A lot of technical devices offer a connection between your personal gadgets such as phones, laptops, etc, and the internet. The most common ones you might’ve heard of are probably routers and modems.
They basically control your incoming and outgoing network traffic, give you access to the internet, and also make sure to connect you to all your devices. Furthermore, a router protects your personal information from cyberattacks and fraudsters. Therefore, having a reliable router at your home or workplace is quintessential.
But for those of you who are not “tech geeks,” buying or renting your first router can be an arduous task. Hence, to make your life a tad bit simpler for you, I’ve prepared this guide, it will indubitably all your questions about wireless routers.
- What is a Wireless Router?
- Wireless Routers vs Cable Modems
- Types of Routers
- Things To Consider When Purchasing a Wireless Router
- 1. The Primary Usage Requirements
- 2. The Speed
- 3. The Design
- 4. The Setup Process
- 5. The RAM (Yes, Routers come with a RAM)
- 6. Processor
- 7. Security
- 8. PORTS
- 9. Customization and App Support
- 10. Customer Support
- 11. The Budget
- The Technical Factors
- The Wireless Communication Standards
- Channels and Channel Width
- Antennas and Spatial Streams
- MU-MIMO Technology: Why Do You Need It?
- Explicit Beamforming vs Implicit Beamforming
- How can I tell if a Wireless router is BAD?
- WiFi Extenders: Do You Need it?
- Frequently Asked Questions
What is a Wireless Router?
A Wireless router is a networking equipment that establishes a connection between your local home networks such as your computer or tablet and the internet. In technical terms, it is a virtual or hardware device that transmits information between computer networks in the form of data packets.
In a layman’s terms, it is a device that allows WiFi based devices to connect to the internet or form a local network.
As the name suggests, a router provides different “routes” for the data packets to travel while avoiding traffic. It basically, examines the Internet Protocol address (IP address) of the destination of a particular data packet. It then formulates a route for the data packet to reach its desired destination and pushes it forward accordingly.
Routers are usually present at each point-of-presence. The point-of-presence is an access point on the network from one place to the rest of the internet. As surprising as it may sound, hundreds of routers can be used to transmit a single data packet to its final destination.
Traditional or physical routers run on closed-source or proprietary software. The virtual routers, however, run on disposable commodity servers. They are often combined with virtual network functions (virtual tasks formerly performed by proprietary hardware) such as firewall packet filtering, load balancing and wide area network (WAN) optimization.
A router typically examines the IP address of the received data packet. It then compares it against a routing table (table with a list of routes to a network destination) and finds the best route available for the data packets next hop (trip taken by the data packet to reach its destination).
Other than analyzing, receiving and moving the incoming data packets on their designated routes, a router can also convert the incoming data packet into another network interface. Moreover, it’s your device’s first-line defenses against cyber threats and exasperating WiFi dead spots. Want to know how? It can perform network address translation (NAT) and protect globally valid IP addresses which increases online security.
With a consummate router, you’ll be able to enjoy high internet speed and immunity from cyber threats at the comfort of your home. You don’t have to be a tech genius to pick out the right kind of router for your needs. All you need to understand is what you need the router for and how it works.
Wireless Routers vs Cable Modems
If you have a computer or a laptop at home, then chances are you’ve heard of the terms “modem” and “router,” but you might not have paid attention to it.
A router basically connects your device to your local network provider via different routes. Whereas, a modem connects your local network provider to the internet. Therefore, connecting your device ultimately to an internet connection.
A modem usually connects directly to your device or a router using an Ethernet cable (cable connecting your device to the local area network). So, when you turn on the WiFi connection in your device, you’re actually connecting your device to a router.
Although you may think that the knowledge of knowing about routers and modems is not of any particular importance to you, it helps you become a better consumer. Moreover, you can save a lot of money if you buy the devices yourself instead of a monthly subscription from your local network provider.
Types of Routers
A router is responsible for establishing different connection routes between your device and your local network provider. So, if you’re looking to buy your own router or are just curious to know more about them, it’s essential for you to know about the different kinds available in the market.
1. Single-Band Router
As the name suggests, a single-band router utilizes only the 2.4GHz band to establish connections. Since it uses a single band, the device has only 3 non-overlapping transmission channels. This renders the connection vulnerable to interference from other devices at homes such as smartphones, microwave ovens, laptops, Bluetooth devices, cameras, television, and much more.
Moreover, the situation can become worse in areas where interference from different gadgets can combine together. These areas could be big cities, apartments, office spaces, metro stations, etc. All such interferences can bog down your router and cause the internet speed to become slow.
Most of the single band device operate on Wireless-N standard which has a maximum data rate of 900 Mbps. Although, it’s a pretty decent speed, it isn’t recommended to use one if you’re in an area that has multiple internet connections that could interfere your signal.
