(you can also find me on LinkedIn)

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Which Wireless Router?

Someone recently contacted me for advice about replacing her old wireless router. After receiving a follow-up request, I realized this might be a good topic for an article. As usual, this information should not be considered specific advice to your particular situation, and you should consider the services of a paid consultant before acting on any of the information discussed.

FULL DISCLOSURE: As of the date of this article, I am not a compensated affiliate regarding any of the products discussed.

Here is the discussion, in chronological order:

First, what router would you suggest?

...there are a number of quality routers that will do the job... I personally prefer Linksys, and currently use an EA4500 (see http://homestore.cisco.com/en-us/Routers/Linksys-EA4500-Dual-Band-N900-Router-with-Gigabit-USB_stcVVproductId145330245VVcatId554940VVviewprod.htm -- you may also be able to buy quality refurbished units from Cisco). Here's the thing though: you may already have a router built into your...modem, so check that first... If not, then let me discuss my Linksys. The EA4500 is a Gigabit, dual-band router (short translation: it's fast, as long as your other equipment has the same capability. If not, your speed may be limited by your other equipment). The router adheres to IPv6 standards (short translation: you'll need this capability in order to surf the web as the Internet moves away from IPv4 standards). As an N-class router, it has better signal strength and range than G-class routers -- but be aware that G-class routers may actually deliver better signal strength in some cases because of transmission differences (short translation: G-class routers may transmit better through walls than N-class routers). This diatribe is not meant to be an all-encompassing treatise on the subject, but I hope it helps.
Second, which has the better range, the Linksys EA4500 or the Linksys EA6500?
The range of wireless N routers is about 300 feet; however, there are a number of factors that can affect the wireless router's range and signal strength, and its speed of communication with your computer.

Obstructions such as walls and metal objects, and interference from neighboring networks or other electronic devices (microwave ovens, some wireless telephone sets, etc), can all affect the performance of your wireless network. Also, an older wireless card in your computer can dramatically impact network speed -- and since your network is only as strong as its weakest link, a computer with an older wireless card can slow down the speed of all network communications since the router will ramp down to accomodate the older technology.

When comparing the features of the Linksys EA4500 and the EA6500, be aware that both support Gigabit communications speeds, so that's good for multimedia devices. While the EA4500 uses the Wireless N standard for communication, the EA6500 uses the new draft AC technology. Both are backwardly compatible with b/g/n standards, and both are built to handle multimedia and streaming requirements. The "draft" designation means standards are not finalized. While that can mean a few headaches for the consumer initially, realize that wireless N specs were only finalized a short while ago. We've been using draft N standards for several years. All things being equal (and based on my own particular situation), I would choose the EA6500 if I were making a purchasing decision today involving the two routers in question.

If range is your primary consideration, there are additional options. For instance, you can buy a wireless range extender. This equipment connects wirelessly to your router and rebroadcasts the signal, effectively acting as a repeater to extend the router's range. Equipment compatibility can be a downside to this option.

If the router has omnidirectional antennas (as is the case for both of the routers mentioned), it may be possible to replace them with directional ones. This can extend the range and strength of the router signal. The downside to this option is that you may need professional help to accomplish the replacement.

Another option is to run Ethernet cable to access points placed strategically throughout your location. Similar to the wireless range extender, these access points broadcast the router's signal to help overcome weak spots in coverage or extend overall range. The upside to this option is that there may be less equipment compatibility problems, since each access point is hard-wired to the router (or to other access points) via the Ethernet cable (be sure to use CAT5e or CAT6 cable at a minimum in order to communicate at Gigabit speeds) -- it is even possible to repurpose an older router for use as an access point. The downside to this option is that there is more than one way to set up and configure the equipment. You should consider hiring a knowledgeable professional to help you if necessary.

Update 2013.0106
A LinkedIn reader just pointed out that I touched, but did not elaborate, on the advantages of allowing clients to access your Wi-Fi signal as a guest under dual-band with no access to your office network, and having a 5GHz band. The reader also mentioned the potential need for more than four LAN ports on the router. Here is the response I posted:

Good points. I would suggest concerning the port issue, however, that the use of LAN ports should be reviewed to determine if wireless connections are an acceptable alternative. I have found that often a mix of wired and wireless connections may be an optimal solution.

For instance, a networked LAN printer can provide easy access for multiple users without relying on an ad hoc (peer to peer) connection with a PC. (Assigning a static port to the networked printer outside DHCP auto assignments helps ensure stable and reliable printer access.) A wireless networked printer with cloud printing capability can extend that usefulness and eliminate the use of a LAN port.

A wireless router normally provides 96 wireless and 4 wired connections. You can, of course, provide more wired connections by daisy-chaining access points off the router or, as you indicate, purchasing a hub with more ports -- but this may become more complicated (and expensive) than desired (or necessary) for some small and micro-business owners.

Now let me elaborate a bit on the two areas mentioned by the reader. First, concerning the issue of "guest access," the guest actually is accessing your network, but their access rights, or privileges, are extremely limited so that they cannot access any of your other networked drives, folders, files, etc. Second, the 5GHz band is a real plus. For one thing, it helps avoid congestion normally faced by routers operating on the 2.4GHz band. Second, the dual-band router is able to separate tasks such as media streaming from tasks as web browsing. This can result in faster simultaneous responses for both tasks.

LKJ CPA