Quiz time. What’s the most important piece of electronics in your home: a) your personal computer, b) your smartphone, or c) your flat-screen TV?
The correct answer is d) your wireless router. If you answered e) your blender, you’ve been spending too much time in Margaritaville.
The router is your home’s lifeline to the Internet. As more of our music, movies, live TV, phone lines, software, and home security services come flowing over a broadband connection, your router will grow even more important. As the “Internet of Things” takes hold, the number of devices that connect via your home network could grow into the hundreds.
The good news: Routers are a lot more sophisticated than ever before. The bad news: The decision about what router to get next is now more complicated. You can’t just grab the cheapest box off the shelf at Best Buy or Office Depot and hope for the best. I mean, you could, but you might regret it later.
In the not-too-distant past, setting up a home network required the skills of a Cisco certified engineer, the patience of a Trappist monk, and a whole lot of wire. Then, in the late 1990s, WiFi showed up and changed everything. All you needed was a wireless router and a compatible adapter attached to your computer. Fiddle with a few network settings, plug in the network name and password, and voilà — instant Internet in every room of your house. Or at least, close to it.
See also: Five Ways to Make Your WiFi Network Safer, Faster, and More Reliable
Incidentally, “WiFi” is a word conjured up by Interbrand, a New York City marketing company that’s also responsible for “Prozac” and “Pepsi Slice.” It was a brilliant piece of marketing, because without it we’d be walking into big-box stores asking teenagers in blue shirts where they keep the 802.11 (pronounced “eight-oh-two-dot-eleven”) wireless network thingies.
Unfortunately, that’s where the brilliant marketing stopped. Shopping for a new router now means navigating nerd terms like “gigabit,” “dual band,” “throughput,” “MIMO,” “spatial streams,” and other gibberish designed to send normal humans screaming from the room.
But buying a new router doesn’t have to involve a visit to geek hell. Let’s start by going back to the basics.
A WiFi router contains a two-way radio, and it may support different wireless network types, just as your bedside radio supports both AM and FM. WiFi radios all use a common standard known by a number: 802.11. That refers to a technical specification created by a committee of supergeeks at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), that defines how wireless networking devices operate. You may now safely forget all of that.
The important part is the letter or letters that follow the “802.11” part. The first commercial WiFi devices were labeled 802.11a and 802.11b, with the b devices being the first ones in homes. They were followed a few years later by g and then n. (Why not c and d? Beats me — do I look like an electrical engineer?) Each new letter represents a major improvement in the technology, typically increasing the speed and range of the device. Except that a is faster than b. You can forget that, too.
The newest WiFi spec is 802.11ac. It promises data speeds up to three times faster than previous speed champ 802.11n, as well as better ability to intelligently manage multiple data streams as it connects to different devices, plus greater reliability and range and other wicked cool stuff. 802.11ac routers are also known as gigabit routers, meaning they can transfer up to 1.3 billion bits of data (1.3 gigabits or 1,300 megabits) per second.
Sounds hella fast, doesn’t it? But to take advantage of all that speed, a device on your network also needs a WiFi adapter capable of sending and receiving signals using 802.11ac. Today only a relatively small number of wireless devices have 802.11ac built in, though lots more are coming. Fortunately, WiFi routers are backward compatible — your older devices, back to 802.11b, will still work with an 802.11ac router, though you won’t see the fastest speeds with them.
Nearly all 802.11ac routers are also dual band, meaning that they have two radios inside: One is a radio that communicates with older 802.11 devices that use the the 2.4 GHz frequency (802.11b, g, or n), the other talks to gadgets on the 5 GHz band. The advantage to operating at 5 GHz is a) it’s faster, and b) you can avoid interference from Bluetooth, baby monitors, microwave ovens, and other devices that can muck with devices at 2.4 GHz.
The upshot: Dual-band routers are what you want.
The next question — one where you run into blizzards of obscure terminology — is how many spatial streams the router can support at one time. Today’s .11ac routers can support up to three data streams, each with a maximum throughput (data transfer rate) of 433 megabits per second. That means the router can seamlessly stream a high-def movie to your 50-inch connected TV while your son watches YouTube on his laptop, your daughter plays Xbox Live, and you surf the Web on your tablet. Or it may be able to stream an HD video from your phone to your TV in a matter of seconds.
The Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 router (Netgear)
It accomplishes this via a technology known as MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) using several antennas. The number of antennas and streams is usually indicated by numbers like 2×2 (two antennas for receiving and two for transmitting) or 3×3. Generally speaking, the more antennas you have, the more data streams the router can deliver and the more devices it can support at the same time.
So if you see a router with “Dual Band Wireless AC1900” on the side of the box, that means it uses both .11ac and .11n technology, works with wireless devices that operate at either 2.4 or 5 GHz, and offers a maximum throughput of 1.9 gigabits — 1.3 gigabits for the .11ac radio, plus another 600 megabits for .11n — via three data streams. Stick with me here.
Now, that 1.9 gigabit number, as with all claims to wireless speed, is a theoretical maximum speed you will never experience in real life, for a variety of reasons — including the fact that it’s many times faster than your current Internet connection. Buying an .11ac router is really about the deluge of data and devices that are coming in the near future.
What’s the frequency, Kenneth?
There’s a lot more to buying a router, of course. One of the most important things to consider is how easy the thing is to configure and use, something you won’t find out by reading the specs on the outside of the box. That’s one reason why I’m such a fan of PowerCloud’s Skydog routers, which are not only a breeze to manage but also let you test drive the software online before you buy. Netgear offers Genie, a free app that lets you control your router settings from your smartphone or computer.
Because the router is essentially the front door to your home network, you want it to have a strong deadbolt — a password-protected encryption scheme that scrambles your data so no one else can see it. These days, security features don’t vary much from one router to the next, but you want to make sure they’re enabled straight out of the box. (You also want to make sure you change the default login and password pronto.)
Then there’s the question of price. A state-of-the-art 11ac router will run you $200 or more, while you can still get a perfectly usable .11n model for $50. If you live in an apartment or other small space, don’t use a ton of connected devices, and don’t plan to add many more, you can get away with a basic box. If your old router is still working fine, there’s no need to rush out and buy a new one today.
But if you’re shopping for a router that will serve you well in the future, as Internet connections get faster and more video gets shuttled down the pipes, you’d do well to spend a little more on the latest and greatest. And, this time, you might even understand exactly what you’re getting.