Think of it as, as a highway with just one lane? There are high chances of traffic congestion, right? But, if the same highway has multiple lanes, then wouldn’t the flow of traffic be smooth? The same goes for routers. A cluttered 2.4GHz band will bog down your Internet speed and leave you feeling annoyed.
- Single-band routers are ubiquitous and can connect to a variety of wireless devices.
- They are easy on the pocket.
- Due to their low frequency, they can travel a longer range and can penetrate surfaces better.
- Due to a large number of compatible devices, it suffers from interference.
- Single-band routers may not support some newer devices.
- Slower speed as compared to dual and tri-band routers.
2. Dual-Band Router
A dual-band utilizes both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. Therefore it is more flexible and better performing as compared to a single-band router. When the 2.4GHz band can become quite cluttered due to the interference from various household devices, the 5GHz frequency band homes to the rescue.
As the 5GHz frequency is relatively newer, old devices are not much compatible with it. Therefore, the interference seen in the 5GHz frequency band is much lesser than the 2.4GHz band. This allows you to experience a faster and more stable WiFi connection throughout your home. Dual-band routers operate on Wireless-AC standard and can support a data rate of 5300 Mbps.
Are you worried if it can support your old Wireless-N devices? If yes, then count your lucky stars because the dual-band routers offer backward-compatibility, thereby, supporting the old devices.
- Supports twice the bandwidth supported by single-game routers.
- Less interference due to the 5GHz band.
- Two separate WiFi networks operate simultaneously for greater speed.
- Ability to support the latest tech devices.
- More expensive than single-band routers.
- The 5GHz frequency band has a shorter range than the 2.4GHz frequency band.
3. Tri-Band Routers
Tri-band routers can broadcast 3 different signals by utilizing one 2.4GHz frequency band and 2 5GHz frequency bands. You might be prompted to think as to why you require two 5GHz frequency bands right? Well, it’s because your WiFi network gets distributed among various devices at your home. Therefore, to avoid congestion, tri-band routers offer two 5GHz frequency bands.
It’s the latest and the greatest router tech. A point to be noted here is that a tri-band router does not increase the WiFi speed of a single device, but allows additional devices to work at a higher speed. A tri-band router offers you 600 Mbps data speed on 2.4GHz band and 1300 Mbps data speed on each of the 5GHz frequency bands.
Therefore, it will distribute the WiFi speed on multiple devices and each device will get more speed than it normally would.
- Thrice as much bandwidth as a single-router.
- Less interference due to two 5GHz frequency bands.
- More expensive than single and dual-band routers.
- Significantly lesser range due to high frequency.
4. Mesh Routers
If you have a large living space or a multi-story bungalow then you must be used to encountering WiFi dead zones in your home. And to be honest, they leave us feeling quite irritated. So, to help you deal with this problem, let me introduce you to mesh routers.
Traditional routers usually have single access points due to which you encounter several dead zones. But mesh routers have several access points due to which broadcasting WiFi networks become easy.
One of the access points connects the mesh router to a modem, and the other access points connect the mesh router to different satellites. Satellites capture the router’s signal and then rebroadcast it. Moreover, a lot of stand-alone routers can be connected to mesh routers for seamless connectivity (This setup is highly suitable for large houses and offices.)
Suggested Read: Best Wi-Fi 6 Based Mesh Systems
- Overcomes the problem of WiFi dead zones.
- Offers better network security.
- Offers better streamlined connections for gaming and video streaming.
- Mesh routers also offer easy network management.
- More pieces of equipment.
- Significantly more expensive than single, dual and tri-band routers.
- Can be a waste of resources in small living spaces.
Things To Consider When Purchasing a Wireless Router
If you’re someone who’s looking to buy their first router or is planning to upgrade from an old one, then this section of my article will help you find out the important factors/features/specifications to consider when buying one. Not everyone is networking expect, that’s why after spending huge time researching many aspects, I’ve finally listed out the important factors for you.
1. The Primary Usage Requirements
If you’re going to buy a router, then you must keep in mind the purpose you’re going to use it for. The router specifications change according to your usage needs such as gaming, professional or at home usage. Let’s talk about these requirements individually.
A typical router doesn’t normally care about the different types of traffic. This is where the gaming routers come in. The manufacturers want you to buy a gaming router because of its Quality of Service (QoS) feature. Quality of Service sends your incoming data packets exactly where they need to go after sorting the traffic accordingly.
It prioritizes your incoming gaming data and minimizes data packet loss for gaming connections. The Qualcomm StreamBoost service tool powered by the powerful Qualcomm chipset is one of the most common Quality of Service tools.
All in all, if you want gaming to be your priority, then buying a gaming router will absolutely provide a new dynamic to your gaming experience.
You might be under the impression that the similarities between business and at home routers are vast, and the differences are small.
But when it comes to networking, you can’t be further from the truth if you think so.
