Choosing the right router for your home networking needs

In today’s always-on world having more than one device is commonplace, and constant connectivity is almost always required.

September 11, 2013

By Farhad Alli, WD Product Specialist at DCC

In today’s always-on world having more than one device is commonplace, and constant connectivity is almost always required. This is particularly apparent in a home environment and with the ever-decrease in cost of PCs, notebooks, tablets and the like, many members of families have their own device if not more. This has seen an uptake in the ‘connected home’ environment whereby parents and children alike have universal access to the Internet and where digital content such as movies, photos and music is uploaded and shared. However, downloading and sharing digital content means that a regular router may not meet the exact needs and demands of a ‘connected home’ environment.

With broadband Internet more affordable than ever, the many applications of the connected home, from accessing the Internet to sharing content, streaming video, playing games and more, are increasingly easy to harness. However, when it comes to creating the connected home, choosing the right router is critical. Not all routers offer the same features and functionality, and shopping around to find the right fit will ensure that the network performs according to expectations.

Many broadband packages today are offered as a bundle with a free router included, and users often assume that this router will deliver everything they need to connect devices, share and upload content, deliver a Local Area Network (LAN) and offer Wi-Fi for added convenience. However, most of these bundled offerings provide only entry-level features and functionality, which may not meet the needs of the more advanced or discerning user. There is a wide range of routers currently available on the market offering additional functionality and an improved user experience, which can make a big difference to the usability and accessibility of the connected home.

When looking at choosing a router, users need to firstly understand what they want to achieve with their home network. If all that is required is basic Internet connectivity for one or two devices, a standard router will often suffice. However, attempting to create a truly connected home environment for sharing and connectivity on multiple devices with an entry-level router can be problematic. These routers are often not designed for high-speed access, which means they cannot support streaming, and when multiple devices connect, download and access speeds will be adversely affected.

There are several characteristics to look for in a router. First is the speed – the router itself will be rated in terms of the transfer speed it offers, and this is normally listed as Megabits per second (Mbps). The higher this number, the faster the speeds the router is capable of delivering, dependant on the Internet connection. High-end routers offer capabilities of up to 450 Mbps, whereas entry level routers may be as low as 21 Mbps. Entry-level routers are also often only single band, whereas high-end routers offer dual-band capability, which in effect means they are capable of achieving twice the throughput or speed with less interference. This is possible because the router is able to run on two different wavelengths.

These features are critical if users wish to take advantage of video streaming, as low speeds and interference can cause lag and jitter, rendering streaming virtually unwatchable. For streaming purposes, users should also look out for a router that offers Quality of Service (QoS) that prioritises video traffic. This ensures that no matter what other devices are accessing the network, streaming will be given preference for a smooth, seamless user experience.

Another thing for users to look out for is the different ports offered on the router. Routers may have one or more Ethernet ports, as well as USB ports, 3G connectivity, and the ability to create a Wi-Fi hotspot. If users wish to connect more than one device via Ethernet, which is preferable for streaming, then they need a router that offers multiple Ethernet ports. Ethernet ports are also available in standard or Gigabit Ethernet, with the latter delivering up to 10 times the speed of standard Ethernet. If they wish to create a Wi-Fi zone within the house, the router needs to support this, and if they require 3G connectivity for primary connection or failover purposes, a USB port is essential. USB ports can also be used to connect printers, external storage, scanners and other shared devices. Different routers offer different combinations of these ports, so users need to choose one that suits their needs.

When it comes to Wi-Fi, it is also advisable to check how many users or devices the router is rated for. Some routers only enable up to five devices to connect, whereas others will enable more. Depending on your needs, this is another important consideration. In terms of usability, software compatibility is important, as some entry-level routers will not work with certain anti-virus programmes. The ease of setup and use of the router should also be considered, to ensure home users can get up, running and connected without needing to call an IT support company.

The connected home is easier to achieve and more affordable than ever. However, if users do not pick the right router for their needs, their experience will fail to live up to expectations. To make the most out of always-on connectivity, it is vital to ensure high-speed, smooth connectivity for streaming, sharing and accessing of content in the home, and choosing the right router to deliver this is essential.