Know Your Network Lesson 1: Router Hardware 101

Buying and setting up a new wireless router can be overwhelming. You may not need many hands if you are confident enough in your unusual skills, but there are many people who know almost nothing about wireless networking. Some boxy gadget they bought a few years ago allows them to watch YouTube on the closet and that’s all that matters.

It’s important to understand at least the basics of how your home network works, because it will help you troubleshoot (or update) when your connection starts to go crazy. It will also help keep all your network equipment running at top speed – which is incredibly important if you’re already spending a decent, sizable amount of money each month on a high-speed Internet (or fiber!)

We’ll start by getting to know the most important device on your network: your router.

What the hell is a wireless router

A router is the glue that holds your home network together. It connects all of your computers to each other using Ethernet cables or wireless.

A router is different from a modem: your modem connects you to the Internet, and your router connects your computers to each other. When you connect your router to your modem, you can use that internet connection for all the computers on your network.

Some modems come with built-in routers, but this is not always the case. You should not connect your desktop or laptop directly to your modem if it does not have a built-in router, as the router has a number of features designed to protect your devices from the outside world. Your modem doesn’t have it. You are also probably paying your ISP for the privilege of renting a crappy modem (or modem / router) from them, so buying your own awesome modem and router are separate purchases is the best you can do for your home network.

The devices that connect to your router – computers, tablets, smartphones, smart home speakers, gaming systems, etc. – are called clients . Your router gives each client on the network its own IP address, which helps the router route traffic. Clients on the network get a local IP address, and your modem gets a global IP address. Global IP addresses are like street addresses, and local IP addresses are like apartment numbers: one allows you to find a building in relation to the rest of the world, and the other allows you to find a specific location in a complex. These addresses ensure that the right information from the outside world gets to the right device on your network.

Routers have a number of different functions, so we’ll take a look at some of the most common router characteristics and how they affect your home network.

Wired vs wireless

You will want to use an Ethernet cable to connect any computer or device that you don’t need to move, such as a desktop PC or game console, since wired connections are usually faster and more reliable than wireless ones. They are not ideal for devices that you pick up and move around, such as laptops and smartphones. For these, we use a wireless connection (commonly known as Wi-Fi). And many different factors affect the speed you encounter on those devices: how far are you from the router, what is between your device and the router, what speeds your device supports, what other wireless signals might interfere with your connection, how many devices are also connected. to your router, etc.

For most people, a router is simply what makes the Internet appear on their devices – a simplistic but fair enough view of wireless networks. However, even the fastest wireless router in the world, providing the clearest connection to your smartphone, won’t work very fast if you don’t even pay for a very fast internet connection. Even worse, if your ISP (or the website or service you’re trying to reach) is having problems, your router won’t be able to work wonders and you shouldn’t blame it for any slowness you encounter.

Wireless bandwidth

Bandwidth is the rate at which a router can transmit data. The transmission speed of your wireless connection depends on the wireless standard you are using. The most common standards today are 802.11n and 802.11ac (also known as “wireless N” and “wireless AC” or “Wi-Fi 4” and “Wi-Fi 5” respectively). Wireless AC is much faster than Wireless N, and most common routers you can buy currently support both standards (in other words, your next upgrade probably shouldn’t be a router that only supports Wireless N since everything AC wireless devices you are assembling will freeze.with slower wireless speeds N).

Again, this might not be an issue if you spend most of your time browsing the websites and downloading content. For most people, the data plan you get from your ISP is probably capped at a slower speed than what your router can handle. In other words, if you’re paying $ 50 a month for a 50Mbps data plan, then a wireless AC router that supports a (theoretical) 1600Mbps maximum speed won’t give you a speed boost in most situations.

However, it’s always best to have a router that can at least support the fastest connections of the devices you connect to. Without getting too deep into the weeds of wireless AC speed classification (those horrific A ##### numbers), here’s the simple tip we shared earlier :

“For most people looking to cover a reasonably sized house or apartment, a powerful AC1200 or AC1750 router will probably suffice – definitely the latter if you have new MacBook Pros that support full AC1750 speed, for example.”

Having a higher number on a router box does not necessarily mean that this is the fastest router you can buy. Consider an extreme example: TP-Link Archer AX11000 router . It appears to be orders of magnitude faster than a “simpler” router like the Archer A9 , the AC1900 router.

The Archer AX11000 achieves this number in two ways. First, it allows you to create three separate wireless networks – two in the 5 GHz band and one in the 2.4 GHz band. It adds up the maximum theoretical speeds of all of them (4804; 4804; and 1148 Mbps) to get 10,756 or AX11000 (rounding up a bit).

Sounds impressive? Well, you’ll need an AX wireless device to even benefit from the highest router performance that you probably don’t have . Even so, wireless interference, setting up your house or apartment, other devices are consuming your bandwidth and your internet speed – yes, that again – means you might not even notice the difference between a $ 450 AX11000 router and a $ 90 AC1900. … router. Why pay a surcharge?