When it comes to business, companies and professionals think of buying devices that can stand the test of time. Therefore, a business class router will last long. Moreover, these routers come with a business warranty for extended coverage.
Also, a business router is designed to handle extreme workloads all day long. It has better technology, faster GPU and RAM than a regular router. Furthermore, all these can be adjusted to your business accordingly.
If you’re someone who needs just a regular WiFi connection at home, then regular routers are the best pick for you.
Your router will be wireless and it will be connected to a modem to provide internet connection. It will provide wireless access to your devices.
It can also provide a wired internet connection to your computer with the help of an Ethernet cable.
Most regular home routers feature USB ports for sharing purposes. It has a basic firewall and configuration options.
Moreover, regular home routers don’t burn a hole in your pocket and are easy to set up.
2. The Speed
If you’ve seen the packaging of a typical router, you must have noticed some labels such as AC1200, AC3200, AC1750, etc. The “AC” here informs you about the Wi-Fi standard and the number tells you about the speed. For example, a router with a link-up rate of 1300Mbps on the 5GHz band and 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz is known as the AC1750 router.
Theoretically speaking, higher Mbps guarantees higher speed. But that doesn’t happen in real life due to the dependency of speed on various factors. But first, let’s talk about how speed is actually measured in routers.
How is Speed Measured?
Your router speed or data connection speed is the speed at which data packets are transferred between your device and the internet. It is sometimes also referred to as ‘bandwidth.’ There are two types of connection speed:
- Upload speed is the speed at which you send a data packet from your device to the internet.
- Download speed is the speed at which you receive a data packet from the internet to your device.
The speed of your router is measured in megabits per second or Mbps. It can also be measured in kilobits per second or Kbps. Sometimes, Mbps is denoted as Mb and Kbps as Kb. 1 Mbps is equivalent to 1 million bits per second and 1 Kbps is equivalent to 1,000 bits per second. Bits are just tiny units of data packets.
So, when I say 1 Mbps is equivalent to 1 million bits, I mean that 1 Mbps has a data connection speed of 1 million data packets per second. Theoretically, the higher the number of Mbps, the higher will be your online speed.
- The maximum rate at which your device receives data packets from the internet is known as downstream bandwidth.
- The maximum rate at which your device can send data packets to the internet is known as upstream bandwidth.
Usually, the downstream bandwidth of your router will be higher than the upstream bandwidth because you tend to download more data packets from the internet rather than uploading.
The MBPS vs Mbps Confusion
Another point which creates confusion among the users is the difference between MBps and Mbps. MBps denotes megabytes per second and mbps denote megabits per second. Your internet speed is usually measured in ‘mbps’ because data packets are known as ‘bits.’ MBps or megabytes per second denotes the size of the file you’re uploading or downloading per second over a stable internet connection.
So, when your device displays a speed of suppose 5 MBps, it means that you’re uploading or downloading a file of 5MB per second. Furthermore, 1 Megabyte is equivalent to 8 Megabits. Similarly, when I talk about the difference between GBps and gbps, GBps refers to gigabytes per second and gbps refers to gigabits per second. 1 Gigabyte is equivalent to 8 Gigabits.
Factors that affect the Router Speed
In terms of theory, your data connection speed should increase accordingly with the increase in the number of Mbps. But that doesn’t happen in real life. This is because the speed of your router is governed by various factors. Check it out!
1. Device Hardware
The speed of your internet connection highly depends on your hardware devices. Generally speaking, an Ethernet connection will provide more stable internet connectivity to you than your WiFi. It is because your network is generally shared by a lot of devices connected to the router. So, this can reduce your internet speed. Moreover, it also depends on the hardware such as the processor of your device.
Your internet speed can be affected by the distance between your router and your wireless adapter. Your router should be located centrally without any obstruction from metal objects or any other gadgets.
Theoretically, it is said that routers operating on 2.4GHz frequency band have a range of 150 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors. 5GHz frequency band routers have a range of about 50 feet indoors and 100 feet outdoors. Usually, a higher range means lesser chances of experiencing WiFi dead zones. However, you’ll have to compromise on speed for it.
Therefore, I recommend you to go for Mesh routers. Their high cost is tempered by its ability to clear WiFi dead zones and provide high-speed internet connection.
But if you’re in a pinch, then buying an affordable router and a couple of power-line adapters are good for the jazz. Power-line adapters use the electrical wiring in your home to extend your connectivity to the dead zones.
However, before you buy one, do check about the speed limitation of a power-line adapter.
3. ISP Plan
The ISP choice is probably the most important factor in determining your internet connectivity. When looking for an ISP plan try to notice the ‘bandwidth’ or the volume of information per unit time that the router can handle. For example, a bandwidth of 1000Mbps indicates your transmission medium can sustain 1,000 megabits of data packets per second.
