Router comparison October 2019

The vast majority of consumers are happy to simply use the router that came with their broadband package, and in many cases that’s absolutely fine. If however, you’re experiencing low speeds and connection drop-offs, then it’s worth considering if your router is fit for purpose. Some offer better internet connection speeds and drop out less than others, some are more suited to smaller living areas, such as apartments, and others are able to accommodate larger households with more simultaneous users.

What does a router actually do?

What we generally refer to as a router – the box supplied by your broadband provider – is normally a combined router and modem. A router is an “access point” – a device that enables other devices to connect to the same Wi-Fi network, and a modem is what connects that network to the internet. A router acts much like a telephone exchange operator back in the 20th century, coordinating communication between different devices connected to the same network. All data passes through the router on the way to its final destination, making the router the centre of any network. For wireless networks, a Wi-Fi router is also constantly broadcasting its SSID – your Wi-Fi network’s name. This allows new devices to connect to it.

Wi-Fi Standards

As Wi-Fi’s popularity has grown, so too have the standards governing its operation. IEEE 802.11 is the body of rules covering the wide array of different Wi-Fi network types, with each type dictating the speed and operational frequency of the devices connected to it. Most modern devices, both clients and access points, support backwards compatibility, falling back on slower, older connections when faster ones are unavailable.

  • 802.11a.Introduced in 1999, 802.11a is an obsolete standard that operated on the 5GHz band, supporting a max speed of 54Mbps.
  • 802.11b.Also introduced in 1999 and now deprecated, 802.11b operated on the 2.4GHz band and was capable of a max speed of 11Mb/s.
  • 802.11g.Adopted in 2003, 802.11g brought a speed increase of 54Mbps to the 2.4GHz band.
  • 802.11n (Wireless N).Arriving in 2009, 802.11n expanded the Wi-Fi standard to support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, resulting in the rise of dual-band access points capable of broadcasting two networks simultaneously, one at each frequency. Speeds can reach upwards of 300Mbps, depending on the power and number of antennas installed on both the access points and the client devices connected to it.
  • 802.11ac.Finalised in 2013, 802.11ac ditches the 2.4GHz band and widens the channels in 5GHz, allowing for speeds up to 2167Mbps when broadcasting across four streams at once.
  • 802.11ad (WiGig).Developed in 2009 but only recently integrated into consumer electronics, 802.11ad is practical only for a very particular type of wireless network. Operating at the 60GHz band, it has an effective range of around 1/10th of 802.11ac and requires line-of-sight to function optimally. Under the right circumstances, though, 802.11ad is tremendously fast, peaking at speeds of 7Gb/s.
  • 802.11ax.Currently in development, 802.11ax is the planned successor to 802.11ac, with a predicted max speed of 10Gb/s. It is expected to be available sometime in 2019.

Frequency

Since Wi-Fi operates using radio signals, it needs to designate a particular frequency for devices to send and receive data on, much as traditional radio stations require listeners to tune in to hear their music. Standard Wi-Fi transmits within the 2.4GHz frequency band. Many modern routers use “dual band” technology, meaning they support connections on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. This is good news, because the 2.4GHz band can suffer from interference, being the same frequency used by other household wireless devices including cordless phones and microwaves.

wi-fi-channel-graph

Access points can be configured to broadcast on different channels within their designated band; for 2.4GHz, the spectrum between 2.412GHz and 2.484GHz is split up into 13 overlapping channels of 22MHz each, theoretically allowing for multiple 2.4GHz networks to co-exist peacefully in proximity to each other, such as when you and your neighbours all have your own wireless networks running at the same time. Different regions across the world recommend sticking to particular channels for the best performance.

Antennas

The more antennas the merrier. Generally speaking, external antennas are the way to go, as they suffer less interference and broadcast more powerful signals than internal ones. In some cases, antennas are upgradable – although this is generally not the case with routers that come with deals from the main broadband providers. When Apple redesigned its AirPort Extreme, the unit was made taller, with the six internal antennas positioned in the top of the unit to create a higher platform for dispersing the signal.

Speed

Higher speeds are clearly better, but remember that stated speeds are theoretical maximums, and the kind of performance you’ll see in practice may be significantly lower than what it says on the box. At the bare minimum, you’ll want a router that touts at least 300Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1000Mbps on 5GHz.

QoS (Quality of Service)

Tucked away inside your router’s configuration settings, the Quality of Service (QoS) feature allows you to define what kind of network traffic your router should prioritise. Here you can add rules for specific applications; if you’re a big online gamer, you might assign a High level of priority to World of Warcraft while dropping Skype and Spotify to Low. The same priorities can also be set for network protocols like FTP and VPN connections.

