Wireless routers

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Find the best wireless router for your home or office.

When choosing an internet service provider (ISP), you select a connection type and plan, but don’t overlook the router you will be sent if you want your connection to hit top speed.

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Why is this free?

This report is free thanks to a donation from Chorus to The Consumer Foundation. This work meets the Foundation’s objective to support and fund education and research projects promoting consumer welfare and awareness.

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How they work

Our latest technology reliability survey found 88% of respondents used the router their ISP provided. With that in mind, we asked 8 major ISPs (2degrees, Flip, MyRepublic, Orcon, Slingshot, Spark, Trustpower and Vodafone) to send us the routers they provide to customers so we could test them. Voyager was changing its routers at the time of testing. We also bought 3 routers to see how they compared.

There are 2 major factors that affect the speed your wireless router can achieve: the incoming connection and the outgoing WiFi. Incoming speed depends on your type of connection, how far away your roadside cabinet is, and plan limits. Outgoing WiFi speed depends on the size of your home, if it’s multi-storey, and interference. If your router’s outgoing WiFi speeds are slower than the incoming connection, then the router is throttling or slowing down your speeds.

How we test


For an explanation of speeds, bands and standards, see our article on getting faster internet.

DSL and fibre speeds

We tested incoming ADSL/VDSL speed at 200m, 500m, 1000m and 1500m.

We scored based on the expected speed for that type of connection. For example, fibre is theoretically capable of speeds up to one gigabit per second, so our scale scores speeds higher than 900Mbps as excellent.

WiFi performance

We measured WiFi speeds at 4m and 10m from the router, in a location with minimal interference from other WiFi networks. A router and laptop were placed in line of sight from each other. We averaged the speeds from both distances and rated them compared to the speeds expected for the WiFi standards they were using.

We calculated the speeds, in megabits per second (Mbps), by timing how long it took to transfer a 1.1GB file from a network attached storage (NAS) device, connected to the router, to a laptop. We repeated the test three times on each band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and at each distance.

Ease of use and set-up

We assessed how easy it was to set up the router. Our test looked at whether there was a quick-start wizard, how long set-up took, and what information was provided to help.

For ease of use, we enlisted five “novice” users, who each tested no more than three routers, and one “expert” user. All the users were given a series of common tasks in the router’s admin interface. These tasks included monitoring and managing network access and changing default settings (service set identifier (SSID), network key/password, encryption and WiFi protected set-up (WPS) settings). We also looked at the port and button locations, as well as labelling and indicator light visibility. Many of our novice users struggled with the acronyms or logos used as labels. For a rundown of common terms and logos, check out our jargon buster below.

Finally, we looked at advanced functions such as modifying guest networks, locate virtual private network (VPN) and managing attached external media. We also assessed each router’s parental control tools and how easy they were to find.

Security

The router is your gateway to the internet, so its security settings are important. Our security assessment included whether the networks were encrypted, how easy it was to identify them by SSID, and the security of the network key/password. Many routers also have separate networks for guest use, so we also assessed their encryption and network key/password security.

Obstructions

The walls and doors in your home can degrade a WiFi signal, resulting in slower speeds. To find out how much, we built a wooden box to simulate the construction of a single internal wall and placed it over the routers. The 5GHz band, while a stronger signal when unobstructed, is more likely to suffer from this kind of interference.

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We “load tested” each router’s ability to handle multiple devices at the same time by repeating our 4m line of sight test while streaming video to 10 devices simultaneously through the router.

Getting top speed

If you think your WiFi performance isn’t up to scratch, here’s a few tips that could help speed things up:

  • Centre stage: Don’t put your router out of sight in a cupboard. Placing it centrally in the house, out in the open, will help keep your speed high.

  • Flip the switch: Some common household appliances (such as microwaves) operate on the 2.4GHz network band, which can interfere with your WiFi. An easy fix is switching your devices (such as laptops or phones) to the 5GHz band network.

  • Change the channel: Both network bands operate on a range of channels. Changing to a less cluttered channel results in better reception and faster speeds. Most routers automatically do this, so we used our WiFi-congested office, which has more than a dozen wireless networks operating simultaneously, to test how good they are at it.

Mesh routers

You may have seen TV adverts for the funky-looking Orbi. This Netgear router is an example of the latest “mesh” or “seamless” routers. Where traditional WiFi networks use a single central router to broadcast the signal, mesh systems use multiple units placed throughout your home to create a “blanket” of WiFi. Mesh routers are a promising choice for multi-level and large homes.

Vectoring

If fibre isn’t an option for you right now, there’s a new technology promising better speeds on VDSL. On copper lines the internet signal suffers from interference that affects speeds. To combat this, Chorus is rolling out “vectoring” to roadside cabinets. This technology works in a similar way to noise-cancelling headphones (a signal for cancelling interference is transmitted along the line, which means your internet connection comes through clearer and faster). Most VDSL routers in New Zealand support vectoring.

