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If local area networks (LANs) were like plumbing, then Ethernet cables would be the pipes and routers the valve switchers. But data bits have a huge advantage over fluids. They don't require conduits to flow through your home or office to still be useful. Bits can be transmitted through the air, walls and floors and arrive where needed intact. Wireless network technology has empowered the growing array of Wi-Fi appliances, and it's not just about computers anymore.
Since wireless routers usually contain four LAN (RJ-45) ports that accept Ethernet cables, they start out as wired routers. (An RJ-45 input is a wider version of the RJ-11 snap-in connection on phones.) The difference is that the wireless version also includes antennae (external or embedded) and a radio that sends and receives data to compatible devices within a couple of hundred feet.
Almost all routers include a wide area network (WAN) port, which is yet another RJ-45, for connecting the local network to the wider digital world known as the Internet. An Ethernet cable links the router most often in homes to a cable modem. Though they look the same, the WAN port usually sports a different color than the LAN ports.
With the rise of wireless Internet access through 3G and 4G cellular phone networks, some specialized routers let you create an instant hot spot for use by several of your Wi-Fi devices no matter where you happen to be, providing you can pick up the wireless broadband service to which you subscribe. People who own recreational vehicles or attend tailgate parties or go camping could bring along a notebook computer and iPod Touch and share a ramp to the Internet in their ad hoc hot spot.
Cellular routers typically get their broadband connection using the same types of modems you'd slide into the PCMCIA slot of a notebook computer or plug into a USB port. An important difference between them is which type of interface they accommodate. The Zoom Telephonics 4501 3G Wireless-N Desktop Router accepts USB-type modems, while the Aluratek 3G Wireless USB/PCMCIA Cellular Router accepts both types.
With mobile Internet Service Providers (ISP) upgrading data speeds from 3G to 4G, it may be time to upgrade your router, too. The NexConnect II 3G/4G SOHO Router from Nexaira, for instance, supports 2G, 3G and 4G technologies and is compatible with most Express Cards and USB modems from Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and Rogers. It also works with DSL, cable and T1 networks. A version for secure online sales and virtual private network (VPN) support is embodied in NexAira’s Business Class II 3G/4G Router.
Wireless broadband speed still pales by comparison to that of a cable modem, so transmitting within a hot spot using the older Wi-Fi standards (802.11b/g) is good enough. However, if you're at home or in a hotel room using a cable TV-based Internet service provider or a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) from your phone company, you can take advantage of the faster throughput using a wireless router that integrates the newer 802.11n standard (or the less-common 802.11a standard).
The 802.11n "standard" was finally ratified in 2010 by an industry consortium. (For the previous few years, products with "n" specs were referred to as "draft -N.") So, now is a good time to replace your aging router with an 802.11n type, especially if you recently bought a computer or media receiver that supports the protocol or if you expect to buy one soon. (The 802.11n standard routers are downwardly-compatible to 802.11b/g equipment, so you can continue to use a range of devices.) The advantage of 802.11n wireless connections is that data is transmitted two to seven times faster than 802.11g networks. The performance gap is most noticeable at 300 feet—the outside range of a G-type network. If you send or receive high-definition video (originating from your camcorder or streamed from the Internet) and you do it wirelessly, you'll need an 802.11n or 802.11a network, no matter how far apart your devices are placed. If you're using an 802.11b/g-type router, high-def video will stutter and stall. Without an upgrade, you're better off sticking to Ethernet cables.
The 802.11n router may incorporate a radio technology called MIMO (for "multiple input multiple output") that uses multiple antennas at both the transmitting and receiving ends to improve communication performance. The most advanced 802.11n routers are also dual band, transmitting simultaneously at 2.4- and 5 Gigahertz. This is a way of avoiding the crowded 2.4 GHz frequency used by older Wi-Fi networks, some cordless phones and baby monitors and microwave ovens.
