How to buy the best wireless router

Wireless routers

How to buy the best wireless router

by Jon Barrow

If your home broadband is super slow then it may be worth upgrading your router. Our expert guide helps you pick the right one.

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You may not get excited about routers in the same way you would a new smartphone or tablet. But, as the brain of your home network, they're incredibly important.

Most of us receive a free router from our internet service provider (ISP) when we sign up for a broadband deal. These free models can be pretty basic and while they usually do a decent job, you'll often get better speeds and improved performance by upgrading.

Buying your own router, from manufacturers such as D-Link and Belkin, will typically also give you access to additional features such as parental controls, file sharing and printer sharing.

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What makes a good wireless router?

The best routers help you get the most out of your internet connection. They're fast enough that you won't experience any slowdown even if your whole family is online at the same time. And they're powerful enough that they can transmit their signal throughout even the biggest houses.

Routers should also be easy to use. Most of us don't want to have to fiddle around with lots of cables when setting them up or be forced to navigate through long menus offering dozens of different options. We just want to plug our router in and get online. The best models let you do that.

What else should I consider when buying a wireless router?

What type of router should I get?

We tend to think of routers as devices that allow us to access the internet. But that's not strictly true. You actually need a modem to connect to the internet - the router then transfers the data, in the form of web pages and streamed content, to your connected devices.

Most modern routers, and all the models supplied by ISPs, now incorporate built-in modems, meaning that you only need one device to get online. But that's not true of all third party models. If you buy one of these you'll need to plug it in to a separate modem (or a router with a built-in modem) to access the internet.

So, if you'd rather keep things simple and just have one device, look for a router with a built-in modem.

Are there any reasons for me to buy a standalone router?

On first impressions, perhaps not - after all, why would you use two devices when one will do the job. And for many people that may be true and the router, with built in-modem, that they get free from their ISP will be good enough.

But standalone, third party routers can offer some advantages. For a start they give you more flexibility - you can use them with a broadband connection from any ISP and you can continue to use them even if you switch provider. And owning your own router also gives you more control, so you can adjust all the router's settings (though this will only appeal to a few, advanced users) and don't have to rely on your ISP to fix it or upgrade it - you can do this when you need.

How good does the router need to be?

If you live in a big property and want to access the internet throughout your home, then you'll need a powerful router. This is less important if you only go online in the room where your router lives.

Also think about what you want from your router. If you want extras such as advanced security, parental controls, and the ability to connect USB printers and external storage drives for sharing data, you'll want probably need to look at higher-priced premium routers.

Take a look at our wireless router Best Buys, to discover the models that Which? recommends.

What features should I look out for?

Single or dual-band routers

When shopping for a router, you'll find both single band and dual band models. Single band routers operate on one wireless frequency only (the 2.4GHz band). While it works well for surfing the internet, this frequency can get overly congested making it unsuitable for high-bandwidth tasks like streaming videos.

Dual band routers are more expensive but suffer less interference and offer faster speeds. They transmit data over both the 2.4GHz band and the 5GHz band. With a dual band router, you can browse the internet on the 2.4GHz band while streaming HD movies on the 5GHz band and neither band gets overloaded.

Wireless router standards

Routers are classified according to the wireless standard on which they're based – for example 802.11b or 802.11g. The first generation of wireless routers was ‘b', followed by ‘g', then ‘n' and now ‘ac'. Each version offers faster speeds and longer range.

However it's important to understand that to benefit from the latest standard, both your router and your hardware (ie your laptop or tablet) will need to support the same technology. Otherwise, the wi-fi connection will drop back to using an older, less powerful, standard.

USB sockets

Some wireless routers have integrated USB ports for connecting a hard drive or memory stick. They let you share the connected USB device across the wireless network – useful for sharing media files, such as a music or movie collection, without having to leave a network-connected PC switched on.

What else do I need to know?

Your wireless network will only ever be as fast as its slowest part. And often this won't be your router. That's because your router will usually be capable of faster speeds that you get from your broadband provider – especially if you've got a standard speed connection (ie up to 24Mbps).

To put it another way, if you're only getting a maximum download speed of 10Mbps from your ISP, then adding a router capable of 450Mbps won't make things any faster.

However, adding a better router can help future-proof your network for when you get a faster connection. And if you've already got a speedy connection, then a good router can make a difference – especially if you're stretching that connection over a long distance or over multiple devices at the same time.

A good router can also be of benefit in other ways – it's not just about the speed of getting online. A fast router will really make a difference if you move a lot of big files between two computers in your home, for example transferring large video files or lots of music from one device to another.

Now find the perfect wireless router for you by checking out our wireless router reviews.