Buying and configuring a new wireless router can be a mind-numbing exercise. You might not need much hand-holding if you’re pretty confident in your geeky skills, but there are plenty of people who know next to nothing about wireless networking. Some boxy device they bought a few years ago lets them watch YouTube on the toilet, and that’s all that matters.
It’s important to understand at least basics of how your home network operates, because that’ll help you troubleshoot (or upgrade) it when your connection starts getting crazy. It’ll also help ensure that you’re getting the best possible speeds from all your networking gear—incredibly important if you’re already plunking down a decent considerable amount of money each month for a high-speed internet plan (or fibre!)
We’ll start by getting to know the most important device on your network: your router.
What the hell is a wireless router
Your router is the glue that holds your home network together. It connects all your computers to one another, either through Ethernet cables or a wireless connection.
A router is different than a modem: your modem connects you to the internet, while your router connects your computers to one another. When you hook up your router to the modem, you’re then able to share that internet connection with all of the computers on your network.
Some modems come with routers built-in, but this isn’t always the case. You should not connect your desktop or laptop PC directly to your modem if it doesn’t have a built-in router, as a router has a number of features designed to protect your devices from the outside world. Your modem does not. You’re also probably paying your ISP for the privilege of leasing a crappy modem (or modem/router) from them, so purchasing your own awesome modem and router—separate buys—is the best thing you could do for your home network.
Devices that connect to your router—computers, tablets, smartphones, smarthome speakers, game systems, and so on—are called clients. Your router gives each client on the network its own IP address, which helps your router direct traffic. Clients within the network get a local IP address, while your modem gets a global IP address. Global IP addresses are like street addresses, while local IP addresses are like apartment numbers: one lets you find the building in relation to the rest of the world, while the other lets you find the specific location within the complex. These addresses make sure the right information from the outside world gets to the right device on your network.
Routers have a number of different features, so we’ll go through some of the most common router specs and how they affect your home network.
Wired vs Wireless
You’ll want to use an Ethernet cable to hardwire any computer or device that doesn’t need to move around, like a desktop PC or a gaming console, since wired connections are typically faster and more reliable than wireless. They’re not so ideal for devices you pick up and move around, like laptops and smartphones. For those, we use a wireless connection (commonly known as Wi-Fi). And a ton of different factors go into the speeds you experience on these devices: how far away you are from your router, what’s in between your device and your router, what kinds of speeds your device supports, what other wireless signals might be interfering with your connection, how many devices are also connected to your router, etc.
For most people, a router is merely the thing that makes the internet happen on their devices—a simplistic way of looking at wireless networking, but fair enough. However, even the fastest wireless router in the world, giving you the clearest connection to your smartphone, isn’t going to feel very fast if you’re not even paying for a very speedy internet connection. Worse, if your ISP (or the website or service you’re trying to reach) is having issues, your router isn’t going to be able to make magic happen, nor should you blame it for any slowness you experience.
Throughput is the speed at which a router can transfer data. The transfer speed of your wireless connection is dependent on the wireless standard it uses. The most common standards today are 802.11n and 802.11ac (also known as “wireless N” and “wireless AC”, or “Wi-Fi 4″ and “Wi-Fi 5,” respectively). Wireless AC is much faster than wireless N, and most of the regular routers you can purchase nowadays support both standards. (In other words, your next upgrade probably shouldn’t be a router that only supports wireless N, as all the wireless AC devices you’re amassing will be stuck with slower wireless N speeds).
Again, though, this might not be an issue if you spend most of your time browsing websites and downloading stuff. For most people, the internet plan you’re getting from your ISP is probably capped at a slower speed than what your router can handle. In other words, if you pay $70/mo for a 50Mbps internet plan, then a wireless AC router that supports a (theoretical) top speed of 1,600Mbps won’t give you a speed boost in most situations.
That said, it’s always best to have a router that can at least support the fastest connections of the devices you connect to it. Without getting too far into the weeds of how wireless AC speeds are classified (those dreaded A##### figures), here’s the simple advice we’ve previously shared:
“For most people looking to cover a reasonably sized home or apartment, a strong AC1200 or AC1750 router is probably sufficient—definitely the latter if you own newer MacBook Pros, for example, which support AC1750’s full speeds.”
Seeing larger number on a router’s box doesn’t necessairly mean it’s the fastest router you can buy. Consider an extreme example: TP-Link’s Archer AX11000 router. That sounds like it’s orders of magnitude faster than a “simpler” router like its Archer A9, an AC1900 router.
The Archer AX11000 arrives at this number two ways. First, it allows you to create three separate wireless networks—two on the 5GHz band and one on the 2.4GHz band. It adds up the maximum theoretical speeds of all of these (4,804; 4,804; and 1,148Mbps) to get 10,756, or AX11000 (a little rounding up.)
Sounds impressive? Well, you’d need a wireless AX device to even benefit from the router’s top-tier performance, which you likely don’t own. Even then, wireless interference, the setup of your house or apartment, the other devices eating up your throughput, and your internet speed—yes, that again—means that you might not even notice a difference between a $670 AX11000 router and a $130 AC1900 router. Why pay the surcharge?