Among your options are the D-Link Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit Router, Linksys E4200 Dual-Band N Router and Belkin N750 DB Wireless Dual Band N+ Router. The newest notebooks incorporate Dual-Band Wireless N transceivers, but if you want to upgrade an older notebook (especially one with built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi) or a desktop computer that can't be conveniently hooked up to an Ethernet cable, consider a USB or PCMCIA (PC Card) adapter with N Dual Band capability. Single-band (2.4 GHz) N routers include the D-Link Wireless N Router and Linksys E1500 Wireless-N Router with SpeedBoost.
The older 802.11b/g wireless standard continues to bring value to home-network enthusiasts whose data requirements top out at music, photos and standard-definition video and don't push range limits. These routers are usually less expensive than N-type routers. They include the Netgear 54 Mbps Wireless Router. A b/g router with extra reach is the Bountiful WiFi BWRG1000 Long Range Wireless 802.11b/g Router. If you have DSL service, you might consider a router that eliminates a separate DSL modem and the phone company's rental charge. So, for example, the Netgear N300 Wireless ADSL2+ Modem Router Mobile Broadband Edition has a built-in DSL modem and N-type wireless connectivity and 3G+ backup from your mobile ISP.
A benefit of installing any router—including ones conforming to the conventional 802.11b/g wireless standards—is that it contains a firewall to help protect your computer against malicious attacks from other users on the Internet. Additionally, routers feature network security software to protect your data as it is transmitted wirelessly, ensuring that outsiders can't access your files or piggyback on your broadband connection to the Internet. In the box with every router is normally a CD-ROM that you run on a LAN-linked computer. You use it to name your network, pick a password and choose the type of security.
In terms of security, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA2) has eclipsed the less secure Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) protocol. Also, 256-bit security is more secure than 128-bit, which is more secure than 64-bit. Other acronyms to recognize in the accompanying chart: Pre-Shared Key (PSK) mode; Personal Information Number (PIN); Push Button Configuration (PBC); Media Access Control (MAC) address. It's not necessary to understand this technical jargon in setting up your router. A lot of the setup today is guided and nearly automatic. What is important is that you remember your password and keep it secret unless you don't mind neighbors borrowing your bandwidth to access the Internet.
As for additional wired features, some routers now include a USB port for a shared printer or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. Apple's AirPort Extreme and D-Link's Xtreme N Gigabit (DIR-655) and Xtreme N Dual Band (DIR-825) Routers, for instance, each let you attach a compatible printer to its port so that several computers on your home or office network can share it wirelessly. As for a NAS device, the advantage is that several computers or media receivers on your network may be able to access such centralized storage. An N-type router with a USB storage port includes the Belkin N+ Wireless Router. Alternatively, there are plenty of network servers available that you can attach to one of any router's Ethernet (LAN) ports. These include the Iomega Home Media Network Hard Drive, Cloud Edition and the My Book World Edition II External Hard Drives from Western Digital. Finally, even while wireless speed has been increasing, so has wired speed. Historically, Fast Ethernet increased transfer rates from 10 to 100 megabits per second (Mbps). Gigabit Ethernet increases the speed to 1000 Mbps. N-type wireless routers with Gigabit Ethernet delivery include the D-Link Xtreme N Gigabit Router and Buffalo AirStation Nfiniti Wireless-N power Router & Access Point.
A hybrid router that lets you send data wirelessly, via Ethernet cables or by piggybacking it on your home’s in-wall electrical power lines is the Netgear N300 Wireless Router with Built-in Powerline AV. So, you could place a Netgear XAV2501-100NAS Powerline AV+ 200 Adapter in another room, especially one with poor Wi-Fi reception, and still route data its way without pulling Ethernet cabling all the way through.
No matter which wireless router you choose, the benefits will accrue as you discover the freedom of using notebooks, netbooks, media receivers, Internet radios, streaming Blu-ray Disc players, Wi-Fi picture frames, VoIP phones, touch media players, handheld game players, Eye-Fi card-installed cameras and more without necessarily being tethered to a jack.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to share them in the Comments section below.
