How to Choose the Best Wireless Router

Forget about cable clutter; the real reason to own the best wireless router is all those electronic devices around your home that are hungry for an Internet connection. Your computer needs one, video game consoles need one, even that new Blu-ray player you're considering needs one. Next up: the refrigerator. Since it's impractical (and more expensive) to snake Ethernet cable around the house, a wireless Internet router is the perfect solution.

Which Way to the Routers?
Set foot in a computer store, and you'll be assaulted with wireless products, including wireless adaptors, wireless USB connectors and wireless PCI cards. What you want is a wireless Internet router, sometimes called a wireless broadband router, which supplies an Internet connection throughout your home by using radio waves to communicate with wireless-enabled devices.

A wireless router connects to the Internet through an Ethernet cable and then transmits the signal around your home. The router becomes a wireless access point, or WAP, that allows any device equipped with a wireless receiver to connect. Most routers have Ethernet ports as well, which is handy for hooking up a computer that's near the router.

Wireless Protocols
Two things drive up the price of a wireless router: range and speed. Cheap wireless routers tend to lack both, but if you're living in an apartment or a small home and you're not a fan of Internet gaming, they get the job done. Range measures how far the wireless signal travels, while speed measures data transmission. The type of wireless protocol you choose will have an effect on both.

B and G are the most common wireless router protocols. Unfortunately, they operate on the 2.4 GHz frequency shared by cordless phones and other appliances, making them prone to interference. The B protocol transmits up to 11 megabytes per second (Mbps), while G is faster, transmitting up to 54 Mbps. The G protocol is backwards compatible, so if you buy an 802.11g wireless router, your 802.11b wireless device will still connect to it-albeit at the lower speeds supported by the B protocol.

The newest wireless router protocol is N. The N protocol offers incredibly fast speeds, up to 600 Mbps in test situations, and it boasts extended signal range thanks to integrated multiple antennas, or MIMO technology (Multiple Input, Multiple Output). Many manufacturers already offer 802.11n devices. The N protocol is still a work in progress, so you'll want to find out how the router will be updated as N standards change. Some manufacturers charge for updates, while others include them in the wireless router's price.

Finding the Right Range and Speed
While the 802.11n protocol is definitely the fastest, that doesn't necessarily make it better. When putting together a home network, the speed of the wireless router can be hampered by your Internet connection.

High-speed Internet connections vary tremendously in speed capacity, but the high end of the spectrum boasts sustained speeds of five to six Mbps. The average home gets one to two Mbps, if that, with occasional higher bursts. The slowest B wireless router protocol operates at 11Mbps, which is significantly faster than the best home Internet connections.

Don't pay for speed you don't need, and think about whether you need a wireless router for simple Internet connections or to network several PCs in your home. If you're setting up a home network and you need several computers to share large data files, you'll want to make the extra investment in an 802.11n wireless router.

For Internet connectivity, 802.11g offers more than enough wireless router speed to the average home user. An 802.11n router may provide improved performance for games, but remember that its speed is limited by your connection speed; unless you've got a T1 line or FIOS, you're not likely to see a big speed boost for online gaming, although local-area network (LAN) gaming will be faster.

In deciding range, you'll need to account for the materials used in your home. Concrete, brick and metal can significantly reduce the operating range of a wireless router. Most routers have an indoor range of 150 feet, and it's best to install them on the first or second floor of a two-story home or the second floor of a three-story home.

If the signal isn't getting to all the places you need it, you can use additional routers to relay the signal. You'll want to match the protocols for the best transfer speeds. It's also a good idea to be careful about how far your wireless network travels. In densely populated areas, you could be providing free wireless to your neighbors and people on the street without knowing it. Couple the extended range with a poorly secured network, and you've got a situation that's ripe for hacking or identity theft.

Securing Wireless Internet Routers
Unsecured wireless routers are also subject to "friendly hacks," where someone will shut you out of your network to teach you a lesson about security. This is a nuisance, but it's far less dangerous than someone stealing your identity or gaining access to online bank accounts. Remember that a wireless network can allow others to access your computer directly and take some steps to keep strangers out.

The most common security protocols to restrict access to a wireless router network are Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). The basic WEP protocol doesn't provide stellar protection and is becoming outdated. For increased security, look for wireless routers that provide WPA or the newer WPA2. These protocols generate a random string of alphanumeric characters that must be entered on each device to allow it to connect. During operation, WPA encryption regularly changes, making it difficult for hackers to figure out the code and break it.

A stronger security common on Linksys wireless routers is Media Access Control (MAC) address filtering. This system allows you to assign a unique ID to each device that's connected to the network. Any device that isn't part of the MAC address list is prevented from connecting.

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