A router is a device used to direct traffic flow between local computers networked together, either via Ethernet cabling, or through radio wave technology. A network that uses Ethernet cabling is referred to as a hard-wired network, while radio wave networks are called wireless networks. Both types of networks have advantages and disadvantages, but wireless networks are the least expensive and easiest to set up because they don’t require running Ethernet cable between machines. Standard routers do not have wireless technology built in, so if you want a wireless network, you’ll require a wireless router.
While a wireless router can direct local traffic on a network, a modem is required if Internet access is desired. In many cases, digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable Internet service providers (ISPs) provide a pre-configured modem to connect to the service. This type of router can be connected to the modem to provide Internet access to the network.
Another option is to get a wireless router with a built-in modem, reducing the number of devices required. Most quality products in this line come with instructions for configuring the built-in modem to connect to popular, national ISPs, typically a trivial exercise for anyone with a little computer experience. If you do choose to get one with a built-in modem, you’ll either need to know what type of Internet access you will be getting, (cable or DSL), or you’ll want a router model that supports both types.
There are several broadcasting standards and a wireless router will support one or more, but not all of these standards. Wireless network specifications are set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and are known as the 802.11 standards. A letter follows this designation, as in 802.11n, indicating which protocol(s) the router supports. The difference between protocols (e.g. 802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11n…) is signal strength and speed. Radio waves propagate in a circular pattern, outward from the router. The stronger the signal, the further away you can place a computer or walk with a laptop and still get a good signal. As strength fades, performance drops, creating data errors and dropped signals.
As of fourth quarter 2008, the legacy standard is 802.11g. A wireless router that supports 802.11g operates in the 2.4 GHz band and tops out at speeds of about 54 megabits per second. A newer standard, to be finalized in 2009, is 802.11n, operating in the 5 GHz band. One that supports the 802.11n standard can deliver up to four times the speed of an 802.11g router. Bear in mind each computer in the network will require an internal wireless card or an external portable wifi device that supports the same protocol as the router.
Businesses already using the legacy 802.11g standard might want to add new networked computers using the faster 802.11n standard. In this case, a dual band wireless router that supports both the 2.4 GHz 802.11g standard, and the 5 GHz 802.11n standard might be the answer. Dual band routers will be more expensive because they contain two radios. If you are setting up a network for the first time and don’t require a dual band wireless router, you can save some money by sticking with a single band model.