Once you have a wireless electronic gadget, you definitely need a wireless router. It lets your devices communicate with each other and connects your home network (a local area network or LAN) to the internet (a wide area network or WAN). In brief, it is the control center for your home network. Beginners initially rank setting up and configuring a wireless router as somewhere between a necessary evil and an arcane, mysterious exercise. With a little practice, it is possible to be successfully up and running in just a half hour.
Wireless transmission is impeded by masonry and metal. The specified range (up to 300 feet) and speed (up to 1000 Mbps) of a router is tested under ideal conditions – an open field. These theoretical maximums are unlikely to ever be approached in your home. Adjusting the location and orientation of the sender and receiver may significantly improve transmission, as may changing the channel, substituting a larger antenna or adding a wireless repeater to your network. This is similar to the gyrations you performed to get a distant station by manipulating the “rabbit ears” on your first black and white TV!
The useful lifespan of a router is not easily predicted. It is easily damaged by power surges and brownouts, although this can be mitigated by connecting to a surge protector or a UPS (uninterruptible power source). Over time, heat can damage the internal components, which may cause intermittent outages or slow performance; proper ventilation or cooling fans may extend functionality. Obsolescence may become apparent in as little as five years, even if you have faithfully updated the router’s internal programming (firmware) periodically.
There are a number of appealing features available in newer routers. Routers historically shared the increasingly crowded 2.4 GHz radio frequency with cordless phones, garage door openers, microwave ovens and hordes of other routers. Some newer routers can switch to the less crowded 5GHz frequency (which has a shorter range but much less competition), and some have both 2.4 and 5.0 GHz radios. Also new is “beam forming”, a broadcasting technique that aims signals toward specific targets.
While the strength (and therefore the range) of broadcast signals is limited by FCC regulations, the speed of transmission continues to increase. Older wireless G (802.11g) routers topped out at 56 Mbps, wireless N routers (now the most common type) range from 150 to 600 Mbps and the recently introduced wireless AC routers can approach 1000 Mbps. Routers that support higher data rates successively add more radios and antennas to the unit to enable managing additional channels of data in parallel. 300 Mbps Wireless N routers contain two radios and two antennas, while 450 and 600 Mbps contain three and four of each, respectively.
Although a faster router usually improves the speed of movie, music and other file sharing inside your home, it usually doesn’t improve the speed of your internet connection. That’s limited by the resources managed by your internet service provider.