The days when most of us had a single PC or laptop are gone. Many of us use a PC and a laptop and there are those who have many more. The modern geek’s home usually has a primary desktop, a netbook or notebook, a smart phone and obviously an HTPC in the living room right next to the television set. Networking all of these PCs and laptops is possible with a simple hub or switch but there are a bunch of cables involved.
The easiest solution is investing in a WiFi router. If you don’t already have one, you may be able to buy one from your internet provider. Some providers offer Wi-Fi routers on rental basis whereas some offer an over-the-counter purchase option. The only problem there is that you have no control over the model. Its better if you buy your own router, but like buying any other product these days, things can get a little confusing. Let’s look at some of the most important things to consider before going out to buy one.
How much will I need to spend?
Wi-Fi routers can be bought for as little as Rs. 600, if you buy it from your ISP. Other branded routers start from as little as Rs. 1,300 and go right up to Rs. 12,000 or more depending on the kind of features. If you’re looking for a basic router that you want to use with your devices for just browsing, then something in the range of Rs. 1,300 to Rs. 2,500 will be fine. The moment you want higher speeds for streaming good quality video content and more advanced features, then be willing to increase your budget.
Many of the larger ISPs today use ADSL to distribute internet connections and customers are provided with ADSL modems to use with their PCs. If your ISP uses ADSL, then look for a compatible router which has the ADSL2 modem functionality built into them. These are bound to be a little more expensive than regular Wi-Fi routers but you’re no longer dependent on a separate ADSL modem for internet access.
Which one - 802.11g or 802.11n?
Most routers are sold as either 802.11g or 802.11n. They’re all backward compatible but 802.11n offers faster speeds than 802.11g. IEEE 802.11g has a speed limitation of 54Mbps whereas 802.11n offers speeds of up to 150Mbps in a single stream. Dual band setups can reach twice that speed. The performance of routers as we’ve seen changes one from location to another. IEEE 802.11g offer enough speeds to transfer fairly large files and browse the internet and even stream Youtube and DVD-quality content over the network. You’ll have problems streaming HD 720p and 1080p content though.
IEEE 802.11n’s improved bandwidth definitely increases that limit but streaming HD 1080p content is still off limits when you move from one room to another. Once again, this depends on the layout of your home or office.
Wi-Fi routers typically come with Ethernet ports which can also be used to connect PCs using cables. These can be used to connect a PC that’s kept right next to the router. The advantage you get is 100Mbps or 1000Mbps speeds and there’s none of that tiny latency increase that you notice with wireless connections. If you’re looking for good wired connectivity, look for routers with Gigabit Ethernet ports, but also remember to upgrade your cabling to CAT6 to support the higher speeds.
USB ports on a router are becoming a common sight these days. The USB ports on a router can be used to connect external storage devices such as an external hard drive or a flash drive.
USB ports can be used to share content over the network
You can access all the contents of that drive from anywhere in your home or from the web. Sometimes, the USB ports may also be used to connect a 3G USB modem as well.
The USB functionality adds a whole world of possibilities to routers. Sharing data on a Windows network is just one of the basic features. Some routers offer FTP functionality which lets you host a FTP server with the option to set user permissions as well. Some of the more advanced features are built-in download managers which allow file downloading capabilities without the need of a dedicated PC. Downloading Torrents without a PC is also possible. All of these features can be accessed through a web interface.
Custom firmware support
Routers have upgradeable firmware and almost every router should have that feature. There are custom firmware developed by third party developers and communities. Two of the well known are DD-WRT and Tomato.
The advanced bandwidth monitor on the Tomato firmware
These custom ROMs are free for download but unfortunately, only work on specific models of routers. Before you go out and get yourself a new router, you might want to check the compatibility lists on these sites to see if your router will be supported. Remember that you might void the warranty of the router if you install a custom firmware.
If you’re looking to use your router with a 3G broadband connection, look out for routers that support 3G dongles. There are some routers which have a slot for a 3G SIM card as well. These routers are somewhat more difficult to come by and expensive as well. Some of the 3G enabled routers are also compact, can be powered by a USB connector and carried in a pocket. These are great if you're traveling very often.