A more detailed comparison of wireless routers mentioned in this article follows.
|Manufacturer||Model||Wi-Fi Types||Antenna||LAN Ports||Other Port(s) or Slots||Security||Special Features|
|Aluratek||WMQ137AM||g/b||External||1x||1x RJ-45 WAN; PCMCIA card slot; 1x USB||WEP, WPA/WPA2||3G cellular support|
|Apple||MC340LL/A||n/a/g/b||Internal||3x||1x RJ-45 WAN; 1x USB; security slot||WPA/WPA2, 40- and 128-bit WEP||Simultaneous dual-N band; USB port for shared printer or storage; Gigabit LAN|
|Belkin||F5D8235-4||n/g/b||External||4x||1x RJ-45 WAN; 1x USB||256-bit WPA/WPA2-Personal, and 64-bit and 128-bit WEP||USB port for storage; Gigabit LAN; speedometer bar; MIMO technology; pushbutton security|
|Belkin||N750||n/g/b||Internal||4x||1x RJ-45 WAN; 2x USB||WEP, WPA, WPA2, NAT and SPI Firewall||USB ports for printing and storage; dual band; Gigabit LAN|
|Bountiful||BWRG1000||g/b||External||4x||1x RJ-45 WAN||64-/128-bit WEP, 802.1x, WPA-PSK||Long-range coverage|
|Buffalo||WZR-HP-G300NH||n/g/b||External||4x||1x RJ-45 WAN; 1x USB||WPA2, WPA-PSK, 128/64-bit WEP||USB port for storage; Gigabit LAN; BitTorrent Downloader|
|D-Link||DIR-615||n/g/b||External||4x||1x RJ-45 WAN||WPA, WPA2|
|D-Link||DIR-655||n/g/b||External||4x||1x RJ-45WAN; 1x USB||WPA, WPA2||USB for printer or storage sharing; Gigabit LAN|
|D-Link||DIR-825||n/a/g/b||External||4x||1x RJ-45 WAN; 1x USB||WPA, WPA2, WPS (PIN & PBC)||USB for printer or storage sharing; Simultaneous dual-band transmission; Gigabit LAN|
|Linksys||E1500||n/g/b||Internal||4x||1x RJ-45 WAN||WPA. WPA2||MIMO|
|Linksys||E4200||n/g/b||Internal||4x||1x RJ-45 WAN; 1x USB||WPA, WPA2, SPI Firewall||Gigabit LAN; USB storage; dual-band; MIMO|
|Netgear||N300 DGN2200M||n/g/b||External||4x||1x USB; 1x RJ-11||WPA, WPA2, WEP||Integrated ADSL2+ modem: DSL with 3G+ backup|
|Netgear||WGR614NA||g/b||External||4x||1x RJ-45 WAN||40/64-, 128- and 152-bit WEP (802.11g only), WPA|
|Netgear||WNXR2000||n/g/b||Internal||4x||1x RJ-45||WPA, WPA2, WEP||Powerline adapter for networking over electrical wiring|
|NexAira||R-SI-NEX-SH-B209||n/g/b||Internal||1x||1x RJ 45 WAN; 1x USB; ExpressCard||WEP, WPA, WPA2||Supports 2G, 3G and 4G modems via card or USB|
|NexAira||R-SI-NEX-BC-B209||n/g/b||Internal||1x||1x RJ 45 WAN; 1x USB; ExpressCard||WEP, WPA, WPA2, NAT, VPN||Supports 3G and 4G via card or USB; IPsec|
|Zoom Telephonics||4501-00-00AG||n/g/b||External||1x||1x RJ 45; 1xUSB||WEP, WPA, WPA2||USB for 3G modem|
Key to Acronyms
|LAN||Local Area Network|
|WAN||Wide Area Network|
|ISP||Internet Service Provider|
|VPN||Virtual Private Network|
|DSL||Digital Subscriber Line|
|MIMO||Multiple Input Multiple Output|
|WPA, WPA2||Wi-Fi Protected Access|
|WEP||Wired Equivalent Privacy|
|PIN||Personal Identification Number|
|MAC||Media Access Control|
|NAS||Network Attached Storage|
|NAT||Network Address Translation|
|WPS||Wi-Fi Protected Setup|
|Mbps||Megabits per second|