Wireless router basics

A wireless router is a staple in any home that has a broadband Internet connection, whether it be via a cable or phone service provider. Here are the basics you need to know before getting a wireless router for your home network, as well as Network World’s tester’s top pick.

Wireless routers have come a long way in a short time. The oldest standard wireless LAN technologies follow the IEEE 802.11a and 802.11b standards, which were established in 1999. The 802.11a standard uses the 5 GHz frequency and has a maximum data rate of 54Mbps. The 802.11b standard uses the 2.4 GHz band and delivers a data rate of 11Mbps.

In 2003, the IEEE ratified another wireless LAN standard, 802.11g. This one also uses the 2.4 GHz band but uses the transmission scheme of 802.11a, so it is able to reach speeds of 54Mbps.

Note that with all wireless routers, the actual speed you get over the airwaves varies greatly based on distance and other factors like the types of obstacles that lie between your computer and the wireless router that cause interference. The rates given here are really just theoretical maximums.

802.11n

The latest widely used wireless LAN technology follows the IEEE 802.11n standard, which you may see referred to as 11N or Wireless-N or just “N.” This standard was ratified in 2009, and it can support much higher speeds, from 150Mbps to 300Mbps.

The 802.11n technology started showing up in many wireless routers in 2008, before the standard was even ratified. But the meat of the standard was there at the time, and manufacturers did not have to do much to update their wireless routers to comply with the standard once it was finalized.

Wireless router security

With the rapid deployment of broadband Internet access across the country and the world, the deployment of wireless routers shot up, too. This raised all sorts of security concerns, because wireless traffic is vulnerable to snooping.cracked. The industry quickly produced a replacement security algorithm called Wi-Fi Protected Access, or WPA, which has been in use since 2003. A follow-up standard, WPA2, or 802.11i, was ratified in 2004. 

The industry’s first answer to this challenge was Wired Equivalent Privacy, or WEP. While this is better than nothing, it has been very publicly

Use of WPA2 is recommended for wireless routers in the networks of both homes and businesses.

Top pick

Today’s wireless routers are manufactured by companies including 3Com (which is being acquired by HP), Belkin, Buffalo Technology, D-Link, Linksys (owned by Cisco), Netgear, and others.

Recently, Network World published its “Best of the Tests,” a round-up of all the best products we tested last year. Tester Logan Harbaugh chose the Belkin N+ wireless router as one of his favorite products

Wrote Harbaugh:

“The system is not only fast, the router provides a USB port to allow an attached hard drive, turning it into a NAS system, and also includes a modem port, allowing for failover access if the LAN connection goes down. It provides 4 Gigabit Ethernet ports, a stateful packet inspection firewall and excellent wireless speed.”

He said he was able to see speeds of 200Mbps to 270Mbps over the air in his office, and the setup was very straightforward.

On a related note, PC Advisor has tested wireless routers available in the U.K., and ranked its top five.

Insider Tip: 12 easy ways to tune your Wi-Fi network
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