Wired bandwidth

There is only one wired speed you have to worry about right now: Gigabit or 10/100/1000 Mbps. If your router only supports 10/100 or “fast Ethernet,” it’s too slow and you should let it collect dust on the shelf instead of “upgrading” to one. A gigabit connection will allow you to transfer data much faster on your internet network, which is incredibly useful if you are transferring files or streaming movies around your home. And if you’re paying for Internet speeds over 100 Mbps, you’ll need a gigabit network to keep your wired desktops, game consoles, and other devices running at top speed.

Fortunately, AC wireless routers usually come with gigabit networks, so it doesn’t even have to be a hard decision – or any other solution, really.

Range

Wireless routers can only achieve. If you have a large house and a router is installed on one side, you will not be able to access the network from the other side of the house.

This is where things get a little weird. Wireless N generally has a longer range than Wireless AC, but this may not be the case in your situation depending on how many other devices are interfering in the 2.4GHz band. That is, and since Wireless AC is much faster than Wireless N, you can actually experience higher speeds over longer distances, even though Wireless N might allow you to travel a little further and maintain a connection. When in doubt, try using both 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless networks outside the range of your router. One option may work and the other may not.

However, there are many other ways to connect to your network from afar. Wireless repeaters (also called wireless repeaters ) are products you can buy that do exactly what they say – extend your network further. Alternatively, you can buy a Powerline adapter that allows you to use your home electrical wiring to connect a remote device to your router using an Ethernet cable (and thus get a faster connection than wireless allows).

Number of ports

Routers have two types of ports on the rear panel: LAN ports and WAN ports. The WAN port connects to the modem (which, again, connects to the Internet), and the LAN ports connect to your computers and other clients. Most routers have four WAN ports. If you have more wired devices than can fit on your router, you can connect all of them using a wired switch . A switch is like a power strip for your router: it allows you to connect more devices than your router originally allowed.

Number of stripes

As we mentioned in this article, wireless routers broadcast in the radio band , and all AC wireless routers (and most wireless N-series routers) can broadcast in two bands. Accordingly, they are called dual-band routers. Ancient routers only operate in the 2.4GHz band – as did smaller hardware like older laptops and a range of smart home devices – while dual-band routers allow you to connect in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. …

The 5GHz band is great because it has less interference because many other devices – from other networks to Bluetooth, from cordless phones to microwaves – operate in the 2.4GHz band. The main disadvantage of the 5GHz band is that because it uses a higher frequency, it doesn’t penetrate walls as well. You can only reach the maximum wireless AC speed of your router if you are using 5GHz, but depending on how fast it (and your devices), 2.4GHz may be enough for some of your devices.

Wireless security

If you don’t mind strangers consuming your bandwidth and potentially accessing your network files, you should always password protect your wireless network. WPA2 is currently the most secure type of wireless encryption – mandatory since 2006 for devices with the Wi-Fi logo, so be sure to use WPA2-PSK whenever possible.

Breaking into

If you are comfortable with installing new firmware on your router, you’d better get one that is compatible with third-party firmware, such as DD-WRT or Tomato . Make sure your router is on the DD-WRT Devices Supported List or Tomato Supported Devices List if you want to go that route.

When it’s time to buy a new router

If you have a very old router, you can read most of the information above and decide it’s time to upgrade. Since so many variables affect wireless performance, you only need to keep two ideas in mind when buying something new:

  • Buy a router that supports the maximum speed of the devices you are using (or plan to buy soon , rather than planning to buy in three years)
  • Buy a router from a retailer with an excellent return policy

The second point seems easy, but I think it is very important. As much as I would like to believe that people are going to measure the performance of their new routers at various points in a house or apartment, this is not the case. Most people will buy a router, set up the basics, put it in a less ideal location (like not the centralized location where they live) and, after a few months, get pissed off if it doesn’t seem very fast. And since they paid a decent price for a new router, they’ll just deal with it – or buy a crappy extender to complement it.

When you buy a new router, install it in the city center where you live (or as close to it as possible). Do not put it in the closet or clog it with other debris. Then walk around your house or apartment and see what your connection speed is, whatever you’re doing: downloading games in your home office, streaming 4K Netflix while you poop, scanning via YouTube or Twitch from your bed, etc. Run speed tests . See how everything looks like. If you are satisfied with the performance of your router, great. If not, give it back and get something better – ideally something that other experts have tested and compared to competitors.

You can also try using a mesh route – for example, multiple hotspots that you place around your house to expand your coverage. Try to see if one great router gives you the speed and range you need. If not, you have a variety of other options .

Understanding your router is just the first but important step in the process. In the next few tutorials, we’ll talk about some of your router’s software and firmware features (like the aforementioned DHCP reservations and quality of service ) and how they can make your network as fast and reliable as possible.

As always, if you’re late with your lessons, you can find everything you missed and a PDF of all the lessons in the Complete Know Your Network Guide .

This story was originally published in 2011 and was updated in February 2020 with more recent information.

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