At the heart of every home or small office network is a small box known as a router. The router is a technology that takes your external Internet connection, and routs it to all of the computers in your office. A sort of control box for your network. In the past, routers were all hardwired, but these days most people use a “wireless router” that provide Wi-Fi access: no more messy network cables running around the office!
Like cars, routers come in many ranges of performance, and price! In many cases, Internet Service Providers give you a router when you sign up. Sometimes these routers are great. More often than not, they are cheap, subcompact models but do the job, but only just!
In addition, while routers are very reliable, they do break down over time, especially in areas where there is a lot of humidity or electricity spikes. Also, as more premises get connected to the NBN, which offers much faster Internet throughput, some of the old routers just don’t make the grade. Finally, if you wish to view media streaming services such as Netflix or Stan, older model routers tend to choke up the network. Is not uncommon to find one person will start watching a Netflix movie, and suddenly everyone else finds their Internet connection dropping to a crawl. While this is often limitations with Internet bandwidth, it can also be internal network congestion due to an older model router. It’s a bit like trying to fit a ALF team into a smart car: linguistically and physically it just doesn’t work.
So if you find your network is running a little slow, or the NBN has just been installed in your area, it may be time to investigate the purchase of a new router.
But before you go spending any money, check your external Internet speed. The most thorough way to do this is to call your Internet service providers help desk, and have them talk you through checking your Internet bandwidth (or line speed). Sometimes there are settings on the telephone exchange which can speed up your access, but you may also discover that your router is simply not up to the job.
The good news is, current generation wireless routers are relatively inexpensive. Obviously the more you pay, the more features you get. So what are your options?
First, investigate your external Internet connection. The important thing here to consider is the Wide Area Network (WAN) to Local Area Network (LAN) throughput capability. Without the jargon, that means the speed at which the router can communicate with the external Internet service provider. The faster your external Internet connection, the higher the WAN to LAN throughput speed should be. This is really only an issue if you have the very latest NBN Internet in your area. If you only have an ADSL 2+ connection (which is still the majority of Australia) then your modem only needs around 100MB connection. Most routers on the market will handle this with no problem whatsoever. However, if you do have the NBN, you’ll probably want a 500MB or faster WAN to LAN router. Talk your ISP and get their advice on this issue.
For a list of Router Wann to LAN throughput , check this link: http://www.smallnetbuilder.com/tools/charts/router/view
The other thing to consider is the type of connectivity you need in your office. Since we are looking at wireless routers, you’ll be looking for a router with Wi-Fi support – more on that later. It is also a good idea to consider if any devices need to be wired physically into your network. For example, you might have a network printer, or a specialised security camera system. If you need to connect wired devices directly to your network, it’s a good idea to consider a router that has at least four “ethernet ports”. Ethernet is simply the name given to a specific type of network cable that everybody uses. Ethernet ports are also rated for their speed, but for most small businesses and homes, quibbling about the speed of these ethernet ports is ridiculous… we’re talking some high-performance technology here, even in basic models. The only time you may wish to discuss the speed of the ethernet ports is if you plan to use extremely high speed network connected storage for use with video or large file editing. Not something we do a lot of in the nursery industry. The bigger question to ask is how many ethernet ports do you need? Since the majority of your computers and laptops, mobile devices, and these days even printers and scanners, connect into the network through Wi-Fi, four ethernet ports is generally sufficient. If you need more than that, the routers start to get very expensive. Alternatively you can consider purchasing an additional bit of technology called a “hub”.
Now comes the hard part. Deciding what type of Wi-Fi you want! But surely Wi-Fi is Wi-Fi? Nope. Geeks never make anything that easy!
