Wireless router basics
A wireless router is the heart of a wireless network, working much like the base station of a cordless phone with multiple handsets.
Each computer in a wireless network must have a network adapter (receiver) compatible with the Best Wireless Router For The Money — either an internal network card or chip, or a USB adapter. For a laptop, a network card adapter is another option, although most newer laptops have integrated network adapters and antennas. Reviews say to buy a wireless router and adapters made by the same company if you can. This facilitates both setup and technical support, and is sometimes necessary for compatibility. In several reviews, testers had trouble when mixing brands. Whether the same brand or not, the router and each adapter in the network must use the same or a compatible standard.
Wireless router standards are established by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). The latest official standard, now several years old, is called “802.11g” (also known as “Wireless-G”). The future standard for wireless networking is called “802.11n.” Though not officially ratified (the latest estimate for completion is spring of 2009), 802.11n is already being used in many wireless routers and adapter cards.
Eager chip and router manufacturers have already produced three generations of products containing parts of what each manufacturer hopes will be included in the 802.11n standard. Some of those technologies improve performance; others do not. Most of the wireless routers you can buy today are based on Draft 2.0, the third version of 802.11n technology, and most of the remaining models are older 802.11g routers.
Reviewers have mixed reactions to the Draft 2.0 routers. The overwhelming consensus is that these products are faster and can transmit to greater distances than any previous wireless routers. In testing, the better Draft 2.0 routers worked and played well with most 802.11g and much older 802.11b equipment in reviewer tests. The bad news is that the hyped radical speed improvements are still a future reality, and the Draft 2.0 routers do not conform to an official standard. In a Computerworld article, David Haskin informs, “Vendors are not making promises, but they are saying it is their hope that the Draft 2.0 products will be firmware upgradeable to the final, ratified standard when it is eventually approved.”
Interoperability is still a major concern of many reviewers. Since the 802.11n standard isn’t yet complete, there’s a chance that your future equipment may not be compatible. But at this point, Draft 2.0 is able to overcome the objections of a large minority of reviewers, including PC Magazine’s Robert Lipschutz, who writes, “The undeniable benefits are worth taking advantage of now.” Eric Bangeman of ArsTechnica.com cites the disadvantages but adds, “The increased range and more modest bandwidth increases make 802.11n a good bet if you’re ready to upgrade.” New laptops usually have integrated network adapters that are compatible with Draft 2.0.
One of 802.11n’s key features is MIMO (multiple input, multiple output), which manufacturers have implemented into products before the standards have been resolved. In general, MIMO routers use multiple antennas and different transmission technologies to improve speed and range, and MIMO routers have an easier time pushing the signal through obstacles like walls and doors. Computerworld’s David Haskin found, “The increased range of 802.11n will mean fewer ‘dead spots’ in homes served by a single Wi-Fi router.” (Dead spots are areas with no signal.)
Speed is hyped in reviews, but you can’t exceed the speed provided by your ISP and modem. Your current need for range is easier to figure. As wireless speed usually drops with longer distances, your need is dictated by the size and shape of your home. Most wireless routers have no trouble reaching speeds equal to broadband, but speed decreases as you get farther away from the router. Obstructions like walls, floors and doors can impede range. Most routers perform well up to about 60 feet in a normal home, but if you need more range and better throughput, a Draft 2.0 router may be necessary.
If you want to spend less, and you don’t need the fastest throughput or the longest range, 802.11g routers cost less and also work reliably. They also work well with older computers and wireless gear.
Most wireless routers are compatible with all recent Windows, Linux and Macintosh operating systems. Some include Windows-only setup software, but others have web-based setup. Most Linksys routers are officially only compatible with Windows 2000 or later, though some Mac users tell us they are successfully using Linksys routers.
D-Link, Netgear and Linksys each sell a confusing array of products with similar and unusually long names. We even found reviews that don’t clearly differentiate which product is being reviewed. D-Link has several products whose names start with RangeBooster. Netgear has three products whose names begin with RangeMax. Linksys has 20 products whose names start with Wireless-G and five more that start with Wireless-N. Each of these products also has a manufacturer’s model number. Look for the entire model name and number in stores, since similar-sounding models may in fact be very different in performance.
