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Which WLAN to choose?

There is a newer version of this article here.


Like the good engineer that I am, I sometimes tend to overexplain things. I'm also big on having shoppers understand their requirements so that they can buy a product that best suits their needs. So it's probably not a surprise that my How To Choose the Right Wireless LAN for You may have been a bit much for some readers, especially folks whose first interest is not home networking.

So this time, I'm taking a different approach. I'm going to skip the why and how and get right to the who and what of wireless router buying. If you don't want (or care) to get into the details behind what makes a wireless router tick and just want a short list of candidates to consider, then this article is for you.

The Four Types of Wireless Routers

There are four basic types of wireless routers.

  • Single-band "G"
  • Single-band "N"
  • Dual-band, single-radio "N"
  • Dual-band, two-radio "N"

The main variation within each type is whether the WAN and LAN ports are Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 Mbps) or just 10/100 Mbps. Unless you have an Internet connection capable of > 100 Mbps up and/or download speed, you don't need a Gigabit WAN port.

Gigabit LAN ports are good to have, if you have devices with Gigabit Ethernet ports. But you can always buy a router with 10/100 ports and pick up a 5 port Gigabit Ethernet switch later (~ $35) if you upgrade your wired network.

Note that If you have a wireless device that uses the old 802.11b standard, you can rest assured that all the four types above can get it connected.

End of the Draft
It's been a long time coming. But by the end of 2009, the 802.11n standard will be finalized. So, in the interest of keeping things simple, I'm dropping the use of "draft" when talking about "N" routers.

The key technical features of 802.11n were decided years ago and the finalization of the standard primarily resolves long-standing arguments among warring camps. So there is no need to hold off buying "N" type routers until after year end.

The list above is in approximate order of cost from cheapest to most expensive. Specials, coupons, close-outs, etc. can greatly affect what you'll pay. But if we're talking list, non-sale price from most brick-and-mortal retailers, the cheapest routers will be the single-band "G"s and the most expensive, the dual-band, two-radio "N"s.

At the risk of being out of date the second I publish this, here are approximate ranges for the four types:

Router Type Price Range
Single-band "G"
$30 - $60
Single-band "N"
$70 - $100
Dual-band, single-radio "N"
$100 - $130
Dual-band, two-radio "N" $130 - $250
Table 1: Wireless Router Types and Prices

You will find exceptions to every one of these price ranges, particularly if you're ok with buying refurbished and discontinued close-out products.

Note: I am not including the emerging class of "N150" routers in the primary router types. I can't think of a situation where they are a good choice. Read Buyers Beware! Single Stream Draft 802.11n Products Bring Back Spec Spin for my reasons why.

Frequency Bands

G and single band N routers operate in the 2.4 GHz radio band. This is the same frequency band that many other wireless devices operate in, including some cordless phones, intercoms, baby monitors and microwave ovens. It's also where most wireless networks operate, at least in the U.S..

The more of these devices that are in range of your wireless network, the lower and less consistent your speed will be. In really crowded areas, you may find your laptop or other wireless device constantly dropping connection to your router, or speeds wildly swinging from fast to snail-slow.

The 2.4 GHz band has 11 channels (in the U.S.), but only three of them (Channels 1, 6 and 11) don't overlap, as shown in Figure 1. Channel overlap is bad, because it's another form of interference, which reduces your wireless LAN's speed and reliability.

Although there is nothing stopping you from tuning your router to any of the other channels, for best performance, use only channels 1, 6 or 11. Contrary to what you might think, using the other channels doesn't improve performance. That's because your signal looks like interference to networks on 1, 6 and 11 and vice versa.

2.4 GHz band channels

Figure 1: 2.4 GHz band channels
From Wi-Fi Hotspots: Setting Up Public Wireless Internet Access
(Cisco Press, 2006) by Eric Geier , used by permission

Dual-band routers operate in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Single-radio models make you choose one band or the other. Two-radio models (also called "simultaneous") allow you to support devices that connect in both bands at the same time.

The primary benefit of using the 5 GHz band is lower interference, which can improve your wireless network's speed and connection reliability. But the downside is that the 5 GHz signal is reduced more than the 2.4 GHz signal when passing through walls and other obstacles. So a router operating the the 5 GHz band may not be able to provide a usable connection in the same location that it can when switched to the 2.4 GHz band.

The 5 GHz band also has more non-overlapping channels than 2.4 GHz. So where the 2.4 GHz band has only three usable channels out of 11, routers that support the 5 GHz band usually support eight channels, which are all usable. So this increases your chances of finding a channel that doesn't interfere with neighboring networks.

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