What to Know About Wireless Routers and Things That Affect the Quality of Your Connection
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What to Know About Wireless Routers and Things That Affect the Quality of Your Connection

If your router is old and out of touch with the latest technological standards, you might not be getting the expected speed or reliability from your new devices

March 26, 2020

Your router is a very important piece of home networking equipment. It can be the difference between having a smooth connection or banging your head against the table. So if you aren't getting the expected speed, range or reliability for your WiFi devices, check out some of the things that can affect them, as well as some of the new things on the market to make WiFi even faster and more reliable.

Modem and Router Combos

It's important to mention the modem/router combination devices most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) give when you sign up for Internet service. These devices generally work reasonably well unless there just happens to be some kind of technical issue or other glitch. After all, why would your ISP provide you a piece of junk if they want you to have reliable service that keeps you from running to another company? But these devices won't be the best on the market, and some you may have to rent for a monthly fee in addition to your regular monthly payment. Depending upon the ISP and the type of service, whether business or home, you may not be able to make many configuration changes other than changing the wireless network name.

A separate router altogether

If you are looking for the best possible router for your home network, you'll be purchasing a separate router and connecting it to your modem. From there, you'll be connecting your devices to the router. In this situation, you may want to configure your modem to "pass-through," "default server," or similar so that all routing and firewall services on the modem are disabled if you have devices that depend on an open network, such as security cameras. The modem firewall might block connections the router does not and vice versa. Don't forget to disable the WiFi on the modem so its signal doesn't interfere with the signal from your router. This is usually a pretty easy process and directions are easily available online for most models. Most ISPs will help you configure your modem for no charge.

Take advantage of the latest wireless standard

Technology is always making advances, and wireless standards are no different. Most computers, smartphones and tablets use a newer and faster WiFi 5 (802.11ac) standard, which is an improvement from the already-fast WiFi 4 (802.11n) standard introduced in 2007. A few devices support the brand new WiFi 6 (802.11ax) standard, which is significantly faster and can support more devices than any standard before it. Ideally, you'd want a WiFi 6 router since it's the newest technology and will likely be the fastest for all the devices that will be introduced over the coming decade. But the newest and best comes with a hefty price tag, so it might make more financial sense to get a WiFi 5 router, which is still fast. Most of the devices you currently have will probably only support WiFi 5 anyway.

But keep in mind that routers can be a bottleneck. If you have 1 gigabit or 2.5 gigabit Internet, you aren't going to see those speeds via a wireless connection since WiFi 5 only supports up to about 867 megabits, and that's only under ideal conditions. WiFi 6, on the other hand, has theoretical limits of 11 gigabits for devices that can support it, such as the current generation of smartphones. If you want the fastest wireless speeds for your fast Internet connection, you'll probably want to check out WiFi 6 routers and get WiFi 6 adapters. They cost a fair bit right now, but expect the costs to come down as more manufacturers support the new standard. If you have more than fifty devices on your network, you should seriously consider a WiFi 6 router. Think about all the mobile phones, laptops, smart thermostats, smart bulbs, smart switches and other devices you currently have.

Hardware

No hardware lasts forever or can handle heavy loads that push it beyond the limit, even the best routers and networking equipment. A router is always running and usually doesn't get restarted unless there's a power outage. And as you add more devices, the hardware will hit its limit and slow down. It might even overheat, leading to internal damage that can cause unexpected restarts and unpredictable slow downs. You want to make sure your issues aren't being caused by a router that isn't strong enough to handle all the demands you place on it.

How will you know if the router can handle your load? Well, there's no simple answer. But if you currently have an older router manufactured more than ten years ago, there's a fair chance that it isn't strong enough for a lot of devices and high data usage. Check out the specs on the routers to get an idea of how much processing speed and memory you're getting. If the prices aren't too different, you might want the one with the higher specs, especially if you are a heavy user.

Price

Router prices, just like with any device, vary greatly. Some might be as low as $40 and others might be more than $500. Paying extra doesn't always mean you'll get a better device, but the routers that offer more will typically cost more. So when deciding on a router, look at both your budget and your needs. Remember that an inexpensive router might be just as good as a more expensive one if you're just using it for the basics and don't need bells and whistles.

