Upgrading to a Wireless N router: what to look for
18th Jul 2010 | 09:00
Why it's worth upgrading to 802.11n for super speed and more
Wireless N routers: what's the hardware to buy?
Wireless routers are everywhere these days. Sign up with most ISPs and they'll even give you one for free – why would you need anything more? Well, let's see.
We'll randomly pick one of the UK's biggest ISPs: Be. It provides an excellent service, but the free router is very basic. It's an 802.11g model, with no support for the newly ratified N standard, so performance will be hobbled. Anything with an 802.11n adaptor could be running at less than half its possible speed, and you'll probably have worse range, too.
We're not having a dig at Be, though – this is more or less the standard across all the free routers out there. ISP-provided models often do things like not allowing you access to important settings, or using a 10/100Mbps Ethernet port even if your computer is using a Gigabit Ethernet adaptor.
Performance is only part of the problem, though. Another is that the routers are using old technology, a particular issue when it comes to security. You should be encrypting your transmissions using the latest WPA2 standard, for instance, but even though it's been around for five years, most free routers support only the easily cracked WEP and outdated WPA standards.
Firewalls, intrusion detection and other security features are likely to be similarly outdated, and sticking with a freebie router means you'll probably miss out on a whole range of possible benefits, including web traffic prioritising, printer sharing, network storage, VPN support and port forwarding.
Choose to upgrade
Relying on free hardware carries a real cost, then, and if you'd like to have a faster, more secure and better-managed network, you'll almost certainly be better off with an upgrade. But be careful – there are plenty of issues to consider first.
Router manufacturers have been working hard to improve the range of their products in recent years, and if you have a large house or like to browse the web in the garden, this sounds like a good move. But there's a downside. If you live in an urban environment, many of your neighbours will also have wireless networks – and the greater their range, the more likely they are to cause interference, slowing you down.
We carried out a few scans in the suburbs of Leicester and found that most locations had at least 10 Wi-Fi networks within range, while several had 20 or more. The highest we recorded was 33. That much competition for bandwidth will guarantee performance problems.
You could use Inssider or a similar free tool to scan your neighbourhood for other networks, and change your network's channel to avoid some of them. But there are only three non-overlapping channels available for 2.4GHz Wi-Fi (1, 6 and 11), so if you have more than four networks within range there may still be clashes.
And that's before you consider interference from other devices that operate at the same frequency: microwave ovens, cordless phones, baby monitors and so on. A better idea may be to abandon the 2.4GHz band altogether and buy a dual-band 802.11n wireless device that operates at 5GHz as well.
Not only does this offer you more bandwidth, with eight non-overlapping channels rather than three, but there's also much less competition for it – so you should see immediate benefits in crowded urban environments.
The downside of the 5GHz band is that its higher frequency doesn't have the same range as 2.4GHz 802.11n devices. It normally has far better coverage than standard 802.11g hardware, though, so if you're moving up from a free 802.11g router then this shouldn't be an issue. And even if it doesn't work out for some reason, then because this is dual-band hardware, you'll be able to switch back to 2.4GHz any time you want.
There's plenty to like about this new technology, but be careful – not every dual-band router is the same. The Linksys WRT320N, for instance, is marketed as dual-band, and it really can work at 2.4GHz or 5GHz. But the important word here is 'or': the router has only one radio that switches from 2.4GHz to 5GHz as required.If you have a mix of technologies – both wireless G and N kit – and they're working simultaneously then this will inevitably slow you down.
A better option is to look for a router that's dual-radio as well as dual-band. The Linksys WRT610N is a perfect example. It includes 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios that can transmit and receive at full speed simultaneously, so there's no time wasted switching bands, and your adaptors always have the router's full attention.
Pick your hardware
The number of radios is one of the most important hardware features of a router, but there are others worth considering. Take a look at the antennas, for instance. If these are inside the case then the router will be a smaller, more compact package.
However, external antennas that use a standard connection (look for a common connector type, such as RP SMA) will be upgradeable, and that could help you squeeze more performance and range out of your setup. Browse a specialist store such as Wi-Fi Antennas to see what's available.