Best wireless routers
In just about all comparative performance tests, the D-Link DIR-655 Xtreme N Gigabit Router (*est. $120) is identified as the fastest wireless router. The D-Link DIR-655 is a Draft 2.0 router, but it’s backward compatible with 802.11g and 802.11b devices, which is one of the big advantages cited by reviewers. It should work with your preexisting networking hardware. Reviewers such as InformationWeek’s Don Reisinger say the D-Link DIR-655 wireless router performs exceptionally well in mixed networks.
The D-Link DIR-655 has three external antennas, Gigabit Ethernet WAN and LAN ports, a USB port, dual firewalls and three methods of encryption for security. Its QoS technology analyzes and prioritizes wireless data streams, giving priority to intensive tasks like online gaming and video streaming.
Most reviewers have one major criticism of the D-Link DIR-655: it is challenging to set up and use. PC Magazine gives the wireless router an Editors’ Choice award, in spite of its complex interface that Robert Lipschutz fears may intimidate some users. Reisinger says that although the web-based interface gives users lots of options for customization, “the menus are overcrowded and maneuvering your way to a specified setting is a pain.” The D-Link DIR-655 wireless router isn’t fastest in every test, but no other wireless router performs as consistently well in as many reviews.
The D-Link DIR-855 Xtreme N Duo Media Router (*est. $300) is among the newest and most expensive routers in this update because it is a dual-band model. Most wireless routers output data over one radio band (2.4GHz). A dual-band router simultaneously outputs data over a second radio band (5GHz) to double — at least in theory — the data throughput. These types of routers are especially useful in setups where media, such as streaming video, has to compete with normal data traffic on a regular basis.
PC Magazine is one of the first to weigh in with a full review of the DIR-855 wireless router, and they are clearly smitten, naming it as an Editors’ Choice. Reviewer Oliver Rist compliments the DIR-855’s overall great performance and user interface, but says setup is a challenge because of software that is as “buggy as all get-out.”
Reviewers say that the TRENDnet TEW-633GR (*est. $105) has the same circuitry as the D-Link DIR-655. TRENDnet’s competitive disadvantage is that it’s a relatively unknown company in the U.S. (although it is well established internationally). Techgage Networks selects the TEW-633GR as an Editor’s Choice. Greg King explains, “Given the huge popularity of the D-Link DIR-655, performance numbers show that the 633GR is just as good and … cheaper.” He also notes that TRENDnet provides a better limited warranty. SmallNetBuilder.com reaches the same conclusion. The reviewers summarize, “If you’re trying to decide between the two, the choice will come down to which company you feel more comfortable with: Trendnet or D-Link.”
The TRENDnet TEW-631BRP 300 Mbps Wireless N-Draft Router (*est. $80) is a budget alternative to the D-Link DIR-655 and similar TRENDnet TEW-633GR. It earns top ratings and recommendations from CRN, Bit-tech.net and Personal Computer World. According to just about all reviews, the D-Link DIR-655 is the faster router of the two, but the difference may not be worth the $40 price premium. The three-year warranty is a plus, as is the low price. However, it was also the only router not to feature a Gigabit Ethernet switch, so Gigabit Ethernet connectivity for wired devices is not supported (you can still connect wired devices through slower 10/100 ports).
In another test of four routers, Bit-tech.net achieved the fastest performance in online gaming with the TRENDnet TEW-631BRP. We found mixed reviews on setup; Bit-tech.net’s Josh Blodwell experienced some problems with setup, but is still satisfied that it is the best choice. CRN’s Marc Spiwak concludes that the TRENDnet router has a straightforward interface. Tim Smith of Personal Computer World says the interface is a bit complicated, and will appeal more to techies.
Other routers don’t do quite as well in reviews. The Belkin F5D8232-4 N1 Vision (*est. $200) garners mixed ratings. Computer Shopper (UK) gives the N1 Vision its highest rating. Matt Smith says, “Installation couldn’t be simpler.” Performance is ordinary, but Smith is impressed with features, such as a useful display and four-port Gigabit Ethernet switch.
However, CNet.com’s benchmark comparison charts show that the Belkin N1 Vision is one of the slowest routers on the market (in a laboratory environment). Wi-Fi Planet summarizes, “Fancy styling and ease of use can’t overcome lackluster performance compared to other Draft-N products.” The N1 Vision only earns a middling average rating in user reviews. Issues are varied, but setup problems and product failure are not unusual.
The Linksys WRT600N Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router with Storage Link (*est. $200) is a dual-band model that receives mixed reviews. Laptop magazine selects it as an Editor’s Choice; Tim Higgins of SmallNetBuilder.com, which conducts the most comprehensive testing, says the Linksys WRT600N is fine, but prospective buyers should wait for a more mature product.
