Does it “really” make a difference what router you choose?

I don’t have the numbers, but I’d feel pretty comfortable saying that around 75% of people use the free router they got from their internet service provider. I don’t blame them — depending on the ISP, the router can be quite capable, although it’s also a fair bet that it’s big and ugly.

It seems like actually going and buying a router then configuring it with your home network is a waste of time and money, so why is it that there are so many choices for routers out there? The answer is right in front of you… it’s not a waste at all. The right router can make your network faster and more reliable.

So let’s start with a basic definition. A router is a device that takes all the devices in your home network and lets them connect to the internet through a single point and using a single public internet address. All that internet traffic — all that Netflix, all those web searches, even the ones you don’t want anyone knowing about — all goes through that single point, back and forth, millions of times a second. That makes it sound like a router’s a fairly critical part, right?

Absolutely right, especially when you consider that your router is probably also your access point – the device that connects all your wireless stuff to your wired network. So you have this one box that’s doing at least two jobs… it’s converting from Ethernet to Wi-Fi (and back) and it’s controlling all internet access. Depending on your setup it may also be functioning as a cable modem, which is a device that converts Ethernet into one of the many standards used by ISP’s to bring internet service to the home.

While your router probably works well enough that you don’t worry about it, it probably doesn’t do the kind of tricks that other routers could do. Depending on your choices, you can get a router that can be extensively customized, one that can create multiple wireless networks so your guests can’t see your stuff, or can put parental controls on access.

The mos t exciting thing about the current crop of 802.11ac routers is that they’re really fast. 802.11ac is a standard that allows communications even faster than wired Ethernet, and unlike earlier versions of the standard it actually increases the area that’s covered by the router.

Yes, I’ve said it over and over again, that the router’s speed doesn’t matter. It’s still true to an extent. Even if you are enjoying 100Mbps speed which is getting more and more common from internet service providers, there isn’t a single web site out there that’s serving data to you faster than 15Mbps, and even a 10-year-old router can cover that. However, 10 years ago you probably had one person using Wi-Fi at a time. Today, every person in the home is on Wi-Fi, probably all at once. So you need a big, sturdy wireless network to make sure that every single one of you can get what you want, when you want.

802.11ac routers with MIMO technology do a much better job of handling multiple wireless devices at once, and optimizing the kind of signals going through. Video streams get top priority along with games, while web searches get through a little more slowly because you just won’t notice the lag. You’ll find this technology on the higher-end Linksys routers and you should expect to see it on more devices this year too.

Folks, a new router is less expensive than ever and easier to install as well. If your cable modem is separate from your router, it’s a simple matter to disconnect the cable company’s router and plug in your own, and most people see great results almost immediately. Why not give it a try?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.