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Wireless routers

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Find the best wireless router for your home or office.

Most of us don’t give much thought to the little box that sends the internet throughout our homes. Generally, we’re happy with the one our ISP provides and only wonder about it when there’s an issue. But our wireless routers testing shows there’s a lot to be gained from upgrading.

From our test

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How they work

A wireless router creates a home network that allows WiFi-capable devices, such as computers, TV and mobile phones, to connect to each other. The router enables devices on this network to share the internet, transfer files, and stream music or video. For example, you can print a document to your home office from your laptop while relaxing next to the pool.

Where a wireless router creates a network, a modem is the device that actually brings the internet into your home. Generally, your ISP provides you with a modem when you sign up but not necessarily a router.

Connecting

You need to connect your router to the internet and your devices. For internet access, simply plug the cable from your modem into your router’s ethernet port.

Next, you’ll want to connect your devices, there are three main ways to do this. Routers with WiFi Protected Setup (WPS) buttons are the easiest. Press the router’s WPS button, find your network with the device and click connect. You don’t have to enter a password as the router allows a two-minute window for any devices to connect.

If the router doesn’t have a WPS button, but is WPS enabled, you’ll have to enter a PIN. This is usually located on the bottom of your router or in the manual. Check your router’s manual for how to connect this way, as it can vary depending on the router.

The other common way of connecting to your router is manually. Open the WiFi settings on your device and look for your network (they often start with the brand name, such as D-Link 1234567). Once you find it, click connect. If the router is already secured, you’ll need to enter a supplied password.

Follow the instructions provided with your router, even if there is a WPS button as this process can change depending on brand.

Security and setup

Setting up your router’s security usually involves connecting through a website (internet access is not necessary) and logging in with a supplied username and password.

All routers come with pre-loaded software for protecting and managing your network. You can set the encryption type (security protocol), network name and password, restrict access to certain devices and some have parental locks.

A wireless router broadcasts your information over the air, typically within 20 to 50 metres (depending on frequency band, line of sight, power and obstructions). This signal can be picked up by anyone with WiFi equipment in this range. If your network is unencrypted and not protected by a password then your internet connection, and even your computer, can be compromised.

When setting up your WiFi network’s security, there are several encryption types available. WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2) is the most secure, followed by WPA and WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy). You should always secure your WiFi network with one of these standards.

Many cafés, libraries and airports offer free WiFi, but the downside to this free internet is you have no idea how secure it is. We advise using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) whenever you use public WiFi.

How we test

To test routers, we assessed their performance at a distance where their signal was strong. We also looked at how easy their interface was to use, this is important if the router needs to be set up manually. We used a high-speed WiFi adapter when testing to ensure the computer wasn’t slowing down the transfer and we used a second adapter for tri-band models to test the 5GHz smart switching feature with two computers.

We used the default settings unless a router was unsecured out of the box and the instructions stated we needed to set up the network name and password.

Performance

We tested the speeds of the routers at a distance of 4m. Note, your router’s signal strength can be weakened by distances greater than 10m or if there are obstructions, such as walls and appliances, between a device and the router.

We transferred about 6GB of data on the 5GHz band/s and 700MB on the 2.4GHz band, and this was repeated three times.

When testing tri-band routers, we assessed their ability to transfer files simultaneously – over both 5GHz bands at once using smart switching (see Tri-bands and smart switching), and individually.

While testing the tri-band models we ensured the 2.4GHz band was still working.

Ease of use

We looked at how easy the routers are to setup and connect to the internet. We also looked at the router’s webpage interface and noted how easy it is to change wireless network names and passwords. We also checked whether it offers parental controls and internet access time restrictions.

Testing smart switching

To test a router’s smart switching feature we transfer files simultaneously to two computers using the 5GHz band. We measure how many megabits per second (Mbps) were transferred (for more on data speeds see the jargon buster below).

We also tested the tri-band routers manually by turning off the smart switching and giving each 5GHz network its own name. We then connected a PC to one 5GHz network and another PC to the other 5GHz network. We then timed how long it took to transfer a file over each network.

FAQ

Here are some points to consider if you’re buying a wireless router:

What’s the difference between the 2.4 and 5GHz bands?

WiFi commonly transmits over two radio frequency bands, 2.4 and 5GHz.

The 2.4GHz band is a strong frequency that can reach further than 5GHz, but it can also be a busy band as devices such as microwaves and cordless phones use it. Mobile devices using Bluetooth also operate on this band.

The 5GHz band is less cluttered as it’s generally only used for WiFi, so this results in less interference, which in turn means a stronger signal and faster speeds. This also means it can use less power, which can lessen the drain on a device’s battery.

The ability to broadcast both bands at the same time (dual-band) means you can keep devices on separate networks if needed (for example, a family network and a guest network), so a dual or tri-band router gives you the best speeds.

How can I have two 5GHz networks and not have interference?

Each wireless frequency has multiple channels. This means you can set a network on the same band as another, but a different channel and they won’t affect each other.

Imagine a wireless frequency band as a multi-lane road. If you drive your car down the left lane while your brother drives his car down the right lane, you won’t affect each other. In this scenario, each 5GHz network is a car and each lane is a channel. Channels can be set in the router’s settings, but it can be quite a technical procedure and is best tackled by someone tech savvy.

What are the 802.11 b, g, b and ac standards and can you use more than one?

