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Wireless Basics

Making the Choice

With six N types and draft AC thrown in, you would think router selection would be difficult. But determining the router type is actually easy. The five main choices are found in Table 4.

Scenario Product Type Choice Example Products
- Price is no object
- Want storage/printer sharing
- Have dual band devices
- Have N450 devices
N900 with Gigabit and USB ports - ASUS RT-N66U
- Cisco Linksys EA4500 / E4200v2
- D-Link DIR-857
- NETGEAR WNDR4500
- Want storage/printer sharing
- Have dual band devices
- Have no N450 devices
N600 with Gigabit and USB ports - ASUS RT-N56U
- D-Link DIR-827
- NETGEAR WNDR3800
- Don't need storage/printer sharing
- Have dual band devices
- Have no N450 devices
- Have no Gigabit Ethernet devices
N600 - Cisco Linksys E2500
- EnGenius ESR7750
- Have mostly G and a few 2.4 GHz N devices
- Don't need storage/printer sharing
N300 - D-Link DIR-657 (Gigabit)
- Cisco Linksys E1200 (10/100)
- Want the cheapest router capable of operating at "N" speeds Refurbished N300 - Any N300 above
- Cisco Linksys E1000
Table 4: Selection table

Note that the example products are not endorsements, or recommended in any way. They are just examples of products in the given category.

But why not the other product types?

N150 (single-stream N) was intended for mobile client devices that have space and power constraints, not for use in routers and access points. These routers can't be Wi-Fi Certified as a result. These are ok if you're looking for a mobile router to support multiple devices in a hotel room or a powerline-connected mini access point to extend your wireless LAN's range. But otherwise you're better off buying a lesser-known N300 router or a refurbished name-brand one. Cisco has the broadest selection of refurbished Linksys products in its outlet store.

N450 routers might be a good choice if you have single band N450 clients. But if you're into this class of products, you're likely to have 5 GHz or dual-band three-stream devices, which are better served by an N900 router.

N750 were stopgap products issued before N900 routers arrived. While they let you save a bit of money vs. N900 products, you are better off spending a bit more for a full N900 product to have the ability to handle N450 devices on both bands. If you want to save money, look for previous-generation or factory-certified refurbished products.

The "future proofing" argument for draft AC N1750 products at this point is premature. We've seen only first-generation products, all of which use the same Broadcom chipset. There are also no draft AC client devices as I write this. So you basically have to buy two AC routers and use one as a router and the other as a client bridge to achieve the high throughput that draft AC can deliver. Not really a good deal.

Of course, manufacturers want you to trade up to AC routers now and are sweetening the pot by pricing them at the same level as top-end N900 routers. But draft AC products provide neither better throughput nor range than N900 routers. And when single-stream mobile AC devices start appearing, you can be assured that there will be a new crop of AC routers that are "mobile optimized" or have some other marketing come-on to get you to upgrade from the AC router you bought this year, thinking you had "future proofed".

A final bit of advice for those of you with a lot of devices, especially a lot of tablets and smart phones and/or old G devices. 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 wireless networks, for optimum performance of both types.

This means buying a second router, converting it to an access point and setting it to a legacy mode. Or you can buy an access point, but consumer versions are hard to find and business versions tend to be expensive. See Add, Don't Replace When Upgrading to 802.11n, How To Convert a Wireless Router into an Access Point and How To Add an Access Point to a Wireless Router for more info.

If you don't plan on using the N devices 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 and not add the access point.

Closing Thoughts

The main thrust of this article has been to point you to the right class of router. Once you determine that, there is still a world of choice out there.

In the end, the only real way to know how a wireless router will perform is to try it. The SNB Forums are full of people agonizing over choosing the best router, getting confused by all the conflicting reviews and advice. All for something that's going to cost them maybe $200 tops if they go all in and more typically around $100 for something that will probably suit them just fine.

The better way to go is determine the class of router you need, hit the Router Charts routing benchmarks to make sure it has enough wired routing throughput to handle your Internet connection speed and use the Router Charts wireless benchmarks to look at relative performance among the routers you are considering. Narrowing the selection by using the Router Finder filters and then clicking the Compare Performance link in the Performance section will generate a custom bar chart for easier comparison.

Some people like to start with the least expensive option that meets their needs and work up. Others go for all the bells and whistles to start and stay there, trying all the "leading" routers. No matter which way you go, Amazon has a very liberal return policy and you'll get all your money back (minus shipping) as long as you return the product in the same condition as you received it. Cisco's Home Store has 90 day (!) no-hassle returns for new and 30 days for refurbed products and they pay shipping. There are other options out there. Use them to make sure that you're getting something that works for you!

Good luck and happy hunting!

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