Every router comes with Ethernet ports that you can use to establish a wired connection to your network. In most cases, these are regular 10/100Mbps types, but many routers now include Gigabit Ethernet ports. If your PC supports Gigabit Ethernet then this is a definite plus, especially with high-performance routers (the best 5GHz models can reach over 100Mbps), where a 10/100Mbps connection would quickly become a bottleneck.
Connection to the outside world will be via a conventional phone cable if the router includes a broadband modem. In that case, there's not too much to say: as long as it supports ADSL2+ (all current routers do) then it'll get you online with the minimum of hassle.
If you have an ADSL2+ or cable modem already, though, or maybe want to connect both, then pay attention to extra WAN options. Billion routers are particularly interesting here. The BiPAC 7800N, for instance, features an ADSL2+ port and a separate WAN port to add another cable modem, fibre connection, extra ADSL2+ line or whatever you need.
The new BiPAC 7800GZ comes with a builtin SIM slot: just add the appropriate card and it'll directly support 3G connections too (which is much easier than trying to cope with USB modems and their many compatibility issues).
Wireless N routers: USB access and security
An increasing number of routers now include USB ports along with the usual LAN and WAN ports. Typically, these will be used as an easy way of adding network storage: plug in a USB drive and it'll be freely available to everyone on the network. Well, sort of.
One complication is how the router presents the drive to the rest of your network. What you ideally want is support for Windows Server Message Block (SMB), which provides a standard way for apps to locate, read and write files to a network resource. As long as this is included then you should be able to browse the network in Explorer, 'see' the router's USB drive, map this to a network drive on your PC and use it as normal.
Some routers offer rather less convenient methods. For example, the Asus RT-N13U forces you to access the drive through a built-in FTP or HTTP server, which probably won't be ideal for most people.
Don't assume that seeing 'FTP' in the spec means this will always be the case, though. The Linksys WRT610N, for instance, supports external hard drives as well as USB keys, and these can be used as FTP servers, media servers, SMB-based external drivers, or all three at the same time. Handy!
Not to be outdone, other manufacturers have added even more USB functionality. Some DrayTek routers, such as the Vigor 2710, provide a USB port that allows printers to be connected and shared across the network.
And D-Link's SharePort technology lets you plug just about any USB device into a router such as the DIR-685, then access it on any PC on your network as though it was connected locally. This requires extra software to be installed on your network PCs, and only one can use the device at a time, but it could still be useful.
Before you opt for a solution such as this, it's worth thinking about how it might affect overall performance. If it's a large network, and the router is already likely to be fully occupied most of the time, then do you really want it handling additional file transfers and print jobs?
We've also noticed that USB devices connected to a router are noticeably slower than when plugged into a PC – that's no real surprise when you think of all the work the router's processor is doing. So, while USB storage is useful for basic things (as long as you make sure it supports SMB), if you have heavy-duty requirements then a dedicated network storage device will still offer the best speeds.
Once you've decided on the basic hardware you need, it's time to consider the software-based features – and none are as important as security.
So it's fortunate that just about every 802.11n router comes with a good set of security features: firewall, intrusion detection, the latest WPA2 encryption, and WPA and WEP if you need them for older devices. Avoid the latter two if you can: WEP is easily cracked and of no real value, and using WPA may drastically cut performance.
While every router comes with some form of firewall, the implementation varies greatly. Some are very simple, but DrayTek routers in particular are as configurable as their software-based cousins.
The DrayTek Vigor 2910G, for instance, has built-in support for around 30 instant-messaging apps, eight P2P protocols and 16 web-streaming applications.It's easy to add more, and you're able to create custom filter sets to control what traffic is allowed and what will be blocked.
The most interesting security features are often the more unusual extras. One of our favourites is the ability to set up a guest zone (also known as 'guest access'). This allows the router to create a separate wireless network that provides access to your internet connection, but keeps users isolated from more valuable resources, such as your PCs. That's perfect if, say, you don't mind your kids' friends using the network to get their iPods online, but you'd rather they didn't poke around any further.
If you need to connect to the company network from home, Virtual Private Network (VPN) support will probably be useful. At a minimum, your router should offer VPN passthrough for IPSec, PPTP and L2TP: this means it'll recognise VPN traffic and allow it to pass through your firewall and other protective layers.
