Understanding your home’s WiFi router

The alphabet soup of wireless routers can be confusing. Data Doctor Ken Colburn can help determine what\'s best for you. (Linksys)

By Ken Colburn, Data Doctors

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Jerrod asks: My home router seems to be getting old and acting up, so I went to the store to buy a replacement and had no idea what I should buy because there are so many choices that range from $50 to $300. What should I get?

The alphabet soup of wireless routers (A, B, G, N and AC) can be confusing even if you have a reasonable understanding of past technologies.

To avoid getting into a long technical history of the various standards, your current choices are really between the N and AC standards, which are the two most current.

The AC standard (also referred to as 5G Wi-Fi or 5th Generation) is the most current evolution, and the fastest technology you can buy. It’s also the most expensive, and is more of a bet on the future because most devices you currently own likely can’t take advantage of this faster transmission technology just yet.

The AC standard is designed to provide two to three times the speed of the previous N standard, provide better range and improved reliability through a technology called beamforming, which concentrates the signal on connected devices instead of casting a wide net.

AC routers generally cost $100 to $300, depending upon how many streams the device is capable of supporting — one to three — while N routers are generally going to run $30 to $100 depending upon how many streams they support.


Does more expensive equal more speed?

The technical difference between the AC and N standards is that AC streams can support up to 450Mbps, each while N streams cap out at 150Mbps each.

Although this implies that it should be 3 times faster, in the real world AC is only incrementally faster, depending upon many factors unrelated to the router itself. When you see an AC router advertised as a 900Mbps base station, it means it has two streams of up to 450Mbps each. When you see the 1300 or 1.3 designation, it has three streams.

Some of the companies are trying to play the one-up game by saying they have 1700Mbps or 1.7Gbps because they combine the lower N band in the total, but it’s the same as the 1300 or 1.3 designation.

What you are paying for with each step on an AC router is the additional stream, not additional overall speed, so if you’re the only one in your household, don’t waste your money on additional streams.

Just like previous Wi-Fi technology, AC routers are backwards-compatible, so all of your older devices will have no trouble connecting to them.

You really need to figure out how many devices you want to connect at the same time; how much live-streaming of video you do with services including Netflix and YouTube; and the distance between router and devices to determine which configuration makes the most sense for your situation.

From a pure future-proofing perspective, if an AC router is in your budget, I’d suggest you go that route, especially if you have a large number of people in your home who want to stream media or the area you need to cover is large.

On the other hand, if you want to keep it cheap and you don’t have very many devices to connect simultaneously, you’ll be just fine with a router that uses the older N standard.

Keep in mind — unless the devices you are connecting are equipped with a 5G or AC network adapter, you won’t get any faster speeds than those on an N-based router until you upgrade those devices.

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