Does the Wi-Fi router you choose matter?

Russell Bray / 20 December 2016

Do you stick with the free router, or upgrade?



If you are a frequent internet user you will have realised that the majority of Wi-Fi routers you get free when you sign up for broadband aren't that good, especially if you live in an older house with thicker walls.

How does a router work?

The router lets your phone line or fibre cable transmit Wi-Fi signals; think of it as the brain of your home network.

It lets a single internet connection be shared between devices, but demands on it have increased dramatically.

Seven ways to speed up your router

Bandwidth explained

Smartphones, laptops, tablet computers, game consoles like Playstations and Xboxes, and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime all need bandwidth.

Cheaper routers are only single band, compared to the three bands that some models boast, and you’ll find yourself competing for bandwidth with other equipment including cordless telephones, Bluetooth kit and even microwave ovens. The result frequently is poor and erratic service.

Single-band routers for basic networking operate on the 2.4GHz radio band and are usually fine for web browsing unless there are lots of people nearby using the same frequency.

Dual-band routers work on the same band but also on the less crowded 5GHz one. There are only three channels available on 2.4GHz but 23 channels available on 5GHz, so there is less interference and better throughput.

This means you should be able to run your phone and laptops on the 2.4GHz band, and use the 5GHz band for fast content video games or streaming HD video.

In general terms 5GHz delivers faster data over a short distance while 2.4GHz gives more range but may work at slower speeds.

Dual-band routers can switch between bands and operate on both simultaneously because under some circumstances the range on 5GHz can drop to 70% or less.

Tri-band routers have one 2.4 GHz band and two 5.0GHz bands. It’s a good idea to check your devices will support 5GHz before splashing out.

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Get a router that suits your needs

Be warned: some of these devices won’t look great in the living room because they have six aerials; however, being able to alter the aerials’ positions can make a big difference to performance. Some routers with three visible aerials have three more inside.

Before buying a new router check whether your system connects to the internet using an ADSL modem or a cable one.

Some USB ports, preferably USB 3.0, are also useful for attaching external hard drives and printers.

More complex routers let you adjust network traffic priority for devices or applications, so you don’t lose your work connection when writing a report if the family have decided to watch the latest superhero film.

You can also set up separate access for your visitors to maintain your security. Parental controls can also be set to restrict times of use and web sites accessed.

Speed up your broadband internet with ease

New routers vs old

Routers have changed a lot in just the last three years. Newer ones have features that were not available on the old a, b, g and n standard protocol ones.

Some are even specifically designed for fast paced games. And more bandwidth means you can stream a film while other people are doing different things online.

The 802.11n routers operate on 2.4GHz and 5GHz with a theoretical maximum speed of about 240 megabits per second (Mbps).

Routers working on the new 802.11ac standard deliver, in theory, three times the speed - or 720Mbps - but work only on the 5GHz band.

Most phones, laptops and printers use 802.11n, which is capable of a maximum through put speed of up to 600Mbps.

Now 802.11n is being replaced by 802.11ac which allows higher speed and more bandwidth. Band ac is regarded as future-proof but a/b/g/n are not.

Numbers associated with routers such as N600 or AC1900 refers to the theoretical maximum speed the router is capable of achieving.

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Other factors influence internet speed

Don’t make the mistake of thinking a better router will automatically improve your internet speed. This also depends on factors like the broadband speed, the number of devices in use and where the router is positioned.

As ever with any high speed connection into your home don’t forget to protect your router from hackers.

Ten tips for public Wi-Fi security

It is best with n or ac standards to use WPA2 (wireless protected access) with AES encryption because other WEP or WPA reduce bandwidth. Some can be tricky to set-up.

Some router options follow. There are some amazing deals so check around and be flexible.

Netgear N750 Dual Band

Plenty of range for most houses though the 5GHz drops 20 to 30ft outside the house. Holds signal well. Capable of internet speeds up to 1,000 MBits per second. Easy to set up with Apple’s Time Machine. Parental controls. Will be a big improvement for most people. Price has been as high as £150. Now £75 to £48

TP-LINK Archer C7 AC 1750

Dual band with six antennas but the dual USB ports are only 2.0 rather than 3.0. There’s a strong signal for a really good range, four LAN Gigabit ports and you can access the router and connected USB drives using your i0S or Android phone. Price £95 to £55.

Netgear Nighthawk R 7000

The Nighthawk R7000 strengthens connections by aiming the Wi-Fi signal and using three antennas. It works on the 5GHz and 2.4 GHz bands so is great for playing on line games or streaming HD video. Range should be good too. There are four LAN Gigabit ports for the best connection and two USB ports, one the faster 3.0 specification. The ReadySHARE system gives safe and secure remote access to your USB data. Price £125 to £150.

TP-LINK TL-WR841 N300

Despite its incredibly low price of around £20 the N300 was voted one of the top routers of 2016. True it only has two antenna and is single band, but it performs well in tests if you live somewhere not crowded with signals. You can’t connect a network drive but there are four LAN ports.

ASUS RT-AC5300

The AC500’s eight dual-band antennas work with multiple user technology to assign a dedicated network for each connected device so that there’s no queuing for printers or computers. This also makes it one of the best gaming routers. The signal is tri-band (two five GHz bands and one 2.4GHz) and there are four Gigabit LAN ports, but make sure your network can cope with MIMO (multiple input multiple output) networking capabilities. There’s a USB 3.0 port and a standard USB 2.0. Guest network options provide visitors with internet access without compromising personal information. Virtual private network (VPN) functions allow for secure and reliable remote access to the network. Files can be shared and download without turning the computer on. Apple users can backup data to a central drive with Time Machine. It’s a quality product but expect to pay £300 to £400.

D-Link DIR-868L

The smooth cylindrical shape of this dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) router is a huge surprise after the Christmas tree antennae of some. The router worked best on the 5GHz band. The USB3 port can be used to share music or video. The only annoyance is that the router does not have a built-up ADSL modem so you need a cable connection or an Ethernet modem or router to connect to its WAN port. Currently seems to be priced from £99 and upwards but early in 2015 a friend picked one up for just £66. 

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.