Connection and set-up

Fibre is the quickest and simplest broadband to set up on a router. When fibre is installed in your home, you will have an ONT (optical network terminal) box attached to a wall. This is then connected to your router’s WAN or internet port with an ethernet cable. If the port isn’t clearly labelled, check your router’s documentation or contact your ISP.

ADSL and VDSL connections require more setting up as they need a username and password, and some advanced settings to be changed. ISP-supplied routers should come with these details already set up. If not, contact your ISP.

The next step is connecting your devices to the router. There are 3 main ways to do this.

  1. Manually: Open the WiFi settings on your device and look for the network SSID. Once you find it, click connect and, when prompted, enter the network key/password.

  2. Use WiFi Protected Set-up (WPS): Press the router’s WPS button, find the network on your device and click connect. You don’t have to enter a password as the router allows any devices to connect for a short period after the button is pressed.

  3. Manual WPS: 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 documentation.

Protecting your router

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 it’s easier to identify the make and model of your router. To minimise the risk of someone guessing your WiFi and admin logins, change your network’s SSID, network key/password and admin password.

Encryption

When information is being transferred to or from the internet, it’s at risk of being intercepted, so all routers should use secure encryption to disguise the data. The common encryption types are WPA2-TKIP (WiFi Protected Access – Pre Shared Key 2) and WPA-PSK (WiFi Protected Access – Pre Shared Key), but an older version called WEP (wired equivalent privacy) is still used by some devices. This older encryption is not a secure option. If your router is using it and you can change to a more secure version, then do!

Extra security

Some routers come with a built-in firewall or antivirus. While many devices, such as laptops and phones, also have these features, you shouldn’t view the router’s firewall or antivirus as a replacement. Think of them as an added layer of protection.

Settling disputes

If you have an issue with your internet provider and haven’t been able to resolve it with the company, you can take it to the Telecommunication Dispute Resolution service.

TDR can consider:

  • Complaints about companies that are TDR scheme members.
  • Any service or product from any TDR member. You can also complain about how you have been charged for products and services (but not the pricing).
  • Complaints that have already been made to a telecommunications company, as long as it is within 12 months of the complaint first being made.
  • Complaints that involve claims for $15,000 or less, including compensation for direct loss.

TDR’s members include 2degrees, CallPlus, Compass, Flip, Now, Orcon, PrimoWireless, Skinny, Slingshot, Snap, Spark, TNZ, United Networks, Vodafone, Woosh, Conversant, Bigpipe, Chorus, Enable, Northpower Fibre, and Ulrafast Fibre. Note the TDR can’t consider complaints about companies that are not part of the scheme.

FAQ

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.

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.

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

This depends on several factors, such as the layout of your home – for example, a WiFi signal in a multi-storey brick dwelling can struggle to cover the entire home as walls and floors interfere with the signal. Don’t put your router out of sight in a cupboard. Having it out in the open will help keep your speed high.

If your WiFi isn’t reaching as far as you need, a WiFi range extender can help boost the signal and cover the dead spots. There are different kinds of extender – some can even send a signal via your electrical wiring.

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.

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.

Jargon buster

The terms modem and router are often used interchangeably when referring to home WiFi equipment. Both can receive an internet connection (ADSL, VDSL or fibre) and “route” this connection throughout the house wirelessly.

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 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.

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.

WPS

WPS (WiFi Protected Set-up) is a shortcut for connecting devices to your router. Press the WPS button and devices can connect without a password for a short period of time.

LAN

LAN (Local Area Network) is a network created by connecting devices with cables.

WiFi and WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) are names for the wireless version of a LAN. If your router has a WLAN or WiFi button, this will turn the wireless network on and off.

WAN

WAN (Wide Area Network) covers a much larger area than your LAN or WiFi. Many routers use WAN to refer to the fibre connection, so when you’re connecting the cable from your ONT (optical network terminal) box, look for a WAN or internet port.

DSL

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is the technology used on ADSL (asymmetric DSL) and VDSL (very high bit-rate DSL). It is the basic broadband technology in New Zealand.

USB

USB (Universal Serial Bus) is a type of wired connection. If a router has a USB port, it will likely support media sharing of a USB storage device or the sharing of 3G/4G internet (pass-through).

3G and 4G are types of mobile communication used in most smartphones. A 3G/4G USB hotspot device can be connected to some routers.

Ethernet is a common type of wired connection. Most routers will have at least 3 Ethernet ports for devices to connect to.

On many routers there may be a light labelled “internet”. This indicates if your connection to the internet is “live”. If this light is solid or flickering, you are connected to the internet. If not, contact your ISP.

VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is where an analogue phone signal is converted to a digital signal so it can be transferred the same way as your internet traffic. VOIP is the common phone line connection for fibre-connected homes.

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

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. In reality, routers are more likely to reach speeds 50% or less than these.

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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First Look: Synology RT2600ac

While all routers let you customise your networks, the Synology RT2600ac takes it to a new level. You can control this router through your smartphone, which means you can instantly cut off your teen’s internet access if they don’t wash the dishes.

Learn more

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