Also, you need to see the type of connection your ISP is providing. This has a great influence on the speed of your internet connection. For example, even though satellite internet has a high download speed, it’s notorious for being slow due to its high latency period of more than 400 milliseconds. The latency on 4G LTE connection is about 100 milliseconds and that on fiber connections is only 20 milliseconds.
Furthermore, it’s recommended that you go for reliable ISP’s which provide a Service Level Agreement (SLA). SLA is a service contract that states how reliable your internet connection is. Today or tomorrow, you’re likely to encounter a problem in your router. And if that happens, it’s best to have an ISP Plan with a Service Level Agreement in place.
3. The Design
Your router is designed to perform two functions: process routable protocols and use the routing table to formulate the best path for the data packet.
The Router protocol works just like a post office which assembles the data into a packet and then delivers it to its designated address. However, just like a responsible post-office customer, your IP must provide the data with a target and a source address.
And just like any other delivery packet, data packets too have postage on them. In the IP world, this postage is known as TTL (Time-To-Live) which prevents the data packet from traversing in the network galaxy forever. If the router cannot find the target address of the data packet, then the router discards it.
When it comes to the design of a router, it looks very similar to that of a PC. The router has a CPU, customized chipset, interface, ports, memory but lacks a hard drive. A lot of routers have NVRAM (NonVolatile Random Access Memory) which makes sure that the router remembers the essential information even after a power cut.
Routers do not have graphic cards but have slots to handle networking interfaces such as ATM, SONET/SDH (Synchronous Optical NETwork/Synchronous Digital Hierarchy), ATM and other WAN links. Every router also has a minimum DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory) and flash memory but you can extend it later on as you desire.
Routers employ another type of memory aka ROM (Read-only memory) to hold the bootstrap program. This program helps your router to reboot in case there is an emergency situation that cannot even NVRAM cannot handle.
4. The Setup Process
Buying a new router and setting it up isn’t just a matter of taking your router out of the box and plugging it into the switch. Establishing a network connection in your home isn’t that easy but it shouldn’t be too daunting either. Look for routers that come with clearly labeled and color codes ports so that even non-technical users can set it up.
Also, search for routers that come in with a basic setup up so that you don’t have to spend any time worrying about it. Furthermore, the latest routers such as mesh routers are albeit a little expensive but are extremely easy to setup and offer a fast and seamless Wi-Fi network.
5. The RAM (Yes, Routers come with a RAM)
RAM is a type of memory system that loses its information as soon as there’s a power cut in your area. It is used to hold the running Cisco IOS Operating System, the Running Configuration File, ARP (Address Resolution Protocol) cache, routing tables, active program and operating system instructions and buffered IP Packets.
On a router, RAM adds more space to prevent interferences and network congestion to improve throughput. Throughput measures the average rate at which the data packets are delivered to their designated address. It basically defines user experience and is a key to uninterrupted service and smooth data transfer.
Purchasing a router with a large RAM space allows you to grow and expand your network seamlessly. This will help you deal with bandwidth-hogging applications that you encounter down the line. Try to choose routers with at least a flash memory of 8 GB and 256 MB RAM for more throughput and capable of providing business usage in the future.
Before you purchase a router, please make sure you learn about the kind of CPU processor it operates on. Whether it’s single-core, dual-core or quad-core. Also, note the clock in the frequency of the CPU used. The CPU processor of a router tracks the data packets and makes sure it’s delivered at the right address.
You need a router with a fast CPU processor because it does the work of internet routing, DNS communications and tracks the data on the private network.
If you’re looking for a fast network that can handle interferences and network congestion, then you need to stop buying single-core CPU routers. I recommend you to invest in a dual-core router which clocks in at a frequency of at least 1.2GHz. According to a post, high performance CPU shall provide better performance.
A security mishap in your home or office network can expose you to countless cyber-attacks and put your personal information at risk. But lucky for you, routers provide various tools to secure your network and also allow you to configure them according to your needs.
7.1. Secure Network
In your homes and offices, you tend to use WiFi networks that has access to various devices. Due to this wireless connectivity, your network becomes available to any device in the network range.
But routers come to your rescue and allow you to secure your network with a passphrase. Therefore, only those devices will be able to connect to your wireless network which has access to the passphrase.
7.2. Restricted Access
Even after a dedicated passphrase, your wireless network is still susceptible to various cyber-attacks. Therefore, your router allows you to specify your devices in it which are allowed to access your WiFi. Each device has a specific MAC address which can be put in the router to restrict access to other devices.
Most routers come with a hardware firewall that acts as a security blanket between the internet and your device. This protects your device from receiving any information requests from the internet.
7.4. Access Policy
Some hackers do not require access to your network to get information from your devices. Such hackers can enter malicious codes into your computer from the websites that your view.
