Home networking buying guide
Looking to build your home network? If money is not an issue, check out the cutting-edge, no-compromises Asus RT-AC68U, or the Netgear R7000. These two are on the bleeding edge of Wi-Fi, offering superfast 802.11ac on the 5Ghz frequency band, as well as the higher cap speed of 600Mbps on the 2.4Ghz band. They also provide long range and USB 3.0 support, and have a boatload of features. If you want the biggest bang for your buck, however, the Asus-RT56U is definitely one to consider; this little true dual-band N600 router packs way more punch than its physical size would indicate, both in terms of range and performance. On a tight budget? Something like the D-Link DIR-605L will serve you well; it'll be a great way to share your Internet connection, and it even comes with cloud-based features.
Want more choices? You can't go wrong with any of the devices on the following regularly updated top-products lists:
1. Best overall routers
These are the best routers currently on the market, all things considered. Each one can deliver a fast local network and a shared Internet connection. On the downside, they're among the most expensive routers on the market. But if you just want to be sure you're getting something good and are not on a tight budget, these will fit the bill. Go to the list of top routers.
2. Best cutting-edge routers
In addition to all other existing Wi-Fi standards, the routers on this list also support the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard (also known as 5G Wi-Fi). When used with 5G Wi-Fi clients, they offer wireless connection speeds of up to 1.3Gbps, theoretically about 30 percent faster than a Gigabit Ethernet wired connection. Currently, however, there are very few hardware clients, such as , laptops, or smartphones, that support 802.11ac, meaning that for now it's overkill to get a router of this type. These are also the most expensive routers on the market, but worth considering if you want something cutting-edge that will be good both now and the future. Go to the list of top cutting-edge routers.
3. Best "just-right" routers
For a nice balance between cost and features, these routers have just what you need. As N600 routers they support the Wireless-N (802.11n) standard (which is currently the most popular) with a Wi-Fi speed cap of 300Mbps. These routers offer the most value without going overboard, making them the best bargain. Go to the list of top "just-right" routers.
4. Best budget routers
These entry-level routers are affordable options if you need to share an Internet connection and some minor local resources, such as printers and documents. They're also ideal for small apartments and anyone who just wants to plug something in casually. All of these cost less than $100. Go to the list of top budget routers.
5. Best power line adapters
Power line adapters basically turn the electrical wiring of a home into network cables for a computer network. They're a great alternative to Wi-Fi for a spot in the house where the wireless signal can't reach, or if you want a lag-free connection. You need at least two power line adapters to form the first power line connection. The first adapter is connected to the router and the second is connected to the Ethernet-ready device that needs help getting the signal. There are some routers on the market, such as the D-Link DHP-1320, that have built-in support for power line, meaning you can skip the first adapter. Go to the list of top power line adapters.
Frequently asked questions and answers
If you want to know more about networking, read on for answers to common questions below. If you have time, however, I suggest that you check out my series on the basics of home networking, which explains networking terms, standards, and applications in great detail.
Should I use equipment from an ISP?
Yes and no. If your ISP offers a free modem, take it. But if you have to buy or "rent" one from your ISP, it's better to ask if there's a list of approved modems and buy your own from a third-party retailer. It's a much better deal to spend about $80 (or much less if you buy used or refurbished) for a cable modem than to pay $7 or so a month to rent it. And keep in mind that most broadband modems of the same standard offer the same performance. You'll find more tips on shopping for a cable Internet modem in this post.
Note: Service providers generally want you to use their wireless routers. Unless it's free, you shouldn't use one from your ISP. Virtually all routers work with all home broadband services, and choosing your own gives you the option of getting the best device for your home. That's also true if your ISP offers a modem/router combo device for free. In that case, you'd be stuck with a device that is, more often than not, far behind what you can get on the market. A combo device also limits your flexibility for upgrades, replacements, and repairs. Some ISPs don't allow you to buy your own, though, so be sure to check. For now, if you really want a combo device and currently use cable Internet, the new SBG6782-AC Surfboard eXtreme combo device from Motorola is about the only good option.
Gigabit or not?
