Router reviews: Features explained
What is a router?
The router is the device at the heart of any wired or wireless network.
When you connect a new computer to your network, it’s the router that has to make sure everything communicates properly.
Wireless (Wi-Fi) routers work by converting data – a webpage, for example – into a radio signal. This signal is sent via radio waves and is picked up by your desktop or laptop computer.
Some of the models we've looked at here have a built-in ADSL modem, meaning they will replace your existing ADSL modem. Cable broadband users should look for a model without a built-in modem.
The speed of your router is measured by the amount of data per second that can be transferred across the network. This rate of data transfer is measured in megabits per second (Mbps). You may recognise this measurement as it's commonly used to describe the speed of an internet connection. (8 Meg broadband, for example, refers to a broadband speed of 8 megabits per second).
Speed will depend on the wireless standard of your router and other devices.
Older wireless devices claim to achieve a maximum data rate of 11Mbps. Products based on the Wireless G standard claim maximum data rates of 54Mbps and Wireless N devices 248Mbps. These speeds are generally much faster than the average internet connection so your wireless router is unlikely to hamstring your internet connection speed.
In our tests we measure the time it takes to transfer files across a network. We describe this in megabytes per second (MBps). This should give you a clearer idea of how long it would take to copy files across a network as people are generally more familiar with the megabyte (MB) measurement than the megabit (Mb) measurement.
There’s a whole family of wireless standards, which have evolved with the technology. All wireless devices adhere to a standard known as 802.11.
The main aim of this fixed standard is to ensure wireless products from different manufacturers will work together. As wireless technology develops, the data per second you can transfer over a wireless network increases.
This data is typically described in terms of megabits (8 megabits equal 1 megabyte). The rate of data transfer is therefore measured in megabits per second (Mbps).
Older wireless devices use a standard known as 802.11b (or Wireless B), which claims to achieve a maximum data rate of 11Mbps.
Next came 802.11g, a standard that superseded Wireless B in 2003 and, until relatively recently, it was the most prevalent standard.
Products based on the Wireless G standard claim maximum data rates of 54Mbps so you can transfer files in a shorter space of time.
Consumer demand has fueled the creation of yet another new standard called Wireless N. Claiming a maximum data rate of 248Mbps, Wireless N devices should be capable of transferring larger media files such as music and video at a speed that’s acceptable to consumers.
Wireless N devices should also have a longer range than their predecessors, making them more efficient if you want to use your laptop at the bottom of the garden, say.
Compatibility of different standards
It’s worth bearing 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.
If your laptop or desktop computer is wireless-enabled, you’ll be able to receive a signal from a Wireless G or B standard router straight away. However, only newer computers will be Wireless N enabled.
To upgrade you can insert a USB adaptor into a spare USB slot. Alternatively, for a laptop you can insert a PCMCIA card, which slots into the side of your laptop.
And although it's not as big a problem as it once was, consider buying your adaptor or PCMCIA card from the same manufacturer as your router to minimise compatibility issues.
It is essential to make sure that your wireless network is secure so that any device that wants to connect to it needs a password in order to do so. This will prevent passers by from hopping onto your network and snooping around or using your internet connection. The best routers will force you to secure your wireless router during the set-up process. Ideally you should change the network name (SSID) from the default. Additionally, you should change the password for your network to something that's hard to crack. You should also change the username and password that you use to get into you wireless router's settings.
Some routers also allow you to reduce the broadcast signal range of your router (RF power adjust). This should help you limit the range of your network to your own boundaries rather than broadcasting down the street.
Some routers have options for antennas to be added. This is useful if you want to use your laptop outside or on the other side of a house, as an antenna will improve the range of your wireless router.
This is a program or software stored permanently on your wireless router. Many routers will allow you to download new firmware from the manufacturer's website and update the product's capabilities.