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How to Choose a WiFi Router: Types & Key Features

If the last year has brought on stress-related migraines from connectivity issues, it's probably time to upgrade your WiFi router. Read on to learn the primary differences between routers and how you can maximize your network speed.

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If the last year has brought on several stress-related migraines when it comes to connectivity issues, it's probably time to upgrade your WiFi router. The rise of work from home means that routers are working harder than ever. And as businesses return to the office, choosing a router that can handle your bandwidth demands will be key to delivering a smooth experience for your employees. Finding the right balance between your budget and features that meet your expectations is key. 
There are multiple types of routers, and all have different specs to keep in mind when deciding how to best tailor your wireless connection to the needs of your business. In this post, we’ll walk you through all of the key features to consider when choosing a router. 
Already know what you need? CDW offers hundreds of routers built for the home or for the data center.

Buying a Router vs. Renting From ISP

Before you put much thought into choosing a router, you should first consider whether or not it will make more sense for you to buy or rent. Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide the option to rent a combined modem/router unit for a small monthly fee. For residential users, that fee typically ranges from $5-$15 per month. While that fee will eventually add up and be more expensive than outright buying your own router, it comes with its advantages:

Benefits of Renting a Router

  • Tech support usually included
  • No-hassle setup
  • Free replacement of outdated device

For many, these benefits are convincing enough to rent the device, even if it may be more expensive. That said, there are several key benefits to owning your router as well:

Benefits of Buying a Router

  • Be sure you're using an updated model
  • Less expensive over long term
  • Manage your own equipment
  • Upgrade to latest devices whenever you want
  • Not reliant on your ISP and can easily switch to another ISP if needed

Different Types of Wireless Routers

You may already know how a Wi-Fi router works. Now it’s time to explore the different types of wireless routers so you can choose the best router for your needs.

WiFi Communication Standards

Speed is the primary differentiator between routers. With the advent of Internet of Things, wireless functionality is becoming a standard for more and more devices. Wi-Fi-connected printers, smart security systems and more require a fast internet connection around the office.

Wireless routers have different communication standards, or wireless protocols: 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n and 802.11ac. This last standard is the most widely used, and, until the recent addition of 802.11ax (WiFi 6), was considered the fastest. The label of the router can be the quickest way to suss out which protocol it uses and how fast it might be. For example, a router labelled AC5400 would indicate an 802.11ac router capable of speeds of 5400Mbps — coincidentally the maximum theoretical speed of an 802.11ac router. One thing to watch: routers rarely hit their maximum speed, so it might not be worth paying a premium unless you have enough devices to really require the performance.

Once you choose a standard, you can then narrow down other essential features of the best Wi-Fi router for you, such as band type (single-band, dual-band or tri-band) or security considerations.

WiFi Bands

The majority of routers will offer at least two Wi-Fi brand frequencies (hence the term dual-band routers), but it can be helpful to know the difference between bands when you're configuring your wireless setup.

The 2.4 GHz band operates at a lower frequency. It's generally slower, but also offers a greater connection range because it's better at penetrating walls, floors, or other "blockers." Most smart home devices also operate at the same frequency so you might end up competing for bandwidth.

The 5GHz band is much faster, and tends to be less crowded by other devices. It's the optimum speed for gaming or streaming video.

The good news is you can assign devices to the different frequencies to balance the load on your network. Work from home users might want to lay claim to the 5GHz frequencies and leave the 2.4GHz band free for apps and devices that don't need lots of bandwidth. But if there's really too many devices in the house, a tri-band router will offer a 2.4GHz frequency and two 5GHz frequencies — and top of the line models will automatically route traffic between all three bands.

Sipper vs. Gulper Routers

The layout of your home or business can have a major impact on the quality of Wi-Fi signal throughout your space. Factors like where your router is positioned in relation to connected devices, walls in the way of a signal and more can influence the type of router you will need.

