The humble home internet router has one of the toughest jobs you can imagine. It has to take all the stuff you install in your home and then make sure they can talk to each other as fast as possible without anything getting confused. It’s a daunting job, and you can add managing internet access and sometime printing and network storage to the list as well.
Since so many home automation devices make use of WiFi, it is important to get one that can handle the load. The $20 router you bought to have internet access for your three or four devices is going to balk when you start having more than 10 devices that want to have a chat at the same time. So what should we look out for when buying a router? Let’s have a look.
Have Some Standards
WiFi comes in many flavors, since every few years the eggheads figure out a way to make it faster, less power-hungry, and equipped with greater range. Each generation of WiFi has been backwards compatible with the previous one, but the latest 802.11ac standard has split the technology into two frequency bands – 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz.
The lower frequency is where the previous generations of WiFi devices will connect using the 802.11n standard. Generally this standard is limited to 300Mbps of bandwidth, but by using some sort of black magic some of these new 802.11ac routers can offer 600Mbps to 802.11n devices. So even if you don’t have 802.11ac client devices yet, getting the newer standard can improve the total bandwidth for all of your devices.
However, new smart devices and WiFi clients that require a lot of bandwidth for things like HD video streaming are all coming with 5Ghz 802.11ac support now, thanks to the whopping 1.3Gbps speed the top end models provide. Most home automation devices are on the lower band, which means that over time the lower band won’t even have high-bandwidth devices hogging the data capacity.
So should you buy an 802.11ac device? The answer is almost certainly “yes” unless you know for a fact that you are not going to use ac devices or the price of the newer hardware is out of your budget.
The maximum range that a router can broadcast and receive data over is of paramount importance from a home automation perspective. If you are too far away from the router with your iPad you can always just move closer, but that WiFi smart lock is where it is. So pay attention to the distances over which you need the signal to be strong and usable. Take into account that things like floors and walls will cut down signal strength. Homes built around the middle of the 20th century may have a lot of metalwork in the walls, which also makes WiFi signal weaker.
If possible you should get a router that has slightly more range than you need, but if you can’t get something powerful enough you may need to employ range extenders. The ultimate solution is to use a mesh network where multiple routers all act together as one network, evenly spreading the WiFi across all of your home. Mesh networks are really still an expensive corporate technology, but companies like eero are bringing it to the homes of average users and it is well worth watching.
Keep in mind that routers that employ beamforming technology and make use of external antennas will have the greatest range.
While everyone is excited about fast wireless speeds, don’t forget about good old ethernet wires. A router with a gigabit ethernet can provide a solid backbone to a distant part of your home or to devices that need enough dedicated bandwidth to stream massive volumes of data. So for the time being you’ll want, at a minimum, one gigabit ethernet port.
To Modem or Not To Modem?
You’ll notice that there are combo units on the market that include a cable or dsl modem with the router hardware in one unit. This may seem like a great idea, but if either component fails independently you have a problem. If the modem dies, at least your home automation gear can still keep trucking while you simply swap the modem unit out for a new one. If it is one device it means you have to replace all of it and redo the setup of every device. It may be a bit more expensive, but I would recommend that you have a separate modem and router.
It is also a useful approach if you change internet connection technology. Swapping from copper to fiber or wireless internet becomes much simpler if you can keep the router and swap the modem.
It is becoming almost standard for routers to have USB ports to accommodate an external storage device like a flash drive or hard drive as well as a USB printer. You can imagine that this is pretty useful and you can keep things like backups and big media files on such a drive. Having the ability to turn a regular USB printer into a network printer is also awesome. These options may up the price a little bit, but if you decide you want these features later you’ll have to buy a whole new router, so you have to decide whether you’ll use the ports or not.
These days new routers have simpler interfaces that don’t require a degree in computer science to work and more wizards than Hogwarts. There are also now smart apps that run on a phone or tablet that let you control and monitor what’s going on on your home WiFi network, even allowing you to remotely reset the router via the modem in case it hangs or freezes. Pretty useful when on holiday and wanting to check in on things via a smart camera.
The point is, look for a router that has a more modern interface method rather than one that is arcane and inconvenient to use. In the old days a router was something that you set up and forgot about, but in the smart home it is much more likely that you will have to fiddle with your router, so you might as well make it a pleasant experience.
It’s a Process
A router is actually a small self-contained computer that runs a special operating system. Although it is not always headlined, this means that it to has hardware specifications that differ from one model to the next. One specification you may see these days is the number of processor cores a router has. Newer and sometimes more expensive devices have a dual-core processor. This means that there is more processing power to handle requests from devices. In other words, a home automator with many devices (usually more than 12) would want the additional processor core. Some really fancy routers even have more specialized cores for demand offloading. If you are going to put a serious number of devices on one router then this is something you should consider.
Choosing the Right Route
It is a good thing that the modern router is such a mature device. We still get buggy and slightly unreliable products, but it is actually pretty hard to buy a piece of junk. Hopefully this little guide will help you choose not just a good router, but a great one. Don’t forget to check out our reviews of some of the best selling routers on the market today!