Therefore, always go for routers that offer internet access policy. This allows you to block access to specific websites and ports which can damage your devices.
If you’ve ever noticed your router, then you would’ve seen that it has an assortment of ports. And if you want to learn more about networking, then you must know about the basic ports on the router.
8.1. LAN Port
Your router usually has four Local Area Network (LAN) ports at the back. These are also known as RJ45 ports or Ethernet ports. Four LAN ports means that your router can host four wired networking devices.
If you require more wired networking options, then you’ll have to resort to a hub that allows you to add more LAN ports to your router. There are two types of speed standards for LAN ports: Ethernet aka Fast Ethernet which has a speed of 100 Mbps and the Gigabit Ethernet which has a speed of 1Gbps.
Note: Your basic home and small business router can connect up to 250 networking devices.
8.2. WAN Port
Wide-Area Network (WAN) port or internet port is usually located at the back of your router. Generally speaking, a basic home router has just one WAN port separated from LAN ports. But the business routers can have upto two WAN ports.
A WAN port is often separated from the LAN port by a different color. It allows the router to connect to the internet and share that connection with other Ethernet-ready devices.
8.3. USB Ports
Nowadays a lot of routers offer USB Ports at the back and hence, are also known as USB wireless routers. With the USB wireless routers, your hard drive will always be in the cloud, and you can directly use it as your media server. This way you can create your personal USB hotspot.
Moreover, you can enable USB drive sharing via the Router URL configuration. This enables File sharing. You can even connect your printer to your router via the USB port.
Although not commonly used, a few routers also allow you to connect internet dongles in their USB ports. It is recommended that your router have at least one USB 3.0 port.
9. Customization and App Support
To be honest, everyone is dependent on the internet for their daily operations as well as entertainment. It won’t be wrong to say that you’d be pretty lost without it.
But there are times you may encounter slow internet speed and a spotty connection due to a large number of devices using the WiFi network. Until a few years back you had to login to the router’s IP using a computer and remove the devices that took up the bandwidth, but majority of the WiFi routers come with smartphone apps (Android/iOS) to manage your network, control speeds, allocate bandwidth, adding parental controls, testing your internet speeds, etc.
But bear this in mind, not all router brands support app control and customization. Router brands such as Netgear, Velop systems, Linksys smart WiFi routers, ASUS, TP-Link router/xDSL Router/Range extender and DS router. So, try to purchase a router that allows customization and app support for a better user experience.
10. Customer Support
If you’re purchasing a router from an ISP then make sure you have a Service Level Agreement (SLA) in place. This is a formalized agreement which both parties agree upon. It specifies the detailed service and maintenance that a service provider agrees to offer a client.
Therefore, having it assures you that you’ll have all the support you need to fix your router problems (if and when) you encounter them in the future.
11. The Budget
Usually, routers can cost between $15 to $400 on average. That being said, the lifespan of technology is trivial due to its fast-paced advancements. That’s why you must always go for a router that serves your purpose the best and not straight away go for the high-end ones.
Moreover, networking hardware is leaving behind the ISP’s in terms of advancements, hence, medium-range routers work the best for an average user and even some small businesses. The price of the router depends on its type.
Usually, mesh routers and tri-band routers are more on the expensive side, and single and dual-band routers are budget-friendly.
The Technical Factors
The Frequency Band
The WiFi frequency bands are a range of radio wave frequencies which is used to transfer data packets in the wireless spectrum. These frequency bands can be further dismantled into wireless channels.
Also, the higher the frequency of your Wi-Fi band, the lower its range is going to be. There are two frequency bands designated to carry data packets: 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. Furthermore, please take a note that you do not require a license to use frequency bands.
2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands
There are 4 main differences between the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency band. I’ve explained them below.
- Wi-Fi Network Coverage
Low range frequencies can transmit data packets to a larger distance and can also penetrate solid objects more easily. This is why the 2.4GHz frequency band can be better carried throughout your home as compared to the 5GHz frequency band.
- Cross-Channel Interference
The WiFi channels are a major differentiating point between the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. The 2.4GHz frequency band has 11 WiFi channels out of which 3 are non-overlapping. In the case of the 5GHz frequency band, there are 45 channels, out of which 24 are non-overlapping.
Overlapping channels lead to network interference and hence, the 5GHz frequency band is better to use. Moreover, the 2.4GHz frequency band receives several interferences from household devices as well.
- Network Speeds
The 2.4GHz frequency band can support the data connection speed of 450-600Mbps while the 5GHz frequency band can support a speed of up to 1300Mbps. The short-range of the 5GHz frequency band is tempered by its high WiFi speed. However, your speed will ultimately depend upon the kind of router you use and your ISP speed.
- Device Compatibility
All devices developed after 2010, are supported by both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency band. However, devices born before 2010, are only compatible with the 2.4GHz frequency band.
