An outdated router can slow you down and leave you exposed online. We explore the options when you update to a new one
A Wifi router is now standard issue for anyone with a broadband connection but anyone who has been using the same router for some time probably isn’t getting the best performance – and may be missing out on some exciting new features. The answer lies in an upgrade, so read on to find out what’s important when choosing a new one – and how to improve your old router’s performance in the meantime.
Why use a router?
Anyone with a home broadband connection almost certainly uses a Wifi router, not least because internet service providers (ISPs) tend to provide them to new subscribers instead of a standalone ADSL or cable modem. A router can be used with more than one computer; further computers and devices can be connected to create a home network.
A router also manages the flow of data across your network, both to and from the internet and between individual devices. This ‘routing’ is usually smooth but a router is itself a small computer and older models may be ill-equipped to deal with the vast amounts of data modern computers work with.
This can manifest as very slow transfers of large files, stuttering playback of streaming media, or even network disconnections if the router really can’t cope. Old routers often have poor Wifi performance, too.
What kind do I need?
There are two main types of Wifi router. Those sold as ‘ADSL routers’ are obviously intended for use with ADSL broadband and are a simple way to upgrade an unsatisfactory router provided by an ISP.
Routers without an ADSL modem are sometimes called ‘cable routers’ but they can still be used with ADSL broadband. They can’t, however, be used with ADSL or cable broadband without a separate ADSL or cable modem.
ADSL modems are widely available but using one with a cable router only makes sense if there isn’t an equivalent ADSL router available with the same features, and this is seldom the case. A cable router with separate ADSL modem will cost more than an ADSL router too, plus the setup requires more configuration.
Cable broadband users can’t be quite so flexible, because Virgin Media only works with the cable modem inside the Wifi router it supplies (called the Super Hub). This can be set to work just as a cable modem, though, and a different Wifi cable router can then be connected to it. Virgin Media has instructions for this.
What can my current router do?
How well a Wifi router performs doesn’t depend on whether it’s an ADSL or cable model but, rather, the rest of its specification. The easiest way to discover the specification of a router currently in use is to consult its manual or the manufacturer’s website but another handy option is to look at its web-based administration panel.
The admin panel is typically accessed through a web browser, but via an IP address rather than a traditional URL. The IP address depends on the make, model and configuration of the router in question, but it usually takes the form 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.2.1.
The admin panel IP address is always given in a router’s manual but it can also be found on the appropriate manufacturer’s website and is sometimes printed on the underside of the router itself. A login name and password is also required and these too will be in the manual, online or labelled on the router somewhere.
Router speeds explained
Router performance depends on its Wifi and Ethernet standards, which refer to its wireless and wired network capabilities, respectively. Wifi standards are described as 802.11, followed by one or more letters, and the standards offered by a particular router can be found in its admin panel under a section called ‘Wireless settings’, or similar.
The oldest Wifi routers support only 802.11b. This has a maximum data-transfer speed of 11Mbits/sec but, like all network speeds, this is a theoretical maximum and the achievable reality is closer to 6Mbits/sec. Look in the admin panel’s ‘Wireless settings’ for an option called ‘Wireless mode’ and, if this offers only 802.11b, the router is, in effect, an antique.
Newer routers will support a faster Wifi standard called 802.11g that works at 54Mbits/sec (again, theoretically). If a router’s ‘Wireless mode’ has the option for 802.11b/g or ‘Mixed mode’, then it supports this faster speed and this should be selected if it isn’t already.
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