Buyers guide to wireless routers

Last updated 11:50 10/09/2008
STYLIN: Lynksys N Ultra RangePlus wins the catwalk competition.

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According to Intel, wireless internet is the No.1 laptop requirement customers demand.

Over the past few years, getting the internet to work wirelessly on laptops has become a relatively simple affair, so the industry started looking at new things it can do with wireless.

To beam the internet wirelessly to your laptop you need a wireless router. The industry is making a big fuss about wireless routers that use the latest technology, called (horribly) 802.11n. Mercifully, it's becoming more common to refer to these as simply "N" routers or for them to at least have a prominent "N" in the product name.

All you really need to know for now is that these are the souped-up versions of normal wireless routers. They're practically the equivalent of strapping three normal routers together to make one that is far more powerful.

Their basic function is to beam the internet all over your home and out into the backyard if you have one. Their range is about twice that of older routers and their transmit speed is up to five times faster.

If this all sounds imprecise, that's because it is. In reality, performance is affected by many things. Is your home or office made out of wood or stone? How much steel is in the walls? Are there radiators on the walls? Are there any other wireless networks nearby?

If you're simply transmitting the internet to a wireless laptop, you could well appreciate the improved range. If your old router couldn't provide reception upstairs or at the back of the house, then this one probably will - depending on how big your mansion is.

Or, if you wanted to work out in the backyard, you have a far better chance of getting a signal with one of these.

Yet it's a lot of money to spend on increased wireless internet range. The main reason these new routers exist is for home networking. Many households now have at least two computers. At some stage their owners will probably want to make them talk to each other, too - usually to transfer pictures, videos and general computer files.

Doing this used to be impossibly fiddly and laboriously slow. Yet all these routers have been designed to make connecting computers together simple and transfer speeds blisteringly fast.

On a good day you'll reach transfer speeds that are faster than connecting computers by a cable. If you've got all of the latest home entertainment gadgets then you might even be able to transmit high-definition video from your computer to your TV in another room.

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All these routers also have the latest internet modems (called ADSL 2+) in them, too. These will let you take advantage of the fastest internet speeds from your internet provider.

They also come with idiot-proof software to set them up. Not so long ago, adjusting the settings on a wireless router was a job to make even computer engineers cringe. Now all you'll need are the settings your internet provider gave you and the ability to type them in to the computer when asked.

Finally, a word on testing. There can be no definitive results because every environment is different. However, we used a Sony Vaio TZ laptop with an Internode ADSL 2+ internet account to test these routers in and around a detached house on an uncrowded street in Sydney's lower North Shore.

We tested for internet range, file transfer speed and beaming video to another computer to see whose signal travelled furthest and fastest.

Useful info After years of trying, the 802.11n standard is still not finalised. As a consequence, even if you have a new laptop with 802.11n built in, it might not work at full speed with your router.

Check before you buy as adaptor cards can cost more than $100 and won't necessarily work with other 802.11n routers.

THE CONTENDERS

LINKSYS N ULTRA RANGEPLUS WIRELESS ADSL2+ GATEWAY WAG160N

Price NZ$220
http://www.linksys.com.au

The Linksys wins the catwalk competition by miles: it looks like a super cool, living-room friendly gadget that will attract admiring glances. It's also a breeze to set up thanks to instructions on the CD, which feature animations. We were on the internet in no time. We could connect at the bottom of our garden and could watch video by the back door. It's relatively cheap.

NETGEAR RANGEMAX NEXT WIRELESS ADSL2+ MODEM ROUTER DG834N

Price $340
http://www.netgear.com.au

The Netgear looks pretty smooth with its glossy exterior and internal antennae but it can't match the Linksys for style. Setting up involved lots of diagrams before it crashed, leaving us to trawl through the manual. It wasn't too hard but it's not foolproof. In terms of performance it was only just behind the group - it couldn't quite reach as far or as fast.

D-LINK RANGEBOOSTER N ADSL2+ ROUTER DSL-2740B

Price $350
http://www.dlink.com.au

The D-Link is by far the ugliest of the bunch but setting it up was quite simple. There is some jargon when you run the set-up program but the information it requires is clearly defined. We expected the external antennae to be superior to those with internal ones but the difference was negligible. One other gripe: the diagnostic lights at the front are too small to see in daylight.

BELKIN N1 MIMO WIRELESS MODEM-ROUTER F5D8631

Price $350
http://www.belkin.com/au

The Netgear model may have three prominent antennae but its glossy black top keeps it stylish. Usefully, it's got big glowing icons on the front to show you quickly which bits are connected or whether there's a fault. It looked to be easy to set up but failed to connect without giving a proper reason. We had to adjust everything manually. Ultimately, the performance was mediocre. The price is too high, too.

THE VERDICT

The Linksys is a clear winner. It's $100 cheaper than everything else. It's the best looking by far and will grace the most stylish homes. Its performance was one of the best on test, it's simple to set up and it's got every feature and security setting that even advanced users could want from a consumer-level wireless router.

 

- Sydney Morning Herald

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