The Wireless Communication Standards
Most modern-day routers can support a plethora of WiFi communication standards. These standards determine the internet connection speed between your router and your wireless device. Below are a few common standards that are used in modern routers.
This is a standard rate WiFi connection that supports a data connection speed of 11Mbps. It operates on the unregulated radio frequency band of 2.4GHz which is cost-effective and provides a good signal range.
However, it offers the lowest speed and encounters countless interferences due to household devices. This standard is usually found on some legacy devices.
The 802.11a came after the 802.11b. Routers with this wireless standard supports a data connection speed of up to 54Mbps and operates on the regulated 5GHz frequency band.
Due to a higher frequency, it offers a lower range but a higher speed. Therefore, it is not able to penetrate walls and metal objects effectively.
The 802.11g wireless standard provides you with the best of both worlds. It supports a bandwidth of 54Mbps like the 802.11a and operates on the unregulated 2.4GHz frequency band like the 802.11b WiFi standard.
Moreover, it is back-compatible with the 802.11b devices. It implies that 802.11g access points will work with the 802.11b adapters and vice versa.
The 802.11g wireless standard offers high speed with a good range but can encounter interferences easily from household devices. It is more expensive than the old 802.11b and is available on most simple devices.
The 802.11n is also known as the Wireless N standard. It operates on the Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) technology which can support a bandwidth of up to 300Mbps. Due to its increased intensity, it offers a better range and is back compatible with 802.11b/g.
It also offers a more robust resistance from outside disturbances. The only downside to it is its cost. This WiFi standard was introduced in 2007 and is still the most popular one at the moment.
802.11ac is the latest technological invention in the world of WiFi standards. It can simultaneously support both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands using the MIMO/MU-MIMO technology. It supports bandwidth of up to 1300Mbps on the 5GHz frequency band and a bandwidth of up to 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz frequency band.
Moreover, it offers back compatibility with 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi standard. There are 2 generations of 802.11ac routers in the tech market: Wave 1 supporting the MIMO technology and Wave 2 supporting the MU-MIMO (Multiple User MIMO). However, this wireless standard is quite expensive and all devices do not support it.
The Difference Between 802.11n and 802.11ac
- The 802.11ac offers a 3x higher data connection speed than the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard.
- The real-time data connection speed of 802.11ac is 720Mbps while that of 802.11n is 240Mbps.
- The 802.11ac can support up to eight antennas running at 400Mbps each. Whereas the 802.11n can support a maximum of four antennas running at 100Mbps each.
- The 802.11ac uses only the 5GHz frequency bands and offers less signal interference and greater speed. However, due to the higher frequency, it provides a lower signal range. Whereas, the 802.11n uses both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. However, it encounters more interference and provides a lower speed but a better range.
- Another key difference is that 802.11ac uses ‘beamforming’ and hence, is able to detect where the devices are located. It then intensifies the signal in the direction of devices accordingly.
Channels and Channel Width
I am sure you must’ve encountered the problem of slow WiFi speed at least once in your life. This could be due to high interference from your household devices or cross-channel interference. Therefore, for choosing the best router for your needs, you must learn about wireless channels and the channel width.
WiFi channels are smaller units of the frequency bands on which your router operates. Their job is to send and receive information data packets. Depending on the frequency band on which your router operates, you have the following choices of data channels:
- The 2.4GHz frequency band offers 11 channels out of which only three (1,6,11) are non-overlapping.
- The 5GHz frequency band offers 45 channels out of which only 24 are non-overlapping.
The non-overlapping WiFi channels are better to use because they are free of any co-channel and adjacent channel interferences.
So, in a frequency band of 2.4GHz or 5GHz, each wireless channel is allotted bandwidth of 20MHz. This is known as WiFi channel bandwidth. For an extended bandwidth, the Wi-Fi channels can club together as well.
The width of a WiFi channel determines how much data and at what speed can be delivered to its desired location by the router. Naturally, larger channel bandwidths offer a larger data transfer at a higher speed.
For a frequency band of 2.4GHz, it is recommended to use a narrow WiFi channel width of 20MHz. It is because this frequency band consists of various overlapping wireless channels and clubbing several of these overlapping channels together could lead to higher interference.
For a frequency band of 5GHz, it is recommended to use a WiFi channel width of 20MHz, 40MHz or 80MHz. Due to the availability of a large number of non-overlapping WiFi channels, it can support a larger wireless channel width without much interference.
Antennas and Spatial Streams
Antennas are modulators that convert radio waves into electrical energy. Wireless routers employ four different kinds of antennas on the basis of transmission patterns. Take a look!
The basic type of wireless router antenna is further divided into two major categories:
- Omnidirectional Antenna: This antenna covers in a horizontal pattern, a range of 360-degrees. It transmits the radio waves generated by the router in different degrees and directions. It is a vertically polarized antenna that is best suited for houses and offices using Wi-Fi in the entire living space.