There’s only one wired speed you should care about right now: gigabit, or 10/100/1000 Mbps. If your router only supports 10/100, or “fast ethernet,” it’s too slow, and you should let it collect dust on the store shelf instead of “upgrading” to one. A gigabit connection will allow you to transfer data much faster within your internet network, which is incredibly useful if you’re transferring files or streaming movies around your home. And if you happen to pay for internet that’s faster than 100Mbps, you’ll need gigabit networking in order to give your wired desktops, gaming consoles, and other devices the best possible speeds.
Thankfully, wireless-ac routers generally come with gigabit networking, so this shouldn’t even be a difficult decision to make—or any decision to make, really.
Wireless routers can only reach so far. If you have a big house and have the router on one side, you might not be able to access the network from the other side of the house.
Here’s where things get a little odd. Wireless N generally has a longer range than wireless AC—but that might not be the case in your situation depending on how many other devices are interfering on the 2.4GHz band. That, and since wireless AC is so much faster than wireless N, you might actually experience better speeds at a longer distance, even though wireless N might let you travel a little farther and maintain a connection. When in doubt, make sure you try wireless networks on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz at the extremes of your router’s range. One option might work when the other does not.
That said, there are many other ways to connect to your network from afar. Wireless extenders (also called wireless repeaters) are products you can buy that do exactly what they say—extend your network further. Alternatively, you can buy a powerline adaptor, which lets you use your home’s electrical wiring to hook a faraway device up to your router with an Ethernet cable (and thus get a faster connection than wireless would allow for).
Number of ports
Routers have two types of ports in the back: LAN ports and WAN ports. Your WAN port hooks up to your modem (which, again, is what connects to the internet), while the LAN ports hook up to your computers and other clients. Most routers have four WAN ports. If you have more wired devices than can fit on a router, you can plug them all in using a wired switch. A switch is like a power strip for your router: it lets you plug in more devices than the router originally allowed.
Number of bands
As we’ve already mentioned a bit in this article, wireless routers broadcast on a radio band, and all wireless AC routers (and most wireless N routers) can broadcast on two bands. These are called, appropriately, dual-band routers. Ancient routers operate on a 2.4Ghz band only—as does lesser gear, like old laptops and a number of smarthome devices—while dual-band routers allow for connections on both the 2.4Ghz band and a 5Ghz band.
The 5Ghz band is great because it has less interference, since tons of other devices—from other networks to Bluetooth to cordless phones to microwaves—operate on the 2.4Ghz band. The main downside of the 5Ghz band is that, since it uses a higher frequency, it isn’t as good at penetrating walls. You can only achieve your router’s top wireless AC speeds if you use 5GHz, but depending on how fast it (and your devices) are, 2.4GHz might be enough for some of your devices.
Unless you don’t mind strangers eating your bandwidth and potentially accessing your networked files, you should always protect your wireless network with a password. WPA2 is currently the most secure type of wireless encryption—mandatory since 2006 on devices that carry the wifi logo—so make sure you use WPA2-PSK if you can.
If you’re comfortable with flashing a new firmware on your router, you’re better off getting one that’s compatible with a third-party firmware like DD-WRT or Tomato. Make sure your router is on DD-WRT’s list of supported devices or Tomato’s list of supported devices if you want to go this route.
When it comes time to buy a new router
If you have a particularly old router, you may read a lot of the above information and decide it’s time to upgrade. Since there are so many variables that play into wireless performance, you only need to keep two ideas in mind when shopping for something new:
Buy a router that supports the fastest speeds of the devices you use (or are planning to buy soon, not planning to buy three years from now)
Buy a router from a retailer with a great return policy
The second point seems like a bit of a no-brainer, but I think it’s critical. As much as I’d love to believe that people are going to go benchmark their new routers’ performance at various points around their house or apartment, they aren’t. Most people are going to buy a router, set up the basics, stuff it in a less-ideal place (like: not a centralised location where they live), and get annoyed in a few months when it doesn’t feel very fast. And since they paid a decent amount for a new router, they’ll just deal with it—or buy a crappy extender to supplement it.
When you buy a new router, set it up in a central location where you live (or as close to it as possible). Don’t stuff it in a cabinet or otherwise block it with a ton of crap. Then, walk around your house or apartment and see what your connection speed is like for whatever it is you like to do: game downloads in your home office, a 4K Netflix stream while you poop, scanning through YouTube or Twitch from your bed, et cetera. Run some speed tests. See what everything feels like. If you’re satisfied with your router’s performance, great. If you’re not, return it and get something better—ideally, something that other experts have tested and compared against the competition.
You can also try going the mesh route—as in, multiple access points that you place around your home to extend your coverage. Try seeing if one great router gives you the speed and range you need. If not, you have plenty of other options.
Understanding your router is merely the first step in the process, but it’s an important one. In the next few lessons, we’ll be talking about some of the software and firmware features of your router (like the aforementioned DHCP reservations and Quality of Service) and how they can make your network as fast and reliable as possible.
As always, if you’re behind on your lessons, you can find everything you’ve missed and a PDF of all the lessons in the Know Your Network Complete Guide.
This story originally ran in 2011 and was updated in February 2020 with more current information.