If you are one of those confused shoppers who had visited all the online stores out there and yet not able to make a decision after reading all the written description and those biased reviews complaining how pathetic their wireless experiences are, let me first comfort you, you’re not alone. There are thousands of router options available equipped with hundred different specifications and dozens of industry standards. As if that’s not enough, there are frequency bands, antenna types and speed levels to confuse you even more. It takes a geek to fathom all the internet jargon the seller used on the website to describe their product. In this article I will try to simplify things by eliminating some unnecessary explications that a normal everyday user would care less.
The performance of a wireless device differs from scenario to scenario. It’s because a router is highly sensitive to radio interference caused by other electronic devices in its vicinity e.g. phones, microwaves, television sets, or anything that uses radio waves for that matter. The strength of it’s signal (range) depends on stuff like thickness of surrounding walls and material used. That is why we see conflicting reviews on online stores written by people who have unique radio frequency environments.
Router’s Wi-Fi Standard (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac)
The first thing you’ll want to check is the Wi-Fi standard that the router supports. Older ones would be 802.11 ‘b’ or ‘g’ – but almost all new routers also support ‘n’. This standard – 802.11n – allows you to transfer data at 600Mbps (mega bits per second) theoretically, though some 802.11n routers come with top speeds of only 300Mbps (which translates to downloads of 37.5MBps or mega bytes per second).
The latest Wi-Fi standard is 802.11ac. It allows a transfer speed of 1.3Gbps. Of course, in practical scenarios the speed is reduced a lot. This means that 802.11ac allows you to connect more devices with high data transfer speed, thanks to better multi-antenna and MIMO (Multi Input Multi Output) support. MIMO allows multiple streams for a single connection for faster connections, particularly if you are doing multimedia activities.
Only a handful of phones and laptops support 802.11ac and the technology is more expensive at the moment than 802.11n routers. So which one should you go for? For now, the choice is simple – the ‘n’ standard is more than fast enough for your Internet connection in India, and it’s more likely to be supported by all your devices. As a bonus, you save money too.
It is a misconception to think that a wifi router can only connect to wireless devices. Yes, the main idea of a wifi router is to connect wirelessly, however these devices are generous enough to support non wireless electronics too. Thanks to the traditional RJ45 ports present on almost all the routers which enables a wired LAN connection between the router and your 5 year old PC or a not-so-smart television that has no wireless capabilities built in. Most manufacturers include an Ethernet cable along with the purchase. If not included you can always get one from a local or online store. Don’t worry about the crossover or straight through cable types as routers today are smart enough to detect the connection type automatically.
Router’s wireless frequency (2.4GHz or 5GHz)
Frequency of a router will decide how powerful your network would be for multiple devices. The two main standards are 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The key difference between these two is of interference and range.
Advantage of 5GHz frequency is that there will be less disturbance for each device, so they can attain maximum gain from the bandwidth.And the interference from the other Wi-Fi networks is also very less. This means that if you are connecting lots of devices, or if there are overlapping networks in the same area (like a multi-story apartment building) then a 5GHz network is the better choice.
Speed of the router
There are widely three options available, the most common being 150Mbps and the other two 300Mbps and 600Mbps. This is only the maximum speed a router can go upto and should not be considered standard at all times. The actual speeds depend on hardware used in that specific model. No matter how speed your router boasts it cannot surpass your internet speed and the plan that you are under currently. If you plan to use your router only to connect to internet a normal 150Mbps would do the job smoothly.
If you are considering streaming HD videos from your PC to home theater or from your mobile phone to laptop you might want to consider a 300Mbps router. But to stream the content to multiple devices simultaneously, or to stream 4K content, 600Mbps routers are for you.
Router’s antenna range
There is no straightforward method to measure the range of the WiFi router, since it depends on a wide variety of factors.
You always need to consider the environment you’re in. Also, your home or office’s architecture plays a major part in the range of a particular router. You can instead look at the dBi ratings of the antenna of the router, which will be included in the specifications.
In a small to medium sized apartment, 2-4dBi is sufficient. If you have many obstacles (walls, other household electronics like a fridge or microwave) between where you will be sitting and your router’s position, you will need a router with higher dBi ratings.
Walls play a large part in blocking the WiFi signals. Concrete walls and even thin wooden doors create a hindrance for the signals. A study says that the signal strength gets very weak after 3 to 4 walls. So if the router you got from the ISP isn’t up to the mark, you must look at this dBi specification, and go with a higher number.
If you have jumped to this section directly after reading the first paragraph, chances are you visited this page hoping that I would suggest a few wifi router options to choose from and make your life easier. So, here are some devices that I think are reliable in terms of signal range and compatibility with almost all wireless devices (mobile, laptop, tablet, TV, gaming console, etc.) at an average home.
TP-LINK TL-WR841N 300Mbps Wireless N Router – (for excellent range, two 5dBi antennas)
TP-Link TL-WR720N 150Mbps Wireless Router – (for the average user, good range)
D-Link Dir-600M 150Mbps Broadband Wireless Router – (for connecting 2-3 devices, good range)
Tenda F3 300Mbps Wi-Fi Router – (for low power consumption, three 5dBi antennas)
Netgear WNR614 N300 Wi-Fi Router – (for the brand specific guys, excellent throughput)
Tenda N301 Wireless N300 Easy Setup Router – (for a cheaper option, decent range)
But before you buy any product please read their respective warranty description as it varies from brand to brand. The average warranty period to expect from a decent brand is 2 years or more. Some huge manufacturers like Cisco provide only 1 year warranty across some range of products and they are usually expensive too. The reason I’m emphasizing on warranty so much is that it is hard to find repair services for wifi routers. Most of the times the manufacturer would replace the product whenever a problem is encountered of course after certain firmware and hardware diagnosis. If you are unlucky and faced problems after your warranty period, I’m sorry to say, it’s time to look for a new one. So, be wise and make the right purchase.