- Directional Antenna: This antenna forms a major component of the majority of the routers. A directional antenna transmits the radio waves generated by the router in a particular direction. Therefore, the signal is strong in some directions and weak in others. These antenna routers are best suited for using Wi-Fi on a particular side of the living space.
The range extender is a special kind of directional antenna that can be used together with the omnidirectional and directional antenna. It amplifies the signal in a particular direction and spreads it in the entire building. Whenever a signal hits the range extender, it amplifies the signal and bounces it back to up to three miles.
WiFi spatial streaming is also known as multiplexing and is often abbreviated as SM or SMX. It is a wireless transmission technique employed by MIMO based wireless routers to transmit independently coded streams or data signals from each antenna.
For Wireless N standard there are three kinds of configurations available: single-stream (1×1) with a cap speed of 150Mbps, dual-stream (2×2) with a cap speed of 300Mbps, and three-stream (3×3) with a cap speed of 450Mbps.
Due to these various configurations, three kinds of dual-band routers are available: N600 (two bands with a cap speed of 300Mbps each), N750 (one band with a cap speed of 300Mbps and the other at 450Mbps) and N900 (two bands with a cap speed of 450Mbps each).
The 802.11ac WiFi standard offers three configurations: single-stream (1×1) with a cap speed of 450Mbps, dual-stream (2×2) with a cap speed of 900Mbps and three-stream (3×3) with a cap speed of 1,300Mbps.
Each spatial stream of 802.11ac offers a 4x higher cap speed than the Wireless N standard. Hence, it’s better for the battery life of your device as well. It is essential to check spatial streams before purchasing a router because more streams guarantee you a higher data transfer rate and reliability.
MU-MIMO Technology: Why Do You Need It?
Multi-User, Multi-Input, Multi-Output (MU-MIMO) is a wireless technology on which routers and endpoints devices work. It is an upgrade from the previous Single User, Multi-Input, Multi-Output aka SU-MIMO or MIMO.
The MIMO technology was created to increase the number of antennas on wireless routers. Antennas convert the radio waves generated by the router into electrical energy and transmit it in a particular direction with improved intensity.
It is also sometimes known as AC Wave 2 or the Next-Gen AC. Here, the term AC denotes the 802.11AC WiFi standard. The routers with older wireless standards do not support this technology. The best thing about the MU-MIMO technology is that, it allows multiple devices to access the router at the same time without creating any congestion.
It distributes the available Wi-Fi bandwidth into separate streams equally. A MU-MIMO router can come in various configurations such as 2×2, 3×3 or 4×4 according to the number of streams generated by the router. Moreover, this technology works well for downlink connections only, thereby making it most suitable for home users.
Explicit Beamforming vs Implicit Beamforming
Today the modern-day routers employ the beamforming technology to improve your WiFi reception and reduce interference. As the name suggests, the beamforming technology directs your WiFi signal strength in the direction of the location of your device. However, beware that beamforming is supported by only 802.11AC WiFi standard operating devices.
There are 2 types of beamforming, explicit and implicit, everything you’ve read about is about the explicit beamforming. Now let’s talk about ‘Implicit beamforming.’ This type of beamforming works even for older devices that operate on 802.11n/b/g Wi-Fi standards.
An Implicit beamforming router targets the older devices, but without any help from the endpoint, it won’t be able to zero in. This is why performance is not nearly as good as that seen in ‘explicit beamforming.’ Also, it is possible to turn off implicit beamforming in many devices such as smartphones.
How can I tell if a Wireless router is BAD?
Doesn’t matter if you have a store-bought router or a rented one from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), there can be several reasons behind your router providing a bad WiFi signal. The following are the symptoms of a bad router:
1. Old/Outdated Wireless Router: Generally, you must replace your router every three to four years to keep up with the technological advancements. Moreover, routers can damage over time due to heat dissipation. Hence, older routers provide lower performance.
2. Slow Performance: As most routers operate on the 2.4GHz frequency band, it is common to encounter the problem of slow performance due to interference by several household devices operating in the same range. Hence, instead of opting for a single-band router, opt for a dual-band, tri-band or mesh router for better performance.
3. Lights: A router has a series of lights located on the front of the device to indicate whether its operating properly or not. These include aspects such as power, internet connection, WiFi signal strength, etc. A different colored light such as red or amber indicates that your device is not functioning well in that particular aspect.
WiFi Extenders: Do You Need it?
Wireless internet connection is quintessential in homes and businesses. With the rise of our reliance on WiFi devices such as laptops, tablets, computers, smartphones, etc. having router coverage throughout your home is important. And the quickest and budget-friendly way of doing this, is by using wireless range extender.
There are two kinds of Wi-Fi extenders: Repeaters and Wireless bridges.
