You can see a typical wireless broadband router in Figure 1. Before buying one, you need to know the basics about standards and speeds.
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Figure 1: A typical wireless broadband router.
Wireless network cards are compatible with at least one IEEE 802.11 protocol. There are several protocols and the most common are IEEE 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11a and 802.11n. From now one we will refer to these protocols simply as b, g, a and n, respectively. The main difference between them is speed: b can transfer data up to 11 Mbps, while g and a can transfer data up to 54 Mbps (the difference between g and a is the frequency of the spectrum that they operate). IEEE 802.11n allows several different speeds starting from 65 Mbps and going all the way up to 600 Mbps. The actual speed depends on the number of antennas, the frequency from the spectrum used and the channel size. The most common speeds for this standard are 130 Mbps, 150 Mbps, 270 Mbps and 300 Mbps, and both the router and the wireless cards must be compatible with the intended speed.
Some wireless broadband routers are rated as 108 Mbps, but they are in fact 54 Mbps devices using data compression technique and in order for them to achieve this speed the network cards installed on the computers must have the same 108 Mbps technology from the router and must be from the same manufacturer, otherwise they will work as a regular b, g or a card.
In theory the best scenario is to have all your computers using 54 Mbps or faster cards. However, you are limited by the speed of your Internet connection. So if you don’t use your network for transferring files between the computers, buying 54 Mbps cards doesn’t make sense, simply because the speed of your Internet connection will be far lower. For example, if you have a 1 Mbps connection, you will have a network capable of transferring data 54 times faster than your Internet connection. An 11 Mbps network will work just fine for you (and it will still be 11 times faster than your Internet connection). So you can save some bucks buying an 11 Mbps wireless broadband router and wireless network cards – they will work just fine for the average user.
Just to clarify, if you have a 1 Mbps or even a 2 Mbps Internet connection, you will still navigate at this speed using 11 Mbps or 54 Mbps wireless cards. If you transfer files between computers, however, the speed that will be used is the network maximum speed (11 Mbps, 54 Mbps or greater with the n standard). So choosing between an 11 Mbps, a 54 Mbps or an n router has more to do whether you will transfer files between computers or not, as your Internet speed will be the same on all standards.
If you decided to buy a 54 Mbps or greater router and wireless cards, make sure to buy products that are compatible with 802.11b standard (so your router will be able to talk with slower cards) and using the same 54 Mbps standard. For example, if you have a laptop with an embedded 802.11g wireless card and you buy a 802.11a router without 802.11g compatibility, they won’t talk to each other, as the standards are different – of course if both are backward compatible with 802.11b they can talk to each other at a lower speed (11 Mbps). Nowadays wireless broadband routers and wireless network cards are compatible with several standards at the same time.
Now you have an idea on what wireless broadband router you should buy.
Wireless broadband routers have embedded the following basic features.
- Broadband router: Automatically shares your broadband Internet connection among all computers connected to it. You also can configure it to limit Internet access based on several criteria (for example, time of the day – you may want your employees to be able to access the Internet only during lunch time or after job, for example).
- Hardware firewall: Prevents several kinds of attacks to your computer and also prevents shared folders and printers on your local network from being accessed by computers located outside your home or office. Depending on the model of your broadband router you can have some interesting configurations here, like blocking users from accessing certain websites or websites based on certain keywords.
- Switch: Almost all broadband routers also integrate a switch (usually a 4-port switch) – including wireless routers –, allowing you to connect computers using standard network cables directly to the router. So when you have a wireless broadband router not all computers need to be connected to the router wirelessly. Since wireless network cards cost some bucks and all computers nowadays come already with a network card embedded on the motherboard, you can save some money and connect some of your computers (e.g., the ones near the router) to the router using standard network cables. You can also expand the number of ports by installing an external switch to the router.
- Wireless Access Point: This is the official name for the wireless capability. Of course to use this function you will need computers with a wireless network card on your network, otherwise you can simply buy a standard broadband router with no wireless capability and save some money. Security is the main concern on a wireless network and we will discuss a lot about this issue during this tutorial. Just keep in mind that wireless broadband routers work out of the box but the encryption is disabled by default, so people can surf the web for free using your connection or steal your files, if file sharing is enabled on your network. We will show you how to fix this later.
- DHCP server: This feature centers all network configuration options on the router, so you don’t need to do any kind of configuration (you should set them up as “automatic configuration”) on the client computers. Simply put, this allows you to simply connect any computer to the router and it will have immediate access to the Internet and to shared folders and printers located on your network, without needing any kind of configuration. Just plug and play!
- Print server: Some routers provide a parallel port or an USB port for you to connect your printer directly on the router. This is really neat, because any computer on your network can use the printer without any fancy configuration. If you need to share your printer among all computers and you don’t buy a router with this option, the computer where your printer is attached to will need to be turned on in order to print something. This can be a hassle, for example, if the printer is connected to a computer from someone that is not in the office, it is turned off and he (or she) put a password on it. Also, by using a broadband router with print server option you can save some money on your electricity bill, since you won’t need another computer turned on to use the printer. If you choose to buy a router with this feature, you need to buy one with the same connection type as your printer, parallel or USB. Another option to achieve the same goal is buying a printer with a network port. Some printers have even wireless connectivity.