How to Buy a Router

Buying a new router can mean the difference between enjoying Netflix in HD and seeing a grainy mess of substandard video.

By Armando Rodriguez
Fri, May 04, 2012

PC World — Are you still using the router that your Internet service provider gave you? If so, you might not be getting the best results possible. Routers that ISPs provide tend to be older models running custom firmware, and the download and upload speeds from these routers may not match the speeds you pay for.

The situation is even worse if you rent your router from your ISP, because that's money that could be better spent on more-glamorous gadgets. Though purchasing a router off the shelf requires making an initial investment, doing so will save you money in the long term, and the router you choose is yours to do with as you please. Before you run off to your nearest electronics store (or online storefront) to buy a new router, however, you need to take a few things into consideration.

First, you should figure out how much you're willing to spend. A good midlevel or high-end stand-alone router will set you back anywhere from $50 to $200. If you want to connect just a handful of devices to the Internet, and you aren't interested in streaming high-definition video or playing games online, a midlevel router should address your needs nicely. Most routers in the $50-to-$70 price range should be more than capable, though Cisco's Linksys E series seems to give the most bang for the buck.

For top-notch performance, you'll need to spend around twice as much. A full-featured router such as the Netgear N900 may seem pricey at first, but it's worth the cost if you're looking to get the most out of your wireless network. If you're a gadget-head like most of us here at PCWorld, you'll also want a higher-end router in order to put all your devices online without slowing down your network.

You should also take into account the types of connections that a router supports, plus the router's broadcast range. If you have older devices running on your home network, be sure to select a router that supports the 802.11g and 802.11b protocols. Most of the routers you'll find at the store broadcast on the 2.4GHz band and support those protocols, but routers that broadcast solely on the 5GHz band do not support those types of signals.

Routers using the 2.4GHz band tend to have a decent broadcast range, but you'll suffer when it comes to speed. Since most wireless routers (and some cordless phones) use the same band, the signal coming from your router can become noisy and bogged down--especially if you live in an apartment building or another densely populated area with lots of wireless networks present. On the flip side, you're less likely to encounter interference while on the 5GHz band, but the range will be much more limited: Although everything from walls to people can cause the signal to diminish, you'll notice an overall boost to your network speeds. As I mentioned earlier, however, some of your older tech may not be able to connect to a network being broadcast in the 5GHz range.

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