Generally, a router's wired ports come in either the Gigabit Ethernet (1,000Mbps) or just regular Ethernet (100Mbps) standard. As you'd expect, Gigabit is 10 times faster (and indeed 10 times faster in real life). To put this in perspective, though, a CD's worth of data (about 700MB, or about 250 digital songs) takes about 5 seconds to transfer over a Gigabit Ethernet connection, and about a minute over a regular Ethernet connection.
That said, note that most Internet connections are much slower than 100Mbps. A top-tier residential cable broadband connection, for example, caps at about 50Mbps, half the potential speed of Ethernet. So if you just want to share an Internet connection, there's generally no need for a Gigabit router. If you get a Wi-Fi router, however, make sure it supports the Wireless-N (802.11n) standard: this is because older Wi-Fi routers (802.11g or older) might have a WAN port that doesn't fully support the 100Mbps speed. On the other hand, note that it never hurts to have Gigabit Ethernet and if you're lucky enough to have a superfast Internet connection, such as Fios, Gigabit is a must. The good news is Gigabit Ethernet is now much cheaper than it was a year ago.
Is USB support necessary?
Many routers have a USB port; some even have two. Generally, this allows the router to host a printer or an external hard drive. The former means that you can share a USB printer with the rest of the network, allowing multiple computers, including those connected to the network via Wi-Fi, to print to that printer simultaneously. The latter means that you can connect an external hard drive to the router and share data stored on it with all network devices on the local network; this also enables you to stream digital content to network media players.
Note: While it's cool and convenient to have a router with built-in network storage features, keep in mind that this type of router is always inferior in performance and features to a dedicated NAS server. On top of that, since they're just add-on features, the router might not provide the same level of security as a dedicated NAS. Consequently, network storage via a USB-enabled router should be used only for casual data sharing and streaming needs.
Many new printers come with built-in networking features, meaning that they can connect to the network by themselves via a network cable or Wi-Fi without USB ports. In this case, you don't need a router with a USB port to share these printers.
While most routers with USB ports offer just storage and print-serving capabilities, most D-Link routers, such as the DIR-827 and the DIR-857, can do a lot more with their USB ports, via D-Link SharePort technology. D-Link's SharePort software enables a computer to recognize an USB device connected to the router as though it were connected directly to its USB port, so you can use any USB device with the router's port.
If USB support sounds like a cool thing, check out this list of top five routers with USB ports.
Dual-band or single-band?
Wi-Fi signal works on two frequency bands, the ever-popular 2.4GHz and the relatively new 5GHz. Though Wi-Fi signals of the same standard have the same speed caps on both of these bands, the 5GHz band tends to offer much better real-world data rates. This is partly because the 2.4GHz band is saturated due to the sheer number of Wi-Fi clients on the market, and also because other home appliances, such as cordless phones, use this band, too.
If you live in a neighborhood with few Wi-Fi networks around, or if you just want to share a connection to the Internet, a good single-band 2.4GHz router should work just fine. On the other hand, if you want to have a robust Wi-Fi network with lots of local and Internet activity, you probably want a dual-band router that offers Wi-Fi signals on both bands simultaneously. Note that which band a Wi-Fi connection uses depends on both the router and the client. Most existing hardware clients, such as the iPhone 4 or the older iPad, only support the 2.4GHz band, so a dual-band router offers no benefit. It never hurts to have the dual-band feature on your router, however, and almost all new portable Wi-Fi devices now support both bands.
Are Apple AirPort routers worth the extra cost?
Yes and no. Yes if you're into looks, and ease of use. Mac users will also find these devices more convenient to use since the AirPort Utility software is included in Mac OS X.
But you're looking to get the most out of your network, or just want to customize common features, such as Web filtering or Quality of Service (QoS), then steer away from Apple's AirPort base stations. These devices, including the new AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule, offer fast performance, great design, and overall ease of use, at the grave expense of customization options and features. When it comes to networking, options and features generally trump design, especially if you have to pay extra just for the design.
Note that networking devices are platform-agnostic, meaning you don't need to buy an Apple router to get your Macs and iOS devices connected. Likewise, Apple's AirPort routers also work with non-Apple clients.
