How to buy the best wireless router for you
Before investing in a new router, check whether it will work with your internet connection. If you have an old-style ADSL connection, you’ll want a router with an ADSL2+ modem built in; if you have fibre broadband, you probably need a router with VDSL2 support.
In some cases, all you need is an external WAN port. If you’re a Virgin Media fibre customer, for example, you can switch the supplied router into modem mode and connect it to your chosen router with an Ethernet cable. And some routers – such as the DrayTek Vigor 2860AC – support both ADSL and VDSL, which could be very handy if you’re planning to switch providers in the future.
What’s the difference between “dual-band” and “tri-band”?
All modern routers should be “dual-band”, which means they can communicate with wireless devices using both the 2.4GHz radio band and the 5GHz band. The 5GHz band is usually faster, as it’s less affected by interference from household appliances and other wireless networks, but some older devices don’t support it. The 2.4GHz band also has a longer range, so it can be good for big old houses with thick walls.
The latest “tri-band” routers contain two separate 5GHz radios alongside a single 2.4GHz one. This allows twice as many 5GHz devices to communicate simultaneously at full speed.
What’s the difference between a wireless router and a mesh system?
A mesh system does the same basic job as a router, but alongside the main unit it comes with additional “satellites”, which you can place around your home to help distribute the wireless signal more widely. Mesh systems are more expensive than the average router, but if you’re struggling to get a decent connection in the far reaches of your home, a mesh kit could be the perfect answer.
Do I need 802.11ac?
These days any decent router should also support the 802.11ac standard, which came along in 2013. It works with all the latest laptops and phones – and it delivers a big speed boost that’s well worth having. Don’t worry if your devices don’t all support 802.11ac: all modern routers also support the 802.11n wireless standard, which will work with devices of every type, from tablets to smart TVs.
What speeds can I expect to see?
Router manufacturers may advertise some very fast transfer speeds, but these are theoretical maximums: you’ll never get close to them in real life.
They also have a misleading habit of adding up the speeds of different radios to come up with a total data rate. For example, if a router has a 2.4GHz radio that supports speeds up to 400Mbits/sec, plus two 5GHz radios rated at up to 867Mbits/sec, the manufacturer may tot these up to advertise a total speed of 2,134Mbits/sec. But in reality, no single device will get a connection faster than 867Mbits/sec, and the real-world transfer speeds you see will probably be less than half of that.
Don’t get too hung up on extreme speeds: it’s nice to be able to quickly copy big files around your personal network, but when it comes to downloads and video streaming, the bottleneck is usually your internet connection rather than the router.
How many wired Ethernet ports do I need?
Ethernet ports are far from obsolete. Many “smart” home devices come with low-power hubs that need to be wired into your router – and if you plan on adding a NAS drive to your network at any point, that’s also going to occupy a port. We’d suggest you look for a model that has at least four ports – although if need be, you can buy a low-cost Ethernet switch to attach more wired devices to your router.
What other features should I look out for?
Routers with external antennae tend to perform better over long distances than those that don’t; all things being equal, we’d always choose a router with several aerials sticking up, even if it doesn’t look as neat as an all-in-one design. Other things to look out for are MU-MIMO and 802.11ac Wave 2 technologies – advanced technical features that boost speed and reliability.
If you have kids, you might want to look for a router with built-in parental controls. Some let you restrict access to the internet on a per-device basis at certain times of day, or limit it to a certain accumulated amount of time; some even provide category-based web filtering. You can alternatively install software on individual devices to do this, but router-based controls are easier to keep on top of and administer.
Finally, a USB 3 socket makes it easy to share a hard disk or thumb drive with your whole network. It’s a cheap alternative to a NAS drive for easily sharing files, although it won’t give you the security of a properly configured RAID array. USB 2 works too, but it’s a lot slower.