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You are here: Wireless Wireless Basics How To Buy a Wireless Router: The Short Version - Speed, Choose Type, Products

How To Buy a Wireless Router: The Short Version - Speed, Choose Type, Products

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Speed

Wireless speed is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of wireless networks. Most consumer wireless manufacturers have moved away from prominently featuring speed and range numbers in their product descriptions and advertising and sometimes even in their specifications. Instead you'll see relative terms like "Good, Better, Best" and "1X, 2x, 4X" used to describe both speed and range.

Part of the reason is the effect of some quiet, but effective past lawsuits challenging manufacturers' wireless performance claims. But manufacturers have also decided to pass on educating consumers about what wireless "speed" numbers really mean and their relation to actual performance.

The main thing you need to know is how to match up a number that you might see on a box or spec sheet with the type of wireless technology it indicates. So Table 2 contains a little decoder you can use.

Maximum "Speed" Marketing Terms Type
11 Mbps
B, Wireless-B
B (802.11b)
54 Mbps
G, Wireless-G
G (802.11g)
300 Mbps
(draft) N, Wireless-N
N (802.11n)
150 Mbps
N150 Not Standard
Table 2: Wireless Speed vs. Wireless Type

The relationship between this number and your actual wireless throughput is explained here.

Choosing Your Type

This is primarily a cost vs. flexibility decision. So if price is no object and you're the type who likes to keep his or her options open, by all means go for a dual-band, dual radio model. As I write this, the most expensive dual-band, dual-radio N router is around $250, with others hovering around $150.

On the other end of the scale, if you already have a wireless LAN with all G devices and you're happy with its performance, there is no reason to change to "N". "Upgrading" to an N router won't increase your range or speed up your G devices. On the contrary, it could end up causing problems with very old gear. So if your G router has given up the ghost and you need to get a new wireless router, I'd shop for another G router vs. messing around with N.

The toughest choice is for folks in the middle, with mostly G devices and perhaps a new notebook or two that came with an N adapter. First, there is no reason to rush out to buy an "N" router if you're happy with the speeds and range that you get with your G router. Your new N notebook will work just fine at G speeds. You only need an N router if you want to try for higher speeds.

However, whenever there are G and N devices connected to the same N type router, they both will operate at slower speed, but only when both are active. So if you do a lot of long wireless downloads, file transfers or backups or watch a lot of online video via wireless connections, you will want to segregate G and N clients onto separate networks, for optimum performance of both types.

If you don't plan on using the N notebook much, most of your wireless traffic is web browsing, email, or other traffic that consists of short data transmissions, or you won't often use the N and G devices at the same time, then you can leave the devices mixed.

The easiest way to separate the client types, especially if you already have a G type router, is to add an N type router. See Add, Don't Replace When Upgrading to 802.11n for more details.

Another way to separate the client types is to use a dual-band, dual-radio N router. You would connect your G devices to the 2.4 GHz radio and your dual-band N devices to the 5 GHz radio. But this has the downside of shorter range for the 5 GHz band devices.

The two-band method is also an option only if the new N devices are dual-band. To tell, look for "agn" or "802.11a/b/g/Draft-N" in the notebook or device's wireless spec. The "a" indicates 802.11a, which is the earlier wireless spec for the 5 GHz band. The use of "N" by itself does not tell you if both bands are supported!

You may have to dig deep into the spec to determine 5 GHz band support. I just did a quick check over at Dell to see how they were spec'ing notebook wireless adapters. I found an Inspiron 15 listed with Wireless Networking Cards: Intel WiFi Link 5100 802.11 Wireless-N Mini Card. But nowhere could I find a reference to the fact that the Intel WiFi Link 5100 does, in fact, support 802.11a/b/g/Draft-N. I had to check Intel's description to find out.

So when would a single-radio, dual-band N router be a good choice? Actually, not that often. One case would be if you just want to experiment with 5 GHz and want to limit your expense. The other would be if you are just looking to add 5 GHz support to your existing WLAN, by configuring the router as an access point.

Example Products

So for those of you who just skipped to the end, hoping to find a list a "recommended" products, I'm sorry to disappoint you. The products listed below are not intended to be a "best product" list. If you want "best", then you need to go through the whole process.

However, these products are representative of the four product types and are reasonable choices that general consumers with typical wireless networking needs should be happy with. I have also tested most of the products and have linked to their reviews for your reference.

I've stuck with the "big three" vendors because they are what you're most likely to find on store shelves. So please, no whining because you don't see other vendors listed here.

Single-band G: Cisco / Linksys WRT54G2, NETGEAR WGR614, D-Link WBR-2310
Comment: G technology is pretty mature and any of these products should serve you well. All have 10/100 Ethernet WAN and LAN ports

Single-band N: Cisco / Linksys WRT160N, NETGEAR WNR2000, D-Link DIR-655
Comment: These aren't the cheapest choices. But they represent the mainstay products from these manufacturers in this segment. The DIR-655 is the only one having Gigabit WAN and LAN ports

Dual-band, single-radio "N": Cisco / Linksys WRT320N, NETGEAR (none) , D-Link DIR-628
Comment: NETGEAR has not had a decent dual-band offering that I would feel comfortable listing. The WRT320N has Gigabit ports; the DIR-628 has 10/100.

Dual-band, dual-radio "N": Cisco / Linksys WRT400N, NETGEAR WNDR3700, D-Link DIR-825
Comment: I debated adding the WNDR3700 since it's just hitting the market as I write this. Proceed at your own risk and I'll update this once I test it. The D-Link and NETGEAR have Gigabit ports; the WRT400N has 10/100.

Do Not Buy

I'd be remiss if I didn't include a list of the "N150" routers that I warned against earlier. These are the "single stream N technology" routers that are being marketed as "N150" products.

As I have said before, these are a marketing experiment aimed at luring unsuspecting shoppers who think they are buying something that will make their G devices work faster and / or go farther (they will do neither). They are pitched as cheaper alternatives to real N routers, but, in the end they aren't a good deal.

So listed below are products that you should stay away from:

Single-stream N technology / N150: Cisco / Linksys WRT120N, Cisco Linksys WRT110, NETGEAR WNR1000, D-Link DIR-600, Belkin N150
Comment: The Cisco / Linksys WRT120N is particularly bad, since it is named "Wireless-N Home Router" with no mention in its marketing material of its 150 Mbps maximum "speed". I also included the Belkin N150 because I reviewed it.

That's about it. Happy Shopping!




Related Items:

Cisco expands dual-band draft 802.11n product line
How To Buy a Wireless Router: 2014 Edition
How To Buy a Wireless Router: 2012 Edition
New to the Charts: Netgear WNDR3300 RangeMax Dual-Band Wireless N Rout
Three Things You Should Know About The Linksys WRT120N

Amazon Top-Selling Wireless Routers