When do I need an access point?
An access point (AP) is a device that broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal so clients, such as tablets and laptops, can connect to it. A wireless router is actually a regular router with a built-in access point. There are generally two situations where you'd need an access point: when your existing router or office network doesn't already offer Wi-Fi, and when you want to extend a Wi-Fi signal to an existing network. Since most home routers now come with Wi-Fi capability, you would generally only need a standalone access point to extend the Wi-Fi coverage. In this case place it farther away from the existing Wi-Fi router, and connect it to the router using a network cable (or via a power line connection). This is the most effective way to extend your Wi-Fi network.
How to find the best Wi-Fi extender?
A Wi-Fi extender is the second-best way to extend your Wi-Fi network, mostly because it's very convenient. Basically, it's a device that you place between the original Wi-Fi router and the client that's currently just a little too far out of range, and it will bridge the two. There's no wiring involved. However, there are a few things that you need to consider when getting a range extender for them to work effectively.
First, the extender needs to be the same standard as the original Wi-Fi network or better. For example, if you have a dual-band router that offers up to 450Mbps (three-stream) Wi-Fi speed, then you need to get an extender that also supports this Wi-Fi standard. Note that generally an extender only extends one frequency band at a time, so you might need two separate extenders to extend both the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz bands in a dual-band network. Getting a range extender that supports an older or slower standard will affect not only the data speed but also the coverage of the extended Wi-Fi network, hence defeating the purpose of the extender itself. Getting an extender that supports a newer or faster Wi-Fi standard doesn't hurt, but won't give you the most bang for your buck.
Secondly, it's imperative to find the sweet spot to place the extender. This is the spot where the signal of the original Wi-Fi network is just about to wane. You can find this place by moving away from the original Wi-Fi network slowly and finding the farthest spot where you still receive full bars of Wi-Fi reception. Too close, the extender becomes less effective and even creates interference that adversely affects the original network. Too far, and there's not much signal for it to extend. For this reason, in most cases, a combination of a power line adapter kit and an access point, or a combined kit such as the Netgear XAVNB2001, makes a much better alternative to a range extender.
Finally, the best extender to get is the one that's made by the same vendor as the Wi-Fi router that you're using (and happy with). Again, pick one that supports the same Wi-Fi standard. Getting an extender from a different vendor works, too, but it might be a little hard to set up, if you're a novice user. For more on how to best set up your network, check out this post on how to optimize your Wi-Fi at home.
Is IPv6 important?
IPv6 is a new Internet protocol that's replacing the existing IPv4 that's running out of addressing space. In the distant future, IPv6 will replace IPv4 completely, but for now all Internet sites and services, including those that have already adopted IPv6, support IPv4. New IPv6 equipment is also designed in such a way that it can coexist with IPv4 devices. Home users don't really need to worry about IPv6. It doesn't hurt to buy equipment that supports this new protocol, though; additionally, most, if not all, new home-networking devices now support IPv6.
More buying tips
Do your own research. It's very important not to rely solely on commercials or advice from sales reps when buying networking devices. If you have time, read reviews, look at the test scores, check different sources. This is especially important with wireless devices, because you don't want to be disconnected constantly. CNET puts wireless routers through stress tests to determine if they offer a stable Wi-Fi signal during an extended period of time.
Brand names don't always equal quality. Quality is not always consistent for networking brands. Take Cisco, for example; the company has offered decent routers in the E series and EA series (such as the Linksys E3200 and Linksys EA4500), but the recent Linksys EA6500 proved to be a terrible router. So you don't want to go by just the brand names.
Buy equipment of the same standard. While all wireless devices are generally compatible regardless of brand or Wi-Fi standard, getting devices of the same standard helps optimize your network and saves money. For example, if you have just Wireless-N devices at home, it doesn't help to buy an expensive router that supports 802.11ac. Or if you have a Gigabit Ethernet router, you also want to have a Gigabit switch in case you want to add more wired devices to the network.
When it comes to power line networking, it also helps to get adapters from the same vendors. This ensures their compatibility, especially in terms of security.