A router is the heart of your network, so it deserves to be chosen carefully. Any router will share your Internet connection amongst your computers and other networkable devices (smartphones, tablets, and so on), but better models provide features that will enhance your network and its performance. Whether you're seeking a business- or consumer-class router, here are the eight most essential features to look for.
1. Wi-Fi access point
Most routers targeted at the consumer and SMB market have a built-in Wi-Fi access point (AP) to provide wireless network connections for PCs and other devices equipped with Wi-Fi adapters. You can purchase additional APs to extend the router's range. A stand-alone AP can also add wireless capabilities to a wired router. There are several wireless standards in use, with IEEE 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g considered to be legacy standards. IEEE 802.11n is the latest ratified standard, and 802.11ac is in "draft" mode with final ratification expected late this year or early next. There is a remote chance that devices based on this standard won't be compatible with the final standard, but most people in the industry consider that event highly unlikely.
Wireless routers operate on one of two frequency bands: 2.4GHz or 5GHz. The 2.4GHz band provides only three non-overlapping channels, so it can become crowded very quickly. There are 23 non-overlapping channels available on the 5GHz frequency band, so you'll encounter much less interference when operating a network there. Routers and access points capable of operating on both the 2.4- and the 5GHz frequency bands are described as "dual-band" products.
If you're buying a router today, pick a model that's based on either 802.11n or the draft version of 802.11ac.
2. Guest Wi-Fi access
Some consumer-class routers include what vendors typically refer to as wireless guest access. This feature allows you to broadcast a separate wireless network name (SSID) with different security settings from your main wireless network. Since the two networks are virtually separated, guests can't see the traffic or access computers on your main network. This lets you easily offer visitors, contractors, and even the public wireless access while keeping your private network secure.
3. Virtual LANs and multiple SSIDs
Many business-class routers go beyond offering a simple wireless guest feature. They will allow you to create multiple, separate customized networks using what is commonly called virtual LANs (VLANs). They'll also enable multiple SSIDs to offer virtual wireless networks.
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