Some routers only support passthrough for a single session – a hassle if you need more than one connection. Ideally, you'll want support for multiple concurrent sessions, and this doesn't have to be expensive: D-Link's DIR-655, for instance, includes it for around £65.
If that's not sufficient, look for a router with VPN endpoint capability, which means it's able to initiate a VPN connection itself. A few routers, such as the Buffalo Nfiniti Wireless-N, come with a complete integrated VPN server. If the router supports remote access, and that's a feature you'll use, consider how it's protected.
Some D-Link routers now use a CAPTCHA-style 'type the letters you see in the box' graphic, making it much more difficult for hackers to use brute-force attacks on your system. Others may let you limit access to particular IP addresses, or customise the port number used.
A feature to investigate carefully is any talk of 'content filtering' or 'parental controls'. Sometimes these turn out to require a subscription. Occasionally they're competent free packages, such as NetGear's Live Parental Controls, but in many cases, they're near-useless keyword-based efforts where you manually enter a few suspect words and the router blocks any webpage that uses them.
If you need decent parental controls then download the router manual before you buy it, and take the time to find out what's included.
Wireless N routers: super speed
Controlling the priority of certain types of network traffic is an excellent, often overlooked feature of modern routers. You don't want your video stream to have major glitches because someone else in the household is downloading the biggest collection of MP3 files in P2P history, right? Get Quality of Service (QoS) configured correctly and the network may be able to take care of this on its own.
A lot of 802.11-certified equipment comes with some basic QoS functionality in the form of Wi-Fi Multimedia (WMM). If your router and network adaptors are WMM-certified, they have the feature turned on and your app supports WMM, you're in business.
The program adds QoS details to its packets that say, 'I'm important, me first', so the router prioritises them ahead of other traffic. There are problems with this scheme, though. Not enough apps support WMM to make it really useful, and while its automatic nature cuts network management hassles, it doesn't give you enough control.
For that you need QoS features in the router, so it's worth checking to see what's on offer. Billion routers such as the BiPAC 7800N support DSCP (Differentiated Services Code Point) marking, a scheme where sources tag their network packets with information about what they are. If your apps do this then you'll be able to do things like assign a guaranteed level of traffic to media streaming, and a maximum level to P2P apps.
You can apply these rules to particular ports, internal or external IP address ranges or even a set timeframe, maybe restricting P2P to 10 per cent traffic during the day but allowing it 90 per cent between 1am and 8am.
Linksys routers are generally very configurable, too. For instance, the WRT610N can prioritise traffic by MAC address as well as application or Ethernet port, so you can ensure that a particular network device always gets the same level of priority, whatever it's doing.
Alternatively, if tweaking all that sounds too much like hard work, you might prefer D-Link's solution. Many of its routers include a simple technology ('Wireless Intelligent Stream Handling') that will look for media streams and then automatically prioritise them.
Which QoS solution is best for you will depend on your setup and circumstances, but do take the time to explore what a particular router offers before you buy. Good QoS settings can make a great deal of difference to a busy network.
Speeding into action
Upgrading to an 802.11n router isn't a magic bullet. It's unlikely to have a huge impact on your wireless range (although it should improve performance, even at the outer edges of your network). It won't make 802.11g devices any faster, either. Also note that to get the most out of it you'll need 802.11n clients elsewhere (however, with prices starting at under £10, this needn't be expensive).
Still, once you're properly set up, there are all kinds of benefits on offer. Significantly better speeds; improved WPA2 security; the ability to avoid interference if you've got a 5GHz model; built-in automatic prioritisation of the most important web traffic; bonus extras, such as easy network storage or printer sharing; and a host of other features that come automatically with up-to-date firmware.
So, which router should you choose? Our preference would be a dual-band, dual-radio model, especially if you live in close proximity to other networks: escaping their interference will save you hassle.
The dual-band 802.11n router market is fairly immature, though, and not every manufacturer has yet got the new tech performing at its best.
If interference isn't a problem with your G network, don't feel you have to do dual-band right now. A single-band N router will deliver plenty of benefits at a low price, and you can take advantage of the greater range of dual-band products that will be on offer when you do decide to upgrade.
First published in PC Plus Issue 296
Liked this? Then check out How to hack your router
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