There are actually many different protocols of Wi-Fi, and this technology is evolving all the time. The good news is, the more advanced Wi-Fi standards are generally backwards compatible. So if you get a router with the very latest Wi-Fi standard, it will also support the earlier standards. Unfortunately, it’s not always that clear cut. For example, mobile devices may use an earlier standard of Wi-Fi. When your router connects to your router via this lower speed standard, it lowers the speed for all devices on the network, including your computers. So is really important to understand what type of devices will be on your network and what Wi-Fi standards they need.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to look for a router that not only supports the latest Wi-Fi standards – currently, that would be the 802.11 ac standard, which is three times faster than the previous 802.11n standard - but also one that supports multiple Wi-Fi networks. This way you can set up one of the Wi-Fi networks as a slower, older standard, in isolation of a network for higher speed devices, using the very latest standards. This way, the old and the new will be able to coexist very smoothly and you will avoid some of the strange network congestion issues that sometimes crop up.
One of the most important things to consider, is the antenna of the router and the antennas you use in your computing devices. Antennas make all the difference in terms of distances that can be covered, and the actual speed of the network. In general, the more antennas, and the more powerful they are, the better. But here is where things get complicated. Some routers house the antennas inside the body of the equipment, while others have them very prominently sticking out like rabbit ears. What you want to do is check the packaging to see how many antennas the router supports, and the proposed distances that the router will cover. When in doubt, check online reviews! There’s nothing worse than paying a couple of hundred dollars for a high-end router and then discovering its antennas do not have the power needed to penetrate your shed wall. Incidentally, tin sheds play havoc on Wi-Fi reception!
On this point, it is also possible to invest in a Wi-Fi extender. These are little units that you plug into your PowerPoints to boost the signal of your Wi-Fi. These are little repeater stations taking a flagging Wi-Fi signal from the router and rebroadcasting it to another area of your office or home. In most cases, you don’t need to have the same brand of Wi-Fi extender as your router. In reality, sometimes Wi-Fi extender from a vendor often pack extra features that are really useful when combined with that vendor’s own routers.
All of the above are the basics of selecting a router. However, many vendors add a whole host of additional and very useful features to the routers. Often it is these extra features that will help you make your decision. Some of the things to consider are:
Support for USB connected storage. With these routers, you can simply plug in an inexpensive USB hard drive to your router, and make it available to other computers on your network. This means that you can have a single location for your media and work files. It’s a cheap way of getting centralised network storage. But be careful with this option, because not all backup tools will work smoothly with such connected storage. For example, CrashPlan will not backup any files in such connected storage!
Other routers support virtual private network technologies, which allow you to encrypt all data coming into and leaving your home or office and have all information routed through a highly secure server on the Internet. This can be useful if you have a very security conscious stance in your organisation, or if you’re a branch office wishing to work securely to a head office. For most small businesses and home users, VPN capabilities are an unneeded complication. However, you can set up a VPN to work with an inexpensive VPN service in America, and thus get your Netflix and other American services all the way back here in Australia. Of course, I would never recommend somebody does this! That would be wrong!
Some routers also allow you to set up a “guest network.” This is an open Wi-Fi network that anyone can connect to without having to enter a password. Once connected, they can access the Internet through your ISP account. This guest network is separate from your internal network (that means people connecting to it will not see your own computers). You should also be able to set the speed of this guest network so that visitors don’t snuffle up all of your valuable data plan. A guest network capability is particularly useful in retail nursery situations, where you might wish to allow patrons to lookup information while they browse your beautiful plants, or access Facebook while having a cup of coffee. It’s just a nice little extra service that makes you look really modern, without having to spend much money.
Some routers also offer Internet telephony (aka Voice over IP, or VoIP). As the NBN is deployed, VoIP services will become a lot more common. The benefit of a VoIP phone system is that it allows you to make phone calls at a fraction of the cost of traditional phone services. Better still, because VoIP solutions are based on software, all sorts of advanced call routing, and call waiting functions, voicemail, “follow-me” phone numbers, and other leading-edge business features, can be included. Unfortunately, VoIP phone systems can sometimes suffer from poor performance if there is a heavy network load. If you’re a small business and you plan to go with a VoIP phone system, I strongly recommend you get some independent support to choose the right solution.
In summary, when you plan to purchase your next router, think beyond basic Internet connectivity. All routers will do that. Think about the types of services that you want, and how you would like your home office to be set up. Look for the additional features that may make your home or business life just that little bit easier.