The Apple AirPort Extreme (*est. $175) is a dual-band router that generates extreme reactions from reviewers. (Note that the AirPort Extreme is also Windows-compatible.) ArsTechnica.com’s Todd Haselton compares four wireless routers, finding that the D-Link DIR-655 is more than twice as fast as the AirPort Extreme at short range, but it doesn’t do well at long range. Laptop magazine selects the AirPort Extreme as an Editor’s Choice. John Brandon considers it for Macintosh laptop owners and notes that some features won’t work under Windows. SmallNetBuilder.com conducts much more extensive testing, and recommends the AirPort Extreme for consumers who need a dual-band Draft-N router. Because the Apple router can operate at either 2.4GHz or 5.0GHz, interference with other wireless devices is minimal.
In a detailed review at InformationWeek, Don Reisinger finds little justification for buying the Apple AirPort Extreme: “Its performance and price make this router a bit of a disappointment.” He reports, “At a distance of 10 feet on a mixed network, the router scored just 14 Mbps — a very low showing for such a high-priced router.” Most reviewers do say the AirPort Extreme is easy to use.
Budget wireless-G routers
Manufacturers do not want you to buy an 802.11g wireless router. They have discontinued most models and replaced them with Draft 2.0 wireless routers, which reviews show are much faster, but nowhere near as fast as claimed. Still, consumers have several reasons for considering 802.11g products; they are cheaper than Draft 2.0 routers, and are a viable budget alternative. Compatibility with your existing networking equipment may be another reason to buy a Wireless-G router, but reviewers do say that the best Draft 2.0 routers, such as the D-Link DIR-655, work well in mixed networks. Others, such as the Apple AirPort Extreme, do not.
We found many older favorable reviews of the Linksys WRT54GS Wireless-G Broadband Router with SpeedBooster (*est. $60) and the Linksys WRT54G Wireless-G Broadband Router (*est. $45) . Both routers include a firewall, data encryption capability, connectivity for wired Ethernet computers and printers and a web-based configuration utility. The Linksys WRT54G is also compatible with Windows 98SE and ME, making it a suitable choice for old computers. The WRT54GS requires Windows 2000 or newer. Neither router is officially Macintosh-compatible, though we have received e-mails from users who are successfully using Linksys routers in a Mac environment, and many forums and blogs on the Internet talk about Linksys’ Mac compatibility.
PC Magazine praises both the Linksys WRT54G and WRT54GS wireless routers for their easy setup and security features. Laptop magazine rates the WRT54GS relatively highly in a December 2005 review. John Brandon commends its ease of use as well as its speed and range. PC Pro also commends its speed, and gives the Linksys WRT54GS a Recommended rating. CNet.com has downgraded its still-high rating of the WRT54GS since the original June 2004 review because the router has been surpassed by newer technology.
We found more than a thousand user reviews of the Linksys WRT54GS wireless router at Newegg.com, Amazon.com and CNet.com, but it only receives middling average ratings. Buyers who bottom-rate the product either couldn’t get it to work or had reliability issues later.
Linksys also sells a travel version of the WRT54GS (see below). The two products share a model number, but are different colors and shapes. Look for a picture of a black-and-blue housing if you’re combing ads or shopping online.
The Linksys WRT54G is older and slower than the Linksys WRT54GS, which is why it costs less. Reviews for this model are as old as 2003, and the firmware has been upgraded at least five times since then. Laptop magazine selects it as an Editor’s Choice in July 2005. Even then, John Brandon admits it does not excel in speed and distance tests, but it is a great value and terrifically easy to set up. SmallNetBuilder.com was very impressed with speed. CNet.com was also impressed with the WRT54G’s value.
User reviews of the WRT54G aren’t particularly impressive, but it has received more than 2,700 reviews at Amazon.com, CNet.com and Newegg.com. That quantity of reviews shows both the age and popularity of the Linksys WRT54G. While nearly a fifth of users give the WRT54G wireless router the lowest rating, that’s actually pretty good for a budget product. The WRT54G is being replaced by the WRT54G2 (*est. $50) , which has not been formally reviewed yet. SmallNetBuilder.com says the new product has fixed internal antennas instead of adjustable external antennas. Early user reviews are encouraging.
