Unlock the power of your router

Unlock the power of your router

Just signed up for that new high-speed fibre broadband plan?

Chances are, you will need to replace your existing router with a new one that is fast enough to tap into all that extra bandwidth.

In fact, if you are planning to sign up with ViewQwest's newly launched 2Gbps multi-network fibre plan, you may even need two new routers.

Service providers typically bundle a compatible router which supports the latest Wi-Fi 802.11ac standard with their fibre plans. Sometimes, they offer subscribers a pick from a selection of routers - and this is where it can get tricky.

With a broad range of routers, each with different specifications, to choose from, it can be tough to pick the right one. You may think a larger number on the box is better, but it is not always the case.

Making sense of the numbers

The current crop of 802.11ac routers (which also support the older 802.11n Wi-Fi standard) typically falls into three speed bands: 1,900Mbps (AC1900), 2,400Mbps (AC2400) and 3,200Mbps (AC3200). Vendors derive these numbers by adding up the maximum theoretical speed for all their frequency bands.

AC1900 and AC2400 routers are dual-band devices that operate on the 2.4GHz 

and 5GHz frequency bands. With an AC1900 router, the maximum speeds on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are 600Mbps and 1,300Mbps, respectively, which add up to 1,900Mbps.

Compared with an AC1900 router, an AC2400 router offers a higher maximum speed on the 5GHz band, at 1,733Mbps. But here is the rub: There are no client devices on the market now that can go that fast. The only other device that supports this speed is another AC2400 router.

Hence, one workaround is to get a second AC2400 router, enable bridge mode (effectively turning it into a glorified wireless network adaptor) and connect it to your client devices using Ethernet cables. However, this is a highly impractical solution for most people.

An AC3200 router operates in three bands: two 5GHz bands (1,300Mbps each) and a single 2.4GHz band (600Mbps), adding up to 3,200Mbps.

By offering two 5GHz bands and an intelligent load-balancing system, AC3200 routers assign devices to the frequency band that provides them with the best speed.

Having an extra frequency band is useful in reducing network congestion if you have many Wi-Fi devices at home. However, there seems to be no consensus among router manufacturers on the number of Wi-Fi clients you have to have on your network before you reap this benefit. I asked three different vendors and got three different numbers, ranging from six to 30.

It takes two to speed

To enjoy the high speeds of a 802.11ac router, you need an 802.11ac client device. Most of the newer high-end mobile devices should qualify. New laptops using Intel's fifth-generation Core processors should also be compatible.

But even among 802.11ac client devices, the speeds differ. Expect smartphones to top out at 433Mbps and laptops at 867Mbps. Only desktop PCs are likely to be able to achieve the top speed of 1,300Mbps.

Things slow down when you hook up an older 802.11n client device, with connectivity speed dropping to 450Mbps. Only 802.11n devices using a non-standard technology from Broadcom can reach 600Mbps.

Here is another twist: If you have only one or two 802.11ac client devices on your wireless network, the router model or technology may not matter that much when it comes to speed. This is because you will not be using up all of the router's bandwdith and should thus be able to hit its top speed with your devices. Any of the three types of routers highlighted in the review here (pages 6 and 8), even an older AC1750 model, have an identical top speed of 1,300Mbps when working with current client devices.

Another consideration when picking routers is connectivity range. An 802.11ac router offers higher speeds than an older 802.11n router, but its range when operating in the 5GHz band is generally shorter.

You can easily check your home router's Wi-Fi signal strength with an Android mobile device using the Wifi Analyzer or the Netgear WiFi Analytics apps.

There are similar apps for iOS devices, but they work only on jailbroken devices (and are not found on the Apple App Store).

New wave on the way

Most of the existing routers (including AC1900 and AC3200 routers) are considered Wave 1 routers. AC2400 routers are known as Wave 2 routers because they and upcoming models support a new feature called MU-MIMO (Multi User-Multiple Input Multi Output), which lets the router send wireless data to multiple devices at the same time.

This is a significant improvement over Wave 1 models, which can send data to only a single client at any moment in time. Expect router makers to launch new Wave 2 models this year with higher speeds.

In the meantime, you can use our group review to help with your next router purchase.

We tested some of the latest 802.11ac routers on the market. We have also included a number of previously tested routers here, to make it easy for you to compare across a wide range of options.

The routers were tested in an apartment. Each router was connected to a desktop PC via an Ethernet cable. A laptop with 802.11ac support was used to measure the transfer speeds between the PC and the laptop.

Next: Common networking terms

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