If you're an average user, you should probably settle for something in the middle of the road. The best routers tend to have the newest technology, but often at a hefty price tag. And there's a good chance that most of your devices won't be able to take full advantage of everything it has to offer.

Internet Speeds

If you are replacing your router, you'll need to take note of your current Internet connection speed. If you have a 35 megabit connection, a router capable of 50 megabits is theoretically already capable of tapping the entire Internet connection. And it works the other way around. If you pay for a 2.5 gigabit connection but get a router capable of only 1 gigabit, you won't utilize the entire connection. That probably won't make too much difference, anyway, since nearly every home user won't even come close to tapping the entire Internet connection anyway. But as our devices use more bandwidth over time, that may become an issue.

Cables Matter

Think of the cable that connects your router to the modem as a bridge between two highways. If the bridge only has two lanes, you're going to see congestion even if the highways on each side have eight lanes. So even if you have a gigabit router and a gigabit modem, you might only see one-tenth of the speed if the cable isn't up to scratch.

You'll want to make sure the cable is at least labeled "Cat 5e." A cable labeled only "Cat 5" is obsolete and limited to 100 megabits, but you may have had one sitting around in your network setup for a while. Cat 5e supports speeds up to 1 gigabit, which should be the minimum in your setup. Cat 6 also 1 gigabit but also up to 10 gigabit for short distances. Cat 6a, Cat 7 and Cat 7a are all very fast, but proportionally more expensive and probably overkill for a home setup.

Take a look at all cables in your network setup and the numbers printed on them. If there are no numbers on a cable and you can't identify it, replace it with one of a known speed and quality. You can find them online at reasonable prices in various lengths.

Radio Frequencies

Routers use two different radio frequency bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The 2.4GHz band is older and, because it has such widespread adoption, is susceptible to congestion. It also has, because of the frequency, slower speeds but a good range. The 5GHz band is newer and faster, but it's range is much less. Nearly all new routers today are dual band routers that switch you automatically between frequencies for a seamless experience, giving you the best speed and range. If you want speed, make sure your router has both bands. If your router is older and has only the 2.4GHz band, your speeds will be quite limited.

Router Location

Your router's location can have a big impact on the speed and range of your devices. Remember that the speed and reliability of your wireless connection is directly related to the quality of the signal you receive. If you are close to the router, you'll have better speeds and reliability. A router should always be in a central location whenever possible. Think of your home as a bubble. You want your router, which sends wireless signal out in all directions, to be as close to the very center of the bubble as possible so it blankets your entire home.

Keep the router away from obstructions and sources of electrical and magnetic interference. Something as simple as a nearby refrigerator can cause your wireless to slow down or disconnect. In cases where the center location is near a source of interference or a lot of obstruction, such as a fireplace with dense masonry and metal, adjusting the location away from the center of the bubble may be better.

Smart Routers

Routers, like nearly every item on the market, are getting smarter. Smart routers allow users and apps to update settings on the fly, usually to prioritize bandwidth for streaming movies and video games. But remember that smart routers are often more vulnerable to hackers, so keep your system and devices updated and secure. An app that can change your router settings, monitor the devices on your network, block access to websites, and even view network cameras can be a disaster if the system is hacked.

Mesh Routers

Mesh routers help you eliminate dead zones in your wireless coverage, but they certainly cost more than traditional routers. You'll have a central router connected to your modem and one or more satellites that plug into outlets around your home. Some work really well; others do not. These routers can help when you have a large home that needs a lot of coverage or if you have no choice in the placement of your modem and have to have a router on one end of the home.

Mesh routers come with their own catches, which can include temporary wireless connection drops when moving between satellites or issues when the modem is not in pass-through mode. Some people make the mistake of getting a system that is too large for the particular home, resulting in devices bouncing repeatedly from one satellite to another. Some satellites can connect to each other in order to spread out; other satellites need to be connected to the router in order to work, which can limit your deployment options.