Security

While the freedom of being untethered is one Wi-Fi’s biggest draws, it’s also one of its greatest weaknesses. Because all wireless devices transmit data through the open air, anyone within range can theoretically pick up that data and use it for their own purposes. Since nobody wants uninvited guests breaking into their Wi-Fi network and chewing through their data cap or snooping through their personal files, wireless security is an absolute must. There are a few different options available:

  • WEP.Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is a type of data encryption introduced along with the first 802.11 standard. Though it’s still supported by modern devices, WEP has been obsolete since 2004 thanks to a number of gaping holes in its security protocols. Unless you have absolutely no other option, don’t use WEP.
  • WPA.In response to WEP’s vulnerabilities, the Wi-Fi Alliance developed the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security protocol in 2003. To address one of WEP’s most glaring flaws, WPA used the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) to encrypt every data packet sent across the network with its own unique key, making it far more difficult for network attacks to decipher the encryption key by snooping on wireless traffic. TKIP also incorporated a stronger message integrity check than WEP, ensuring that attackers could not intercept and alter data packets as they’re being transmitted through a wireless network.
  • WPA2.WPA2, introduced in 2004, enhances WPA with the inclusion of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) block cipher, a more secure protocol for encrypting data packets as well as providing additional authentication protocols for ensuring only legitimate devices can connect to the network. WPA2 is the default security protocol for modern networks.
  • WPS.Securing your network can be tricky, as anyone who’s looked at the security page of their router will know. This is where Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) comes in. Developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance and released in 2006, the protocol aims to simplify the process of connecting new devices to a secure network. Rather than setting up a password and configuring router settings, WPS-supported access points have a physical button on them you can press to indicate you want to connect a new device. You then have a brief window to connect your device to the network without entering a password. Once connected, network traffic is automatically encrypted using the WPA protocol.

A traditional wireless router is typically a router that you’ll receive as part of a larger package with a broadband provider.

RRP Antennas Modem Speed Wi-Fi bands Wi-Fi standard Ports Security QoS Reviews round-up*

BT Home Hub 4
Built into deal cost 4 ADSL2+/VDSL Up to 300Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11n 4x Gigabit LAN
1x Gigabit WAN
1x USB 2.0
WPA2 No 7.6/10

BT Home Hub 5
Built into deal cost 5 ADSL2+/VDSL2 Up to 1,300Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11ac 4x Gigabit LAN
1x Gigabit WAN
1x USB 2.0
WPA2-PSK, WPA2-AES No 9/10

BT Smart Hub
Built into deal cost 7 ADSL2+/VDSL2 Up to 1,700Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11ac 4x Gigabit LAN
1x Gigabit WAN
1x USB 3.0
WPA2-PSK, WPA2-AES No 9.5/10

Virgin Media Hub 2.0 AC
Built into deal cost 5 DOCSIS 3.0 Up to 450Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11ac 4x Gigabit LAN WPA2 No 8/10

Virgin Media Hub 3.0
Built into deal cost 5 DOCSIS 3.0 Up to 1,300Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11ac 4x Gigabit LAN
2x Telephone
WPA2, WEP-128 No 8.5/10

Sky Hub
Built into deal cost 2 ADSL2+ 76Mbps 2.4GHz 802.11n 4x 100Mb LAN WPA2-PSK No 2/10

Sky Q Hub
Built into deal cost 5 ADSL2+/VDSL2 Up to 1,600Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11ac 4x Gigabit LAN WPA2-PSK, WPA2-AES, WPA2-TKIP No 9/10

Wi-Fi systems are considered to be the future of home Wi-Fi routers, typically purchased from sites such as Amazon, and boast improved signal quality and network management.

RRP Antennas Modem Speed Wi-Fi bands Wi-Fi standard Ports Security QoS Reviews round-up*

Google Wi-Fi
£129 for 1
£229 for 2
5 None 1200Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11a/b/g/n/ac 1x Gigabit LAN
1x Gigabit WAN
1x USB-C
WPA2-PSK, Infineon SLB 9615 Yes 9.2/10

Netgear Orbi AC3000
£400 6 None Up to 3000Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11ac 3x Gigabit LAN
1x Gigabit WAN
1x USB 2.0
WPA2-PSK Yes 8.5/10

TP-Link Deco M5
£229 (three pack) 4 None Up to 867Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11ac 1x Gigabit LAN
1x Gigabit WAN
1x USB-C per router (for power only)
TP-Link HomeCare Yes 9/10

Apple AirPort Extreme
£199 6 None Up to 1,300Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11ac 3x Gigabit LAN
1x Gigabit WAN
1x USB 2.0
IPv6/WPA/WPA2 No 9/10

Apple AirPort Express
£99 2 None Up to 300Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11n 2x 10/100BASE-T LAN (one of which can be WAN)
1x USB
128-bit WEP
WPA/WPA2
No 7.6/10
linksyswrt
Linksys WRT 3200 ACM
£150+ 4 None Up to 867 Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11a/g/n/ac 4x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x USB 3.0, 1 x ESATA/USB 2.0 WPA/WPA2 Yes 8/10

Asus RT-AC5300
£400 8 None Up to 2167 Mbps Dual (2.4GHz and 2x5GHz) 802.11a/ac/b/g/n, IPv4, IPv6 4x Gigabit LAN, 1x Gigabit WAN, 1x USB 3.0, 1xUSB 2.0 WPA2-PSK, WPA-PSK, WEP, WPS Yes 7.5/10
* To calculate the figures for “Reviews round-up”, we aggregated the ratings given in expert reviews from a number of reputable tech sites including TechRadar, TechAdvisor and Trusted Reviews.

Sometimes, even buying a fancy new router isn’t enough to solve your Wi-Fi coverage woes. Fortunately, you’re not out of options just yet. By installing additional access points throughout your premises, you can extend your network coverage far beyond its original limits. Routers, range extenders and Wi-Fi repeaters can all serve as secondary access points, connecting to your main router with an Ethernet cable or over Wi-Fi and rebroadcasting the signal much like signal fires carrying messages over long distances.

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