9 STEPS TO YOUR PER­FECT ROUTER

WHILE MANY ROUTERS LOOK THE SAME, WHAT LIES BE­NEATH THE SUR­FACE COULD MAKE A BIG DIF­FER­ENCE TO YOUR DAILY LIFE

PC & Tech Authority - - GROUP TEST ROUTERS -

Routers are unas­sum­ing things. They sit qui­etly in the back­ground and, save for a few flick­er­ing LEDs, they don’t di­rectly com­mu­ni­cate with us at all. You prob­a­bly don’t think about yours for months on end.

Yet a mod­ern router is a highly so­phis­ti­cated bit of tech­nol­ogy. No two mod­els are quite alike, and their ca­pa­bil­i­ties go far beyond the ba­sics of host­ing your home Wi-Fi net­work. Up­grad­ing can bring huge per­for­mance ben­e­fits, as well as a range of use­ful ex­tra fea­tures. This month we’ve tested the best, fastest and most fea­ture-packed routers on the mar­ket, to give your net­work the boost it de­serves. Here’s our guide to choos­ing the right one.

MAK­ING THE CON­NEC­TION

When you’re buy­ing a new router, the very first ques­tion is whether it will work with your in­ter­net con­nec­tion. As our fea­ture ta­ble over­leaf shows, many mod­els come with a built-in ADSL2+/VDSL mo­dem; in most cases you should be able to sim­ply plug one of these into your phone socket and keep on truck­ing (al­though you may need to en­ter the right con­fig­u­ra­tion in­for­ma­tion for your ISP).

Some routers don’t have a built-in mo­dem at all, but this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a prob­lem. You may be able to ob­tain a stand­alone mo­dem that con­nects to your router’s Eth­er­net WAN socket, or you might even be able to con­fig­ure your ex­ist­ing router to act as a mo­dem, while your new router man­ages your home net­work. It’s also of­ten pos­si­ble to set up your new router as a wire­less ac­cess point, and let the old router con­tinue to han­dle your in­ter­net con­nec­tion.

UN­DER­STAND­ING WIRE­LESS

When it comes to Wi-Fi, you def­i­nitely want the lat­est 802.11ac stan­dard. All of the routers on test here have it, but older gear may be lim­ited to the slower 802.11n stan­dard. Ideally, look for MIMO (multi-in, multi-out) and “Wave 2” MU-MIMO (multi-user MIMO) tech­nolo­gies, which sup­port mul­ti­ple ra­dio con­nec­tions at once, for the fastest, smoothest data through­put.

Hav­ing more phys­i­cal ra­dios also helps. A “tri-band” de­sign means the router has one 2.4GHz ra­dio and two 5GHz trans­ceivers, to keep con­ges­tion to a min­i­mum, while a dual-band router has one of each. While 2.4GHz net­work­ing isn’t as fast as the 5GHz band, it’s still used by some older de­vices, and trav­els through walls more eas­ily: most routers broad­cast a “mixed mode” net­work that com­bines both, so if a de­vice can’t get a good 5GHz con­nec­tion, it will au­to­mat­i­cally drop down to the 2.4GHz one. If you need a fast sig­nal over a wide area, con­sider a mesh sys­tem in­stead of a stand­alone router.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ claims about trans­fer speeds should be taken with a large pinch of salt. For ex­am­ple, TP-Link ad­ver­tises that its Archer C5400 router has a wire­less band­width of 5,400Mbits/ sec – equiv­a­lent to more than 600MB/sec. But that’s cal­cu­lated by adding up the the­o­ret­i­cal max­i­mum speeds of all three ra­dios, which is a bit of a cheat since each de­vice on the net­work will only be com­mu­ni­cat­ing with one ra­dio. What’s more, those speeds aren’t re­motely at­tain­able in the real world: as you’ll see on p93, the fastest down­load speed we saw from any router this month was 30MB/sec.

Let’s not sin­gle out TP-Link, though. Ev­ery man­u­fac­turer does it and, by and large, the big­ger num­bers do tend to im­ply bet­ter per­for­mance. Just keep your ex­pec­ta­tions re­al­is­tic.

RE­MOV­ABLE AN­TEN­NAE

It’s not just the ra­dio hard­ware that de­ter­mines the speed and strength of a wire­less con­nec­tion – a de­cent ar­ray of aeri­als is vi­tal, too. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the worst lon­grange Wi-Fi per­for­mance we saw this month was from a unit with three small in­ter­nal an­ten­nae; routers equipped with chunky ex­ter­nal aeri­als fared much bet­ter.

In many cases, those ex­ter­nal aeri­als are con­nected by a stan­dard screw con­nec­tor. This gives you the op­tion of fit­ting larger an­ten­nae, which could make a no­tice­able dif­fer­ence to the sig­nal. If the aeri­als aren’t re­place­able, that needn’t be a dis­qual­i­fy­ing con­sid­er­a­tion – for ex­am­ple, the Linksys EA9500’s cap­tive aeri­als do an ex­cel­lent job. But if you’re torn be­tween two mod­els, it’s worth think­ing about as a tie-breaker.

“Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ claims about trans­fer speeds should be taken with a large pinch of salt – keep your ex­pec­ta­tions re­al­is­tic”

ETH­ER­NET

Wired net­work­ing isn’t dead. In fact, do­mes­tic Eth­er­net is prob­a­bly more pop­u­lar and use­ful in the home than it was ten years ago. Much faster than any Wi-Fi con­nec­tion – and more sta­ble – it’s the best choice for NAS drives, smart TVs and any­thing that’s lo­cated near to your router.

Ideally, then, you want a router with plenty of Eth­er­net sock­ets. Older, cheaper routers may only of­fer 100Mbits/sec con­nec­tions, but there’s no rea­son to set­tle for that to­day: Gi­ga­bit is where it’s at. If you run out of sock­ets, you can ex­tend your wired net­work with a stand­alone Gi­ga­bit switch but that’s less el­e­gant, and will take up an ex­tra power socket.

USB PORTS AND ME­DIA FEA­TURES

Most of this month’s routers of­fer at least one USB port. This lets you con­ve­niently plug in an ex­ter­nal hard disk or ash drive, and ac­cess it from any­where on the net­work as if it were a reg­u­lar net­work share or NAS ap­pli­ance. Some mod­els even have a built-in DLNA server, so video les stored on your hard disk can be streamed di­rectly to any com­pat­i­ble de­vice on your net­work.

If you’re in­ter­ested in that ca­pa­bil­ity, we rec­om­mend you look for USB 3: a slower USB 2 con­nec­tion is likely to get bot­tle­necked, and video streams could be­come choppy if you try to ac­cess les at the same time.

PRIN­TERS AND 3G FAILOVER

USB isn’t just for stor­age. Your router may also al­low you to di­rectly con­nect a USB printer, so ev­ery­one on the net­work can con­ve­niently ac­cess it over your wire­less net­work. Some of this month’s routers have full print servers built in, so get­ting set up is as easy as with a pro­fes­sional net­work printer. Oth­ers re­quire you to in­stall a lo­cal app that for­wards print jobs to the router. It’s not a big im­po­si­tion, but it’s less el­e­gant and could be an ob­sta­cle if you want to print from a tablet or smart­phone.

Fi­nally, on some more busi­nes­sori­ented routers, you can also plug in a 3G or 4G USB don­gle: if your main in­ter­net con­nec­tion goes down, the router can then au­to­mat­i­cally switch to a mo­bile data con­nec­tion, so you can carry on work­ing (al­beit at slower speeds). This might be overkill for a typ­i­cal do­mes­tic net­work, but for those who work from home it’s cer­tainly worth think­ing about.

PARENTAL CON­TROLS

If you have kids in the house, you don’t want them look­ing up un­suit­able web­sites in the mid­dle of the night. Router-based parental con­trols are a great so­lu­tion, as you don’t need to in­stall any soft­ware on chil­dren’s de­vices, and there’s noth­ing for them to tam­per with.

Most routers will let you black­list speci c URLs – so if, for ex­am­ple, you want to keep your chil­dren off Face­book, it’s eas­ily done. Cat­e­gory based lter­ing may also be on of­fer, al­low­ing you to block all sites re­lat­ing to sex, vi­o­lence, gambling or what have you with a click, al­though you will have to put some trust in what­ever ser­vice is used to iden­tify and cat­e­gorise such sites.

You can nor­mally set up an ac­cess sched­ule for nom­i­nated de­vices, so your kids can only con­nect to the in­ter­net at ap­proved times. Some routers are a lot more ex­i­ble than oth­ers in this area: for ex­am­ple, the DrayTek Vig­or2762ac lets you con gure up to 15 time slots that can re­cur at what­ever in­ter­vals you spec­ify, while other sys­tems only let you de ne a sin­gle block of time, with no ex­i­bil­ity for home­work breaks or week­end hours.

SMART­PHONE AND ALEXA SUP­PORT

All of this month’s routers let you check and change set­tings via a web browser, but it may also be pos­si­ble to use a smart­phone app. This is nor­mally a more user-friendly ex­pe­ri­ence, giv­ing you ac­cess to the key set­tings with a few taps – and you don’t even have to be at home to do it, so you can check your se­cu­rity from any­where. These apps aren’t al­ways pass­word-pro­tected, though, so make sure you keep your phone locked when not in use.

An­other trendy fea­ture is in­te­gra­tion with the Ama­zon Echo plat­form: sev­eral man­u­fac­tur­ers have cre­ated skills that en­able Alexa to tell you the sta­tus of your net­work, ad­just set­tings or even re­boot the router. You can’t do com­pli­cated stuff like set­ting up port for­ward­ing or chang­ing your Wi-Fi passphrase, but it’s a nice con­ve­nience for Echo own­ers.

GUEST NET­WORKS

It’s only po­lite to share your wire­less net­work with friends and vis­i­tors, but it could be risky – de­pend­ing on your se­cu­rity set­tings, they could ac­cess your shared de­vices and even un­wit­tingly in­fect you with mal­ware. For this rea­son, many routers of­fer a guest net­work func­tion – a vir­tual wire­less net­work, with its own pass­word, that al­lows guests to ac­cess the in­ter­net but iso­lates them from your home net­work. You can sim­ply switch the guest net­work off when it’s not needed so users can’t con­tinue to pig­gy­back on your Wi-Fi with­out your knowl­edge.

This Linksys router is packed with Eth­er­net ports and ex­ter­nal aeri­als – both valu­able in­clu­sions

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