5 Tips For Buying A Future Proof Router

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Tim Higgins

I recently saw another "please suggest a router to help me future-proof my network" post in the Forums. So rather than write the same advice yet again, here it is so that I can just link to it and hopefully more people will see it.

Follow, Don’t Lead

Trying to get ahead of the wireless networking industry is a fool’s errand. Technology marches on, so you need to either move along with it, get trampled or stay out of the parade.

Today, every manufacturer is trying to get you to ditch your N router for AC. Soon they’ll be beating the drum for MU-MIMO AC routers, probably around the same time they start trying to convince you that combo Wi-Fi / WiGig routers are the way to go.

See a pattern here?

Since you can’t fight (or outwit) progress, the best thing to do is let it work for you. This means abandoning the "how do I buy something that’s going to last me X years" mindset and moving to a "how do I go with the flow" mentality.

Here are the five tips.

Tip 1: Understand What You Are Buying

Assuming your current router is fast enough to handle your internet connection, the main reason driving you to buy a new wireless router is most likely the hope of higher throughput or increased range. The wireless networking industry is sharply focused on the former, but falling backward on the latter.

Notice that I said throughput, not speed. Higher speed or link rate does not necessarily bring higher throughput. See How Fast Can Your Wi-Fi Go? for more about this.

802.11ac provides higher throughput in the 5 GHz band only. And 5 GHz signals don’t go as far as those in the stuffed-to-the-gills 2.4 GHz band. The 60 GHz technology in WiGig / 802.11ad steps back in range yet again, providing higher bandwidth only in same-room / next-room applications.

Tip 2: Don’t Be First

The paradigm is that new technology appears in its most expensive form first, followed by less expensive versions. Always let the wave of first-to-market $200 routers go by. Besides expensive, most will also be plenty buggy.

Do you really want to pay to be a beta tester when all you are trying to do is frag zombies or watch YouTube in peace?

Tip 3: Set Your Budget

Decide on a price that won’t make you moan about how much you spent on a router that lasted only a year before you replaced it. I suggest $100 maximum, although I was recently told by an industry insider that most U.S. consumers spend about $70 on a router. Whatever you decide, remember, no pissing and moaning when it comes time to move on.

Most new routers are introduced at CES in January and take four to six months to appear. So plan your new router shopping for around mid-year. When the time comes, stick to your price point and go for as many of the features on your wish list as you can get. Be sure to keep an eye out for clearances of last year’s $200 stuff and don’t hesitate to buy factory-refurbished models.

Tip 4: Don’t Agonize

This is actually two tips in one. Don’t agonize over the purchase and don’t hesitate to kick a router that isn’t working to the curb. Buy from retailers / etailers with 30 day return policies and plan your buy for a time where you will be able to experiment and see if your new toy brings you the improvements you hope for. If not, return and buy another from your short list. Rinse and repeat until you find your bliss.

Tip 5a: Don’t Forget Your Devices

It’s a rare router that will fix all your wireless woes. In fact, if you find one, please tell me. Bringing in an N or AC router isn’t going to improve range, nor do "high power" routers. As Tip 1 noted, newer wireless technology is focused on increasing bandwidth, not range.

The only way to take advantage of the increased bandwidth is with wireless devices that support the same standard. If your smarty phone has a single-antenna N radio, the most it’s ever going to link at is 150 Mbps (more typically, 65 Mbps). So that top-of-line AC1750 router you just brought home isn’t going to make video stream to it any smoother. The only way to do that is to buy a new phone with an AC radio.

Tip 5b: Don’t Buy Ahead

This tip is closely related to 5a, but I broke it out separately to make sure the point isn’t missed. The biggest mistake people make is buying capability they can’t use today in hope of "future proofing". I’ve done it plenty of times myself and rarely end up using the "future proofing" before the technology wheel spins and shoots out a next-generation version that is cheaper, perhaps performs a bit better and usually has most bugs exterminated.

Fortunately, I don’t pay a lot for the unused features because I typically buy a generation behind anyway and buy refurbished products whenever I can.

With wireless, this means not buying an AC router until you have AC devices to go with it. If your current router dies and you can’t bring yourself to buy "old" technology, then use Tip 3. Don’t overspend for something you’re probably not going to use anytime soon.

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