(Editor’s note: here’s a fairly long-winded article I wrote a while back.)
It’s that time: your household has finally acquired more than one Internet-connected device. However, you only have one Internet line in your house, and that comes straight out of your modem and goes into your desktop computer. So, how do you get the Internet on all your devices? The simple answer is, well, simple: buy a router.
First: Buying the Router
The complicated part is, which router? You could spend $100+ on a high-end router, or cheap out and buy one for $40. So, how much router does your household really need?
First, let’s talk about internet connections. Let’s say that you have a broadband connection to your house with a download speed of 2 Mbps (to find out what speed you actually have, you can go to Speedtest.net for a free Internet speed test). That means that with one device connected, you should get a download speed of 2 Mbps on that device. If you add more devices with a router, the router can not “magically” provide all the devices with a 2 Mbps download speed simultaneously. The connection speed will be split by demand over all your devices. For example, if you’re watching a YouTube video on your desktop and your laptop is sitting idle, the desktop should be getting the full 2 Mbps and the laptop’s connection will be cut down. However, if you’re trying to download Skyrim on your laptop while your brother is watching Netflix online, each computer will get about half the connection depending on the demand. If you’re downloading Skyrim, your brother’s watching Netflix, your mom is trying to send pictures of the kids to her friends and your dad is checking his email, everyone’s connection speed is going to drop as the 2 Mbps connection is eaten up by the large demand. So, if you’re planning on having multiple devices using the Internet heavily at one time, you may want to consider upgrading your connection speed. The best way to find out what you need is by testing it: try what you’ve got already, and if that’s too slow contact your ISP and see what plans are available.
Now, we have to decide how many devices will be using your router at one time and what they will be doing. If you plan on hooking up your PS3, two laptops, a desktop, and a few smartphones and tablets, you’re going to need a router capable of handling it all. If all you need is to have a desktop online and sometimes have a laptop connected wirelessly, you can probably get away with a cheaper router if you know you’re not going to need a lot more out of the router in the future. At any rate, don’t underbuy. If you think you might be getting more devices in the future, it will be cheaper to buy a $120 router right now than a $60 router right now and a $120 router later when your first router is gasping and choking with the increased demand.
So, what features do you need in your router? At first, you will probably be confused by all the options and features that routers have – rightfully, because they are confusing. Dual band? Gigabit Ethernet? 300+Mbps? 5 GHz vs. 2.4 GHz? Wireless-N?
Let’s start with Wireless-N. Simply put, Wireless-N is just a high-speed wireless standard. It provides faster wireless speeds and better range than its predecessors, Wireless-A, Wireless-B, and Wireless-G. I would recommend buying a router that is Wireless-N capable (many are, nowadays) because Wireless-N is the new standard in wireless connectivity.
Why you’d want Wireless-N: It’s faster than the old standard Wireless-G, and most routers have Wireless-N capability now anyway. If you don’t want your router to be outdated in a year, get Wireless-N. Base line: It’s better, faster wireless.
Next up is Gigabit capability. This means that the wired network (Ethernet) ports on the back of the router can transfer data at 1000 MB/s (that’s megabytes, not megabits. Internet speeds are measured in megabits, so a 4 Mbps (megabits per second) connection does not transfer 4 megabytes per second. This has a complicated explanation – Google it if you want to know more.) The 1000 MB/s – or 1 GB/s, which is why it’s called Gigabit – provides much faster file transfer speeds around your local network, but won’t improve your Internet speed. To use Gigabit Ethernet all the devices on your connection must be Gigabit-ready – your computer’s network card, your Ethernet cables (must be CAT 5E or higher), and your router. Gigabit can also be referred to as 10/100/1000 MB/s Ethernet.
Why you’d want Gigabit Ethernet: Only get it if you know that all your devices support it. However, if you’re planning on buying new computers soon, anything you buy new will have Gigabit support. Base line: Legacy support, and awesome file transfer speeds.
Now for dual band. As of now, there are two radio frequencies that routers can broadcast on: the 2.4 GHz band and the 5 GHz band. The 2.4 GHz band is used by most household appliances and therefore has more interference. It’s also a narrower bandwidth, which means that less data can be transferred on it which makes the connection slower. Compared to the 2.4 GHz band, the 5 GHz band is like an open, multi-lane highway. As you can probably guess, the 5 GHz band is much faster. However, to use 5 GHz wireless, your hardware will need to meet the requirements. First of all, your router has to be Wireless-N (not to mention dual band capable) to even broadcast on the 5 GHz band. Also, your wireless devices must support 5 GHz connections. Much to my chagrin, I discovered too late that one of my laptops does not. Oh well, that’s what the 2.4 GHz band is for.
Why you’d want dual band capability: If your wireless devices support a 5 GHz connection, you’ll definitely reap the benefits of using this faster connection. Base line: If your devices support it, go ahead.
There are also ratings for how fast routers can transmit data on their wireless connection. This will usually be advertised as “300+” or something. Some routers also have USB ports for connecting USB storage devices or in some cases, printers.
Tip: For legacy support, I would recommend going with Gigabit, Wireless-N, and dual band. I would also recommend buying the most powerful router that you can afford. Unless you plan on using your 9 year old desktop with your 7 year old laptop and never upgrading, you probably won’t be disappointed if you overbuy on your router just a little. For $100, you should be able to get a pretty good router that will cover your entire house with at least two or three bars of WiFi in the farthest areas. Of course, this depends how big your house is. If you have a really big house (3000 sq ft+) you will probably either need a high-end router or a range extender.
Second: Setting it Up
Now that you’ve hopefully found the perfect router, you will have to set it up. You can pay a bunch of money and have someone set it up for you, or if you have some modicum of technological sense I would suggest learning how to set it up yourself. This way, you will know exactly how your network is configured and you can really save yourself some $$.
I would recommend drawing, or at least figuring out, a network map before you start setting up your router. You should already have one phone line going into your modem and one Ethernet cable (probably CAT 5E) coming out of your modem. Your router should come with another Ethernet cable and instructions on how to plug everything in to get one wired device on line. If you want to hook up more wired devices, you will need to pick up more Ethernet cables. Also, if you’re like me and you ran out of outlets on your surge protector – hopefully, you already have a surge protector – you’re going to need to buy more parts.
Once you’ve got all the hardware you need, you can proceed to the software setup stage. I will not cover this in great detail because all routers have different software instructions, but I will say that you need to read the instructions before you begin. This sounds obvious, but don’t just blow through the setup manual. The order you install stuff (Ethernet cables, power cables, software) matters.
After you’ve got through the setup, you should now have a functioning router. Some last things to check/do are:
1. Is your wireless network password protected? Most manufactures will password-protect the wireless by default, but this could be with a default password (think, “password”). Make sure you’ve got a good, secure password, and if you’ve changed it from the default one WRITE IT DOWN. But not on the fridge.
2. Are all devices getting Internet? Sounds obvious, but check before you declare your network finished make sure everything can connect without a problem. Also, make sure you’re getting the correct download/upload speeds – hopefully you checked before you installed the router to see what sort of bandwidth was getting sent to your house.
3. Make sure to turn off your wireless when it’s not being used. Wireless is a security hole at the best of times, and leaving it on 24/7 is pretty much an open invitation – especially if you neglected to password protect it.
Tip: Buy a router with a power on/off button and a wireless on/off button. It’s just easier.
If you want to read more, you can find an excellent PC Mag article here.