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10 things to consider when buying a router

CNET logo CNET 14-06-2016 Taylor Martin
Josh Miller/CNET © Provided by CNET Josh Miller/CNET

If you're looking to upgrade your home network, these are the things you should know before buying a new router. 

Whether you're setting up a new home network or upgrading an existing one, the crux of the entire setup is the wireless router. It can be the difference between a nearly flawless network and one that constantly gives you trouble.

So here is what you need to know before buying a new router.

Should you use the router provided by your ISP?

When you sign up with a new internet service provider (ISP) in the US, you'll be offered an equipment rental for around $5 to $7 per month. In other countries, ISPs typically bundle the equipment into your internet package.

In most cases, the device they send you is a modem/router combination that you'll find more or less serviceable. However, if you're in the US and plan on keeping the same network equipment for over a year, it's typically more cost-effective to buy your own equipment. Your ISP likely provides a list of compatible equipment that you can find online for around $50 and up. Keep in mind, you'll either need a combination device or a separate router with a modem.

Even if you've been given a free router, you may still want to buy your own for better speed and performance. Buying your own equipment doesn't always guarantee better performance, but it can save you some cash in the long run and give you better control and options that their run-of-the-mill router doesn't include. For instance, network storage.

Changing wireless standards

The standards for wireless technology have changed quite a bit over the last decade.

For instance, most newer laptops, smartphones and tablets utilize the newer standard, 802.11ac. This means they're capable of faster speeds over Wi-Fi. If your internet package promises speeds in excess of 100Mbps and you're still using a Wireless N router, the limitations of the router's wireless capabilities may become a bottleneck for your network. That said, if you don't have any devices at home that support Wireless AC, then the router isn't so much the problem as the individual client devices are.

Chances are, however, that when you upgrade your computer or mobile devices next time, they will have support for 802.11ac. If your ISP offers faster speeds, it may be worth upgrading to an AC router for future-proofing purposes.

Otherwise, keep in mind that when you do upgrade to a faster internet package, you may also need a new router.

The life span of a router

Keep in mind that networking hardware doesn't last forever. Not only do the standards change fairly often, but networking hardware is put through a lot of stress on a daily basis. Your Wi-Fi connection is stretched across your computer, gaming console, smartphone, tablet and streaming devices. And with more devices being added to the mix, such as smart lights or thermostats, that load is only getting larger, and over time, a router's performance can degrade. If you've had the same router for a few years and can find no other explanation for a dip the reliability of your network, it may be time to consider replacing the router. (That, or it might be time to clean your router.)

Price

The price of routers ranges from as little as $15 (£16 or approximately AU$30) to upwards of $400 (£390 or AU$699). Your needs and your budget will ultimately dictate where you fall on that spectrum. It's difficult to recommend a super high-end router to an average consumer for at least two reasons.

First, the pace of the advancement of the technology is very fast. So while a top-of-the-range router may very well future-proof you for the next few years, it's nearly as susceptible to obsolescence as one that costs half as much. Second, networking hardware is moving faster than ISPs, which means mid-tier routers are usually more than enough for the average user and even some power users. So unless you absolutely need a top-tier router with the best possible performance, a router in the range of $100 or $200 will suffice. And if you just need something to provide wireless access and your home internet speeds are as low as 20Mbps or 30Mbps, you can save yourself some serious cash by opting for a less pricey router.

Is Gigabit necessary yet?

Fiber is becoming more common around the nation, but in no way is it commonplace yet. Even more scarce are Gigabit (1,000Mbps) speeds. That doesn't mean you don't need a router that can reach a Gigabit, though. Most moderately priced models these days come with Gigabit Ethernet capabilities, but even a router such as the TP-LINK Archer C7 is capable of theoretical speeds of 1,300Mbps through its 5GHz wireless channel. In other words, get a Gigabit router for future-proofing purposes. You may need it before your next upgrade.

Single- or dual-band?

Wireless routers work on two different frequency bands -- 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The 2.4GHz band is used by a large number of devices around your house and is more susceptible to interference and congestion. The newer 5GHz band is typically less cluttered and provides a faster connection. A dual-band router offers both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, often using both bands simultaneously. Choosing between a single-band and dual-band router is quite simple. If you live in a crowded neighborhood or a densely populated area, you're better off with a dual-band router. If you don't need faster wireless speeds and you don't have any nearby neighbors whose wireless network might interfere with yours, a single-band router will do the trick.

Range

The positioning of your router is extremely important. It should be in a central location, away from other gadgets or obstructions and, ideally, high up on a shelf. Still, even with great positioning, you're likely to run into dead spots inside your home, places where the wireless signal just can't reach. Using heat map software can help you maximize your wireless coverage, and buying a more expensive router might give you better range, but it still doesn't mean the signal will reach the far corner or your basement. In most cases, buying a more affordable router (or two) and a couple of power-line adapters will do the trick better than just about anything. Power-line adapters use the existing electrical wiring in the walls to extend your network. They're relatively affordable and work wonders when it comes to extending your network to hard to reach places in your house. Just take note of the speed limitations of the power-line adapters, as well, since they're not all made the same.

Don't throw out your old router

Speaking of extending your network, just because it may be time to upgrade your old router doesn't mean it's time for the old router to be retired. If it's still in working condition, you can turn it into a wireless bridge (to extend your network with about half the original throughput) or an access point using the aforementioned power-line adapters.

USB ports

Before printers with built-in wireless capabilities were common, a USB port on a router was important for networking your printer. Routers with USB ports are now more commonly used for cheap networked storage. You can plug an HDD or flash storage drive into the back of your router and share that data with any device on the network. You can also use it to create a networked media hub for streaming movies, music or television shows you own locally. If you don't need to network a printer that doesn't have wireless capabilities or you don't need networked storage, USB support on a router isn't something you should be worried about.

Not only are routers getting faster or more powerful, they're also getting smarter. Google's OnHub routers or the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Routers make setting up and controlling your home network much easier. They'll let you prioritize bandwidth for things like streaming movies and video games from a companion smartphone app, and updates happen automatically. OnHub routers come with improved support for the smart home with IFTTT integration. This means, for example, you can create a recipe that will unlock an August Smart Lock as your phone connects to the OnHub router's network. The possibilities are virtually endless.

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