Setup and Management.In most cases, setting up a wireless router is a no-hassle affair. Many routers use a wizard to assist with setup and a simple interface to manage it. Some routers also include a Wi-Fi Protected Setup button that lets users quickly and easily connect a WPS-compatible device, such as a printer, to the network. This is a common feature among modern routers. Some routers stand out from the crowd with apps for monitoring router security and network traffic remotely.
Range and Reliability.In an ideal world, a wireless router would be able to maintain a constant connection with a laptop, game system, or phone from every corner of a home at maximum signal strength. Unfortunately this is unrealistic. Even dual-band-router reviews indicate that the extra antenna doesn't always perform as well as users might like. Furthermore, the farther away the device gets from the router, the weaker the signal becomes, which can reduce the speed of the connection significantly.
A wireless router's range, which typically falls between 150 and 300 feet, is only partly dependent on the router itself. The environment in which a network operates has a big impact on range -- the more walls, floors, and ceilings the signals must pass through, the shorter the effective range of the router. Therefore, expert testing under controlled conditions provides the most valuable feedback. With a dual-band router, keep in mind that the 5 GHz band has shorter range than the 2.4 GHz band.
A router's reliability is just as important as its range, if not more so. Most routers can maintain a strong signal within 40 or 50 feet, and dropped connections should be a rarity. The routers we picked are not inclined to drop connections, according to the expert and user reviews we read. However, some router reviews reveal that this can be a problem for other models.
Ports.Wired connections don't have the range issues or signal strength problems that can occur with wireless connections, so you may want to connect a desktop PC, for example, via Ethernet. Any affordable router for home use should have at least four LAN ports on the back for connecting devices to a network with an Ethernet cable.
Most budget routers feature 10/100 ports, which means they can send data at 10 Mbps and up to 100 Mbps (theoretically). More expensive routers have ports that can transfer data through a wired connection at a theoretical maximum of 1,000 Mbps. This is also known as a gigabit connection and is listed in the specifications as 10/100/1000.
It's a bonus to have a port for attaching a USB device to the network -- an external hard drive, for example, as a convenient way to give all your PCs and mobile devices easy access to a backup drive.
Security Features.The security of a wireless router is critical, especially for apartment dwellers. If you leave your network unprotected, any nosy neighbor within range can tap into your wireless network and peek at your private files.
Budget routers, including our picks, almost always support two security standards: Wi-Fi Protected Access and Wired Equivalent Privacy. WEP is an older protocol, so WPA is preferred. The budget routers on our list support WPA and WPA2, a newer version of the WPA standard. Your router should be set up to use WPA2, the recommended security protocol, automatically.
Most routers also include a firewall, which monitors data as it flows through an internet connection. Firewalls block attacks from malicious hackers and keep unwanted data from passing through to your PC. All the routers on our list have a built-in firewall. You can also use a software firewall to increase security.