Wireless routers: Wireless router buying guide Wireless router security

USB wireless adaptor

Wireless network security

When setting up a wireless network and router, it's essential to secure it so it's not accessible to anyone within range of your router, such as neighbours and passers-by. To secure a wireless network, wi-fi routers include security and data encryption features, usually in the form of a password or 'key'.

All routers have some form of encryption, but there are two main types: WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and WPA (Wi-fi protected access). Both WEP and WPA use a key (password) to allow only devices with the correct authorisation to access the wireless network. 

WPA is the newer standard. It's stronger than WEP, as it scrambles the encryption key, but you should check before setting up your network that all devices you want to connect to the router are WPA-compatible. WPA2 is the latest WPA standard, and WPA2-PSK (Pre-Shared Key) is designed for small home networks, where you choose a passphrase between 8 and 63 characters long.

Some wireless routers let you reduce their transmission power so you can effectively limit the range of your wireless network so it’s not broadcast outside your property. This potentially increases the security of your wireless network.

Which? tests the wireless security of every ADSL and cable router that it reviews - find a Best Buy router now.

Other features that some routers have include:

  • privacy and parental control – allows users to set security levels and URL content filtering so children can't view certain categories of websites
  • time-based usage controls – allows users to set time periods when connected devices can access the internet
  • website logging – allows users to set up automatic logging of visited websites by connected devices
  • remote management – allows access to the wireless router remotely from the internet.

Extra wireless router features

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

Some routers also have flashing lights on the casing to indicate the data download speeds to your wireless network – but these are of limited use.

Read the Which? wireless router reviews to find the cable or ADSL router with the features and performance you need.

Wired connections to your wireless router

If you’ve got computers close to your wireless router, or can easily run a cable between them, then a wired (Ethernet) connection can be faster and more reliable than a wireless connection.

Check how many RJ45 Ethernet (LAN) sockets your wireless router has (on average it’s four) to make sure there are enough to connect all the devices you want to.

Wi-fi adaptors

Each device you connect to your wireless network will need a wi-fi adaptor. This will either be built in to the device, as on many laptops, netbooks and mobile phones, or for older computers you’ll need to install a wi-fi adaptor. Wireless adaptors come in three types – USB, PCI and PCMCIA cards. 

If you’ve got a desktop PC, you can choose either a PCI or USB wi-fi adaptor.

Laptops and netbooks can be upgraded with a USB or PCMCIA adaptor. 

PCI wi-fi adaptor

Desktop PCs can be upgraded with a PCI wi-fi adaptor to connect to wireless networks

USB wireless adaptors (dongles)

Some USB wireless adaptors are the size of a USB memory stick and contain an internal aerial, while others have an external rotatable aerial. Check how much room you have around the USB sockets on your PC, laptop or netbook. If it’s too cramped to fit the adaptor, the aerial will be in the way of other the USB cables, or you want to put the USB adaptor in a more visible (line of sight) area, then many come with a USB extension cable. 

Some wireless routers come bundled with a USB wireless adaptor, or the adaptors can be bought separately for between around £5 and £25.

PCI wireless adaptors

Desktop PCs can be upgraded with internal PCI wireless adaptor cards, but this involves installing the card inside your PC. PCI wireless cards cost between around £10 and £30.

Bear in mind that unless you’re starting from scratch, you may be using a variety of different standards (for example, your new wireless router may be wireless-N, but your printer may be Wireless G). While the network should still work, you won’t achieve the optimum speed of Wireless N unless all your devices are based on Wireless N. 

PCMCIA wireless adaptors

Some laptops have PCMCIA card slots which can be used to slot in a wireless adaptor card. PCMCIA wireless cards range from around £10 to £25.