As in the old Gershwin song “You say tomahto, I say tomayto,” you may call the device that fosters internet connectivity a “rauter” or a “rooter,” but don’t turn it off. Nearly everyone with an internet connection uses a router, although you can connect at a single fixed location directly to your computer.
When two fiber optic internet providers burrowed down our block this past spring, many of my neighbors wondered if they needed a new router to take advantage of the blazing speed of fiber internet. Both companies promised “up to 1-gigabit speeds.” Be forewarned that no WiFi system equals the speed of a wired Ethernet connection, most don’t even come close. Worse, the further you are from the router, the slower the speed.
First, return the proprietary and inadequate modem and router provided by the cable company. These would not work with the new fiber providers.
You can spend $60 to $400 for a router from about a dozen manufacturers. If you strictly desire a wired Ethernet connection without WiFi, the cost of the router matters little as long as it guarantees “gigabit” ports. WiFi justifies spending more for a router. While there is no absolute relationship between WiFi quality and price, generally more expensive routers provide more wireless reliability with greater range. As price escalates, more expensive routers offer an increasing ability to fine tune how the device operates. Most users rarely explore these useful options, because they tend to be confusing and even overwhelming. A $400 router incorporates the latest technology, which you may not need. For example, the new WiFi 6 standard only benefits those with the newest devices, such as laptops, which include WiFi 6. Your existing iPad or smartphone won’t acknowledge the difference. WiFi 6 will start appearing in next year’s models this fall.
Where you live also makes a great difference in router choice. If you live in an apartment or condo, a router with limited range probably serves better than a powerful long-range model. At the same time, if you live in an apartment, you want a router that can accurately, automatically select the least used WiFi channels or allow you to independently set the WiFi channels, to lessen conflict with neighbors. It’s a bit like the old CB radios! If you live in a multi-level or sprawling home, ample range and certain kinds of antenna arrays (built into or onto the router) will improve connectivity. Expensive routers allow a degree of “tweaking” performance to enhance range. This should be available in models ranging from $100-$200.
If you need to extend the coverage area of your router, range extenders and relays accomplish little. The best method for covering a large area with a good, fast signal involves deploying a relatively recent technology called a mesh router. These small modules, which usually include their own router, are not much larger than a pint carton of blueberries. You place the mesh routers on each floor of, or opposite ends of the house to evenly distribute the WiFi signal. Manufacturers usually allow you to configure a mesh system with a smartphone app. Some automatically set up. The most comprehensive and easiest to understand description of all this is available from PC Magazine: pcmag.com/how-to/how-to-set-up-a-wi-fi-mesh-network.
Probably the best deal on a mesh router system is Amazon’s three-unit Eero Mesh system for about $250. If you wait for Amazon Prime Day this fall you might grab it for much less. You can buy additional modules for $100. It even includes a feeble implementation of the Alexa voice assistant. The website Ars Technica highly rates this system. You also can choose mesh systems from Plume and Google Nest.
The best router I’ve owned out of the half dozen or so that have graced my desk is the Asus RT-AC5300, which costs about $270. There’s a newer version with WiFi 6 that costs considerably more.
Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at email@example.com.
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