Dear Lifehacker, My old router has died and I need a new one. There are so many wireless routers out there that I don't know what to buy. Is dual-band worth it? What should I look for in my new Wi-Fi router? Sincerely, Desperately Seeking Wi-FiPhoto by nrkbeta
Sorry to hear about your dead router. Think of it as an opportunity, though, to upgrade your wireless and wired home network. Modern routers have a lot of nice features your old router may not have had (depending on when you bought it, of course), so let's look into some of your options. We'll try to address some common scenarios and features that may appeal to you.
The Basics: Things Your Router Should Have
You'll definitely want to make sure the router supports the latest WPA2 security rather than just WPA or, even worse, WEP. Most current routers support WPA2, but free routers from an ISP can sometimes be really outdated.
If you're building a wired network with clients that have gigabit ethernet adapters, also look for a router that supports that fast gigabit transfer speed.
Also make sure the router supports Wireless-N (802.11n) for fastest transfer speeds; Wireless-N is backwards compatible with Wireless-G (802.11g) and Wireless-B (802.11b) devices, so your older computers and gadgets will still be able to connect to it.
Do You Like to Tinker? Consider Custom Router Firmware
If you'd like to hack your router for more features and customisation with free, open-source firmware like Tomato or DD-WRT (both can help you turn a $US60 router it into a $US600 router), be sure to check those site's supported routers before going shopping. Some routers — like Buffalo's Nfiniti G300NH — actually ship with DD-WRT pre-installed. (Ed. note: This is the router I use.)
Dual Band or Not?
A dual band router can broadcast wireless signals on the popular 2.4GHz band or the newer spec'd 5GHz one (or both at the same time). This allows for greater compatibility with more wireless devices, and this increased versatility may be worth the slight increase in cost. With a dual band router, you can separate the 5GHz traffic from the more crowded 2.4GHz traffic — so your older Wireless-G devices don't drag down the rest of the network.
You can get a really cheap (under $US40) dual-band router, but, as of this writing, the most highly rated ones tend to hover around the $US100 mark and can sometimes cost almost double their single-band counterparts. The dual band Netgear N600 (WNDR3700) retails for $US159.99, while the Netgear N300 (WNR3500L) is $US99.99.
In the end, whether or not the extra cost for a dual band router is worth it depends on your network needs. If you want to run your home network like a coffee shop for easier guest access, a dual-band router is key. Look for a router that specifically says it allows guest access — which separates the public Wi-Fi from your private Wi-Fi network.
Also, keep in mind that some routers may be dual band but not support simultaneous operation on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands (i.e. dual-radio broadcasting). If you have a mixed network — some older Wireless-G clients that can't or won't be upgraded to Wireless-N (e.g. the Nintendo Wii) and also Wireless-N devices — make sure the router supports simultaneous dual-band.
Other Features to Consider
Routers are offering a lot of added networking features these days. Here are a few that might interest you:
Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) - This reduces the number of steps you might have to take to connect your wireless devices to your router. Push a button on the router or enter a PIN number to network the devices, and the WPA2 security will be set up for you. If you want the most streamlined setup possible, WPS is great, but it can make manual connections harder.
USB Ports - If you'd like to create a shared network drive, some routers enable you to plug in a USB hard drive to the router and share that drive. It's a useful feature, but can be very slow and/or inconvenient (forcing you to use a FTP or HTTP server to access the drive, for example). If you don't have a network attached storage (NAS) device, however, and don't mind the performance compromise, look for this feature in your next router.
Printer Sharing - Some routers also let you plug in a printer to the USB port for network printing. You might need to install printer drivers on all the PCs to use this, but if you don't have an easily network-able printer you can use your router as a print server (keeping in mind this may also slow the router down).
Firewall and VPN Support - Most routers today say they have the best intrusion detection, firewall, and VPN support. If you need to access a company network over VPN, however, make sure you talk to your company's IT department before buying the home router. As a former IT admin, I saw some users' routers just wouldn't work with our VPN implementation, making it a problem for everyone all around. At the very least, your router should support VPN passthrough (IPSec, PPTP and L2TP) for typical VPN traffic.
Remote Access, 3G/4G and more - The latest routers are adding even more functionality, like being able to remotely access computers on your network through the router or sharing 3G/4G broadband connections. Some are being designed to more easily connect to your TV or media centre. There aren't that many routers that support these newer features, so you'll have to decide how important this is for your usage scenario.
Which Router to Buy
As for which particular router you should buy, that depends on your budget and needs (above). You might find best performance/compatibility using the same brand for both your router and network cards. Or if you're used to using Linksys products, upgrading to a newer Linksys model might make sense for you.
SmallNetBuilder is a great source for finding router reviews and recommendations.
P.S. If you have helpful tips of your own for shopping for and selecting a new router, let's hear them in the comments.