Sip and gulp are terms used to describe the performance and range of routers:

  • Sip routers provide optimal performance at close range. These devices are best suited for when you will be using connected devices close to the router. These are great solutions for small apartments and home offices.
  • Gulp routers provide optimal performance at medium and long range. These devices are best suited for large buildings or buildings with walls that may be interrupting the signal.

Key Features of Wireless Routers

What defines a good wireless router varies according to the needs of the user. For example, if speed is your main pain point with your current network, remember that a wireless router can only perform at the speed your internet connection allows. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) needs to grant the bandwidth to let the wireless router run at maximum speeds for you to see the real benefits of a fast-performing router such as a top-of-the-line "n" series.

Here are some standard features across most router models and how they might affect your choice of Wi-Fi router:

  • Broadcast Standard: As outlined above, routers communicate in one of these standards. First generation Wi-Fi routers use "b," later models use "g," and newer models use "n" and "ac." The latest and greatest is WiFi 6, or "ax."

  • Band Type: Wi-Fi communicates in two bands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Single-band models are designed to operate at either band, one at a time. Dual-band models contain two types of wireless radios that support connections on both bands as needed, often increasing network efficiency. Tri-band models offer three 5 GHz band connections for maximum speeds among multiple devices. The best dual-band and tri-band routers offer automated band steering for different connections.

  • Security: Most router models support standard WEP securities as well as the more secure WPA and WPA2 configurations. Routers with access control features allow you to customize access for both times of usage and users on your network.

  • Speed: "B" routers deliver the slowest speeds, topping out at around 11Mbps on average. "G" routers have an average maximum speed of 54Mbps. "N" routers top out around 300Mbps. "AC" routers average 1Gbps. Various wireless devices operate on the 2.4 GHz band. To avoid congestion on your network, the 5 GHz band may deliver better performance due to less interference. Within the bands are also different Wi-Fi channels that help mitigate device overlap.

  • WAN Type: Most routers have Ethernet ports or LAN ports for connecting wired devices such as printers or other peripherals so they can share information at higher transmission speeds. Routers with Gigabit Ethernet ports deliver lightning-fast transmission rates. If an Ethernet switch or hub is part of your network plan, consider a router with multiple ports.

  • Connectivity: All routers have at least one WAN port, or no one could use them to connect to the internet. If the port goes out, so does your wireless connectivity. Dual WAN is a second link to the internet and is especially beneficial for businesses that cannot afford downtime.

  • SwitchesEthernet switches determines the number of devices that can be connected to the business network. Router models often provide between two and 13 Ethernet ports to connect to a switch.

  • Bluetooth capabilities: Some router models can connect to devices via Bluetooth, which can be an added bonus if you want to employ Bluetooth devices like speakers for audio presentations.

Consider a Wi-Fi Extender

Did you know that you can extend the range of your router with a Wi-Fi extender? Rather than purchasing a new router to get signal to another area on your property, an extender may be a more cost-effective solution. A network extender works by receiving the Wi-Fi signal from your network and amplifying the boosted signal to all devices on the network, even those in the outskirts of the Wi-Fi range. This can allow you to get your Wi-Fi signal to areas on your property where the signal was previously weak or non-existent—even outdoors!

Getting More from Your Wi-Fi Router

Wi-Fi is a requirement for employee productivity in most organizations. In addition, many businesses need to offer hot spots for their customers in order to remain competitive. However, even the long range routers can have dead zones in coverage. A network extender can boost the signal from your Wi-Fi router and increase coverage. This is an excellent solution if your current network suffers from a lack of signal in certain areas of your building. Many of the extenders are plug and play for setup and require little to no special installation.

An excellent way to narrow down to the right wireless router choice for your needs is to make a list of the features you want most while taking your bandwidth limits into consideration. While an "ac" band router may have the capability of providing speeds of 1Gbps, you will never enjoy those speeds if your internet is not that fast. If your network has users that stream videos or use a lot of bandwidth with other network activities, a router that runs on the 5 GHz band tends to see less network congestion. If you have any questions or are not sure of the best wireless router for your network, talk to one of our experts. We are happy to assist you in finding the best solution for your ideal Wi-Fi network.