Once upon a time households aspired to have a computer. So, families saved their money and bought one – the smart ones bought a Mac – and it was shared between everyone.
However, over time, there was a desire for the kids to have their own computer and one for the parents. Pretty soon, that escalated and each member of the household had a computer of their own.
At the same time a new thing called the internet also appeared and all those computers needed access to the internet. That meant that the modem provided by your ISP – which was typically connected to just one computer – was not going to cut it.
Soon after that we also saw the rise of the machines. Apple TVs, smartphones, tablets and myriad other devices all wanted a piece of that internet connection. So an easy and affordable tool was needed that took that single, inbound internet connection to the home or office and allowed it to be easily shared.
The first business I worked in that had an internet connection bought a router for about $100,000 in 1995. Thankfully, consumers don’t need to spend anything like that amount of money to share their internet connections today. Now, a competent router for the home or small office won’t set you back more than $350 and there are plenty of options at less than $150.
The trouble with buying networking gear is that there are so many acronyms and standards that the spec sheets might as well be written in a foreign language.
However, there are a few key things you need to watch out for.
WIRED OR WIRELESS?
The majority of routers on the market provide two types of network connectivity; wired and wireless. With wired connections, the time has come to avoid anything not offering Gigabit Ethernet. Cheaper routers will offer Fast Ethernet or 10/100Mbps – these are actually the same thing.
The original wired networking standard offered 10Mbps of throughput. Pretty soon, that was jacked up to 100Mbps and things stayed like that for quite some time. Recently, our thirst for moving data around our networks increased and Gigabit found its way to consumer networking equipment. It runs at 1000Mbps. If you’re streaming video around your network or moving large files make sure your router does Gigabit.
With wireless connections, the puzzle is a little more complex. The original wireless networking protocol was dubbed 802.11b, offered 11Mbps of throughput and operates on the 2.4GHz frequency range. It was superseded by 802.11g in 2003 – this delivered 54Mbps and was backwards compatible with 802.11b as it also worked at 2.4GHz.
In 1999 the IEEE ratified a third wireless networking standard called 802.11a. It offered the same performance as 802.11g but used the 5GHz frequency range. Interestingly, 802.11a, although it came later, offered shorter transmission range than the other two wireless standards, but was subject to less interference as the 2.4GHz range is used by many more devices such as portable phones and microwave ovens.
In October 2009, after years of deliberation, a third wireless, or Wi-Fi, standard was officially accepted by the IEEE. Dubbed 802.11n, this new standard could operate in either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequency bands. It’s big advantage is that it’s able to aggregate multiple wireless connections. Typically, 802.11n routers have multiple antennas so that MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) connections can be used.
If money is no object then we’d advise that you look for routers with Gigabit wired connections and support for dual-band 802.11n wireless. These offer the best performance and flexibility.
We tested the routers on these pages by establishing a test network with each router. That network had a MacBook Pro, a NAS and a Windows system all connected by CAT6 cable. We also connected with a MacBook Air wirelessly. It’s worth noting that most manufacturers, if they bundle a network cable, only provide a CAT5 or CAT5e cable. It’s worth spending a few dollars to update your cables to CAT6. Mixing different types of cables can slow network performance.