A guide to buying the best wireless router

Fact: Selecting the right wireless router can be a challenge. Businesses often spend thousands of pounds to hire wireless networking professionals to perform site surveys to determine the best equipment and means to deploy a wireless network. Small wonder, then, that home and small business users can feel frustrated when attempting to purchase, set up, and indeed maintain a wireless router and their own wireless networks!

To add to the confusion, router manufacturers now offer a new generation of wireless routers. These routers feature the latest 802.11x technology – 802.11ac – which is a step up from 802.11n, offering higher throughput speeds and better range. Sounds great, but does 802.11ac currently deliver any gains over 802.11n? Do you need a lesser expensive single-band router or a more expensive dual-band model? Do you need to upgrade or purchase an 802.11n router? What benefits does 802.11n give? Does a higher-end router mean better Internet connectivity? What about IPv6 – is it best to get a router that supports IPv6?

These questions, as well as factors like security, parental controls and extra features such as the ability to connect USB printers and external storage drives to a router for sharing in your personal network, are all considerations to weigh up when deciding to purchase or upgrade a router.

Many people turn to reviews on retail sites such as Amazon before buying a router. While you can get a general feel for other customers' experiences with a particular router, Wi-Fi is so fickle and performance can vary from one home to another. Just because someone had a terrific (or miserable) experience with a particular router does not necessarily mean you will have the same experience. Professional reviews in controlled environments, like those I carry out in our labs, are a better source for help in deliberating over which router to choose.

At any rate, here is a checklist and some information to help in your search for the perfect router for your networking needs:

Do you even need a Wi-Fi router?

A wireless router allows wireless devices (and wired devices) to hook up to an Internet connection and to communicate with other devices on your home network.

Some people only work from one laptop or PC that may be directly connected to their cable or DSL modem. They may not have other users or devices in their home or office that also need Internet connectivity (or file/printer sharing). If this applies to you, and you have no need to deviate from a fixed location from which you surf the Internet and carry out your computing tasks, then you don't need a wireless router.

However, with enticing gadgets like iPads, and given multiuser households and offices, most people these days want and can benefit from a wireless router. With a Wi-Fi router, browsing the Internet from an upstairs bedroom or sharing pictures and streaming music and video to all of the devices in a home or office is possible. If you want the capability to do these tasks, then yes, you need a router.

What type of network user are you?

A single home user who just wants to web surf doesn't need the same kind of router as a heavy duty gamer, a multimedia enthusiast or a small business. A single-band router like the Almond (pictured above) is a basic, solid performer that would suit the needs of anyone looking for simple Wi-Fi connectivity and easy setup. Plus it has the bonus of being the only touchscreen router currently on the market!

In contrast, something like Buffalo's AirStation Extreme AC1750 router would be a great choice for those who want to perform bandwidth demanding tasks such as HD video streaming or moving large files to and from NAS devices. Of course, higher-end routers will also come with higher price tags.

Single or dual-band?

While researching routers, you will inevitably stumble across the term "bands." The 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are the frequencies in which wireless communications operate. 802.11b and 802.11g devices use the 2.4GHz band, while 802.11n can use either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz band and 802.11ac only uses 5 GHz.

A single-band 2.4GHz router is geared towards simple wireless networks. On the other hand, a dual-band router like the Western Digital My Net N900 operates on both the 2.4 and 5GHz frequencies. The 5GHz band is less crowded then the 2.4GHz band; less equipment runs on 5GHz. That's why it's better equipped for throughput-intensive work within your home network such as gaming and file streaming. You will also get better internal network performance.

The one downside of 5GHz is that it’s inferior to 2.4GHz when it comes to sustaining a signal at greater distances. So, if you are looking for a dual-band router to take advantage of the 5GHz bandwidth, you'll want to factor in distance when placing the router in your home or office.

One other matter to consider when it comes to Wi-Fi bands is that some of your devices may only work with a given band, so bear that in mind, too.

300Mbps, 900Mbps, 1900Mbps... all those numbers!

When router shopping you will notice three (or four) digit numbers emblazoned on most routers' packaging, indicating the speed of the router. A few years ago, 300Mbps was the standard speed of most Wi-Fi routers. That meant that testing under the best circumstances, which means in what we call a "clean room" with no interference, the router can achieve up to 300Mbps speeds. Currently, 1750Mbps or even 1900Mbps routers are being marketed.

Do note, though, that you will never see those actual speeds. Issues such as channel overlap and interference mean that a router in a typical home or office environment will never reach these theoretical speeds touted by vendors. When reviewing routers in a real-world testing environment, if I see speeds close to half of what a vendor says a router is capable of, I consider that an excellent result!

Of course, fast router speeds don't have anything to do with how fast your Internet connection is. A 300Mbps router won't make your Internet connection any faster than a 1900Mbps router – that speed is set by your ISP. What a faster speed router helps with is the performance of your internal network: Streaming music and video, sharing files and so on.

Do I need 802.11n?

Yes is the short answer to this question. 802.11n is the standard in wireless networking now. If you are purchasing a new router, be it single or dual-band, go with an 802.11n router. 802.11n routers can run in "mixed mode" so that non-802.11n wireless devices can connect as well.

What about 802.11ac?

There are a host of new routers on the market that are being advertised as 802.11ac routers. 802.11ac is the latest 802.11x wireless networking standard. 11ac can provide up to almost 1Gbps throughput under ideal conditions in supported dual-band routers, or up to 500 Mbps on a single-band, increasing the limitation of up to 450 Mbps on a single-band of 802.11n. Furthermore, 11ac is designed to provide better range than 802.11n currently does on the 5GHz band.

The tricky part of 11ac is that the standard is still in development. The Wi-Fi Alliance is an organisation that tests to make sure that networking products sold to customers do what manufacturers say they are supposed to do. Once tested, the Wi-Fi Alliance allows vendors to sell products as Wi-Fi Alliance certified. Since 802.11ac is yet to be finalised (also called ratified or drafted) there are no products on the market that are certified. That isn't stopping vendors from releasing pre-draft 802.11ac routers. Years ago, you may remember seeing 11n pre-draft routers on the market before 802.11n became standardised. The pre-draft 11n routers were far below the performance levels of later 802.11n routers that came out once 802.11n was ratified.

The same thing is happening with 802.11ac. The 11ac routers we have tested are getting better and better, and offering some gains over 802.11n as concerns speed and range. However, there aren't really any compatible 802.11ac adapters yet, mostly only USB adapters (although Apple's new MacBooks do have built-in 11ac adapters).

So, if you want a guaranteed future-proofed router, go with an 11ac router but be advised, there aren't a lot of wireless device that can take advantage of 11ac speeds just yet. (If you are going to plump for one of these models, then be sure to have a look at our 802.11ac wireless router group test).

What type of security?

Most of the newer routers support the highest level of security, WPA2. Make sure your new router supports WPA2. If you have children you may want to consider a router with parental controls.

Other considerations

If you are looking for a router that you don't want to upgrade anytime soon, consider going with one that supports IPv6. While the switch from IPv4 to IPv6 networking appears to still be some time coming, a router that supports IPv6 will help keep your network intact when your ISP transitions over to IPv6 as well.

Some routers also offer extras such as SD card slots, and USB ports for printer sharing and external drive sharing. If those are features you want in your network, bear that in mind during your search, and look for routers that support those features.

For more router tips, see our guide to setting up a wireless router, and our guide to testing your wireless router's performance. You might also want to read up on how to secure your wireless router, and we've also got some tips on boosting your wireless router's signal.