You may have heard of the 802.11 b, g, n and ac, these are standards that have been set so wireless devices can talk to one another over WiFi. Each WiFi band can have a different standard, ac is the latest and fastest standard for the 5GHz band, while n is the latest for the 2.4GHz band. Tri-band routers often use more than one wireless standard at a time, such as n on the 2.5GHz band and ac on the 5GHz bands. This is why you sometimes see a router listed as using 802.11n/ac. You can’t use two standards on one network.

For more on the individual standards, see our jargon buster below.

How far will my home WiFi network reach?

This depends on many factors, including the layout of your home. For example, a WiFi signal in brick and multi-storey dwelling can struggle to cover the entire home due to walls and floors interfering with the signal. For your router to get the best coverage, place it as centrally as possible.

If you find your router signal isn’t reaching as far as you need, you can use a WiFi range extender to extend or “repeat” the signal.

Range can also be affected by interference from other devices that use the bands the router operates on. Household devices such as microwaves and cordless phones operate on the 2.4GHz band, which may interfere with this band on the router. Changing your router’s channel on this band can help combat this.

What is the difference between and internal and external antenna?

Routers have two types of antennas, internal or external. An external antenna can be adjusted to face connected devices and improve the signal strength. Internal antennas are housed in the router case and are usually in a pattern to optimise signal strength, such as a grid or a pyramid.

There is little to no performance difference between external or internal antenna.

What are WPA and WPA2, and which is more secure?

Wireless routers encrypt broadcasts using codes, which conform to agreed protocols like WPA-PSK and WPA-PSK2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access – Pre Shared Key) or the certification programme systems WPA-Enterprise and WPA-Enterprise2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access-Enterprise).

WPS systems use these protocols automatically, so if you have a router with WPS enabled, you don’t have to do a thing. The older WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) system, which you may still find on some routers, has been found to have security weaknesses and has been superseded by the WPA and WPA2 protocols. We suggest not using the WEP protocol.

What is beamforming?

Beamforming is one way routers can transmit the wireless signal. When a router transmits a signal, the “beam” gets wider the further it gets from the router. As the beam gets wider, it becomes weaker.

A router using beamforming can detect where a connected device is in relation to the router. The router then narrows the signal beam in this direction, meaning the device gets a stronger signal.

What is WLAN?

WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) is another name for WiFi, and is the wireless version of LAN (Local Area Network). LAN is a network created by connecting devices with cables.

Changing your router’s settings

If your router doesn’t have WPS (most do) or isn’t protected out of the box, here are a couple of basic security steps you should follow:

Change the default SSID and admin password

Routers will often be sent from an ISP or manufacturer with a default SSID (Service Set Identifier) that includes their name (for example, vodafone1234567).

Using the default SSID can pose a security risk, as your network can be identified as possibly having a standard admin login. This tips off hackers that the router most likely still has the generic default password, making it easier to access your network settings. Manufacturers and ISPs assume the user knows they need to change the default admin password. We think it’s more secure to change the admin password and the SSID.

Secure the WiFi with a network key

If your router didn’t come with a WPS button or a password already set up, then you need to set up password access on the router. This means only someone with the password can log on to your WiFi network. When setting your network password, you can also choose to encrypt all data, see What are WPA and WPA2, and which is more secure?

Changing the firmware

Some routers allow you to upgrade the firmware (factory software) installed. The process of upgrading firmware is called “flashing”. Flashing firmware may allow the hardware to operate more efficiently or it may slow all the hardware components down.

Flashing firmware can be risky, as it can void the warranty and your rights under the CGA. You also run the risk of “bricking” your router (making it as useful as a brick).

Jargon buster

MBps vs. Mbps

These are confusing terms that sound almost identical (MBps = Megabytes and Mbps = Megabits), but are different. They describe speed of transferring data from device A to device B. 1 Megabyte = 8 Megabits.

Firmware

Firmware is software installed on a piece of hardware while it is still in the factory. This software is what runs the hardware components. Users can update to replace this software at a later date, but often devices are left with the standard firmware.

Tri-band

A tri-band router uses a 2.4GHz network and 2 separate 5GHz networks. Having 2 5GHz networks effectively doubles the capacity of the 5GHz band. Tri-band routers often have a feature called smart switching, which allows the router to distribute the workload over both 5GHz networks.

Wireless protocols

These are a standard by which wireless networks operate. There are a number of standards and they are set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). They are based on the original standard called 802.11. This original standard only supported bandwidths up to 2Mbps.

  • 802.11b supports bandwidths up to 11 Mbps on the 2.4GHz band
  • 802.11a supports bandwidths up to 54 Mbps on the 5GHz band
  • 802.11g supports bandwidths up to 54 Mbps on the 2.4GHz band
  • 802.11n supports bandwidths up to 600 Mbps on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz band
  • 802.11ac supports bandwidths up to approx 1300 Mbps on the 5GHz

The next wireless standard update is due for release this year. It is called 802.11ad (also named WiGig). It has a claimed bandwidth speed of 7Gbps (gigabits per second).

These speeds are theoretical maximums and in reality, routers are more likely to reach speeds 50% or less than these.

MIMO

MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) refers to the fact that one (or more) antenna may be solely for receiving data on one bandwidth, while another is solely for transmitting data on one bandwidth. Routers with MIMO have 2 or more antennas and MIMO also requires the receiving device, such as a computer’s wireless adapter, to have 2 antennae as well.

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