Manufacturers are introducing a variety of specialty routers. Some of them are dedicated to a specific task, but most of them are wireless routers with additional capabilities. With very few exceptions, reviews say these routers are average or worse performers at their primary task, which is distributing Internet streams with as little loss as possible. As ArsTechnica.com says, “The danger with these Jack-of-all-trades devices is that they oftentimes end up being master of none.” Specialty routers are available for travel, online game playing, streaming music and Internet telephone use.
Travel routers garner more reviews from mainstream sources than other specialty routers, but few have been considered in the past two years. The Linksys WTR54GS Wireless-G Travel Router with SpeedBooster (*est. $180) is reviewed by Will Stapley in Personal Computer World. He recommends it as a specialty product with caveats: it got very hot in his usage, and it is only compatible with other Linksys SpeedBooster wireless devices. PC Magazine’s Craig Ellison says this router has enough power and range for use in a hotel room, but no further. Ellison praises features including a built-in power supply and wired LAN port.
Although it has the same rating as the WTR54GS Wireless-G Travel Router with SpeedBooster, PC Magazine selects the Kyocera KR1 Mobile Router (*est. $150) as an Editors’ Choice. It’s a different product because it’s made to work with Alltel, Sprint or Verizon cellular Internet service. It requires a 1x EV-DO PC card or cell phone. CNet.com’s Felisa Yang notes that you have to be in an area with the appropriate service to use the router. Both reviewers say this is the best EV-DO cellular router.
A variety of products, including wireless routers, are available for listening to computer- or Internet-based music through a stereo system or remote speakers. Most enable listening to streaming music (such as Internet radio), listening to compressed music files stored on a hard drive (such as MP3 or Windows Media file formats) and listening to uncompressed WAV files (on CDs or hard drives).
Apple’s M9470LL/A AirPort Express with AirTunes (*est. $220) is compatible with a variety of file formats, but will only work with Apple’s proprietary iTunes software. The AirPort Express also works as a range extender with specific routers and as a wireless print server.
The router has not been recently reviewed, but PC Magazine selected the AirPort Express as an Editors’ Choice in July 2004. The AirPort Express is also Windows-compatible. On the other hand, Macintosh users are not limited to Apple-brand routers: nearly all current routers work with most operating systems.
If you spend much time downloading music or larger files (such as movies or software), you might want to consider a router that is oriented to game-players. At this point, few wireless routers are being specifically marketed as gaming routers, but many include the Quality of Service feature. Laptop magazine’s John Brandon explains, “Quality of Service (QoS) is a feature on some routers, such as the D-Link DIR-655, that prioritizes traffic based on whether you need a consistent connection.” He adds that QoS is important for VoIP calls and multiplayer gaming “because it makes the connection smooth and reduces the number of dropouts.” However, those who just surf the web or download files are unlikely to notice signal dropouts in routers that lack a QoS feature.
Important Features: Wireless routers
Experts recommend considering these features when selecting a wireless router:
- Determine your needs for speed and range. If you live in a one-story house or a modest apartment, a Draft 2.0 wireless router may be overkill. If you are an online game player, heavy file trader, or your network consists of distantly separated rooms, Draft 2.0 will work better than Wireless-G. Draft 2.0 may help reduce interference as well.
- Look for certification. The Wi-Fi Alliance says, “Consumer and enterprise users should look for the Wi-Fi CERTIFIED logo or certification validation when purchasing 802.11n draft 2.0 products.” Reviewers agree that this is an advantage, but note that manufacturers aren’t always willing to incur the time and expense required for certification.
- Base your purchase on the networking equipment you plan to continue to use. If you already have networking equipment, make sure you buy a router that will be compatible.
- Manufacturer claims of range are inflated. Experts say you can expect about half that. Going through walls — especially brick or concrete — or going up or down levels will also greatly diminish the effective range. Many manufacturers make accessories to extend the range of their routers, including repeaters, bridges and extra antennas, but these add a lot to the cost of the network.
- You’ll also need network adapters for each computer you add to the network. You’ll need either internal or external cards. Your desktop or laptop may already have installed wireless networking components. Not all routers have corresponding adapters.
- Interference from cell phones, microwave ovens, cordless phones and other household electronics may cause annoying interference with a wireless network. If you have a cordless phone that uses the 2.4GHz bandwidth, you can avoid interference by upgrading to a 5.8GHz or 2.9GHz DECT phone. Draft 2.0 routers can operate on either the 2.4GHz or 5.0GHz bands.