Your routers generate radio waves that are received by repeaters using antennas, these devices then amplify the signal, rebroadcast it without any physical connection with the network. If you place a repeater in your network range, then you can seamlessly extend your WiFi signal using the broadcasting capacity of the repeater.
Access points employ an ethernet cable to connect you to your network physically and then broadcast a WiFi signal in a similar way that a wireless router does. So, if you already have a physical connection established at your home, it is recommended to use access points to selectively extend your network coverage.
Another device is a wireless bridge that connects multiple wired computers to a common wireless network but it does not extend the range of the network itself.
The latest modern-day wireless standard 802.11AC offers greater speed, beamforming abilities, improved performance and dual-band support. But since it employs the 5GHz frequency band, the signal range is smaller and hence, it cannot penetrate doors and objects which come in its way. A solution to this conundrum is to expand your network reach by using Wi-Fi extenders.
Note: Any Wi-Fi extender that you purchase must cover an extended frequency range. However, If you end up buying an incompatible Wi-Fi extender, then it will not cover devices beyond its frequency range.
Since these devices extend the detectable range of your WiFi network beyond the walls of your facility, you must take care of the location while installing WiFi extenders at your office or home.
Furthermore, if you face intrusion from household devices, then you may need to increase the number of Wi-Fi extenders to develop a solid wireless network. Moreover, as your Wi-Fi network becomes more accessible due to Wi-Fi extenders, try to secure your network with WPA or WPA2.
Important things to consider while setting up a WiFi extender:
- It must be in the range of your device as well as the source of the signal.
- It employs a static IP address so as to not be identified as a client.
- It transmits the same signal as the source.
- Your Wi-Fi extender will work with full efficiency only if it has the same chipset and software as your router or access point.
- If your router sends an encrypted signal, then the Wi-Fi extender will need the associated encryption keys.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, you should definitely go for the router-modem combination for a variety of reasons. Firstly, purchasing a separate router and modem can be slightly expensive, hence, the router-modem combination is a budget-friendly choice.
The router-modem combination is single piece hardware and is easier to setup as compared to a separate router and modem. It takes up less space, has fewer wires and only one power outlet. Due to its ease of setup, it is an ideal choice for beginners.
The only trade-offs about the router-modem combination is that your ISP has greater control over its software, and it can be a little difficult to diagnose technical issues.
Sticking up with your ISP’s modem and the router has its own set of disadvantages. Hence, buying your own router and modem is a small step in the right direction. Firstly, buying a router can be considered a cheap haul in the long run and provides a better ROI.
The cost might seem steep at first, but it saves you a ton of money once you stop paying the rent to your ISP. Secondly, your ISP’s offer a weaker WiFi signal strength and hence, it’s better to buy your own router and modem.
Moreover, you can opt for routers with options such as parental controls, better guest network tools, and better Quality of Service (QoS). Also, store-bought modems and routers are more stable, secure, and offer more support for third-party firmware.
You can work with any wireless router as long as your modem is approved by your ISP. The easiest way to check this compatibility is to call your Internet Service Provider (ISP) customer care or check its website to get a list of compatible modems.
Also, the instruction manual of your modem also comes with a list of compatible Internet Service Providers (ISP). Furthermore, if you rent your modem from an ISP then it will definitely be compatible with it.
Your router does the task of connecting your device to the internet using various routing tables by redirecting data packets. If you have a modem/router combo, then there is no such need of buying a separate router. However, it is recommended to use standalone devices for both purposes (if you’re looking for better performance).
The standards of wireless communication are continually changing and advancing every year. You don’t need to upgrade your wireless router every time there’s a new technological advancement, but using the same wireless router for years can bog down its performance, leading to a slower WiFi signal.
Another factor is that standards of security keep changing with time and you need a wireless router that can provide you the ultimate protection against cyber attacks. Hence, I recommend you to replace your wireless router just as you would replace your other smart devices every three to four years.
If you’re someone who’s not familiar with the technical parlance, then it can be quite daunting to purchase a new wireless router. Especially if you’ve got no idea where to start from.
As our lives get more and more dependent on technology, having a good WiFi network at your home and office has become the need of the hour, but that doesn’t mean that you get the costliest equipment, if you’ve read this guide, you must have in-depth knowledge about various factors which can help you save costs on factors you wouldn’t need.
Today, you need a good router to maximize the connectivity of your devices and your internet speed at the same time. Hopefully, this guide will help you learn the basics of your router and why you need to buy one. A consummate router will not only help you increase your internet speed, but it shall also enhance your overall everyday working experience.
I hope that this guide helped you learn about Wireless routers, the important factors to consider when buying one, the technical aspects, and other aspects (that are not generally explained to a consumer). Using this knowledge, you can not only find out the best wireless routers for your needs but also make the best possible use of them.