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
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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