Homes are filled with more smart appliances and Wi-Fi-connected devices than ever, but when internet connections start slowing down, the problem could be a piece of overlooked hardware.
Smart appliances-streaming devices like Apple TVs, Rokus or Amazon Firestick, Netflix, smartplugs, smart light bulbs, smartphones, tablets, TVs, computers, gaming devices-are all vying for space and combined may be too much for one of the connections people may not think much about-their wireless router.
"With the gaggle of connected home products, smart TVs, smartphones, and other mobile devices ruling our lives, it's more important than ever to outfit your home or business with a wireless router that can handle the increased demand for Wi-Fi connectivity," PCMag reported.
Simply put, the wireless router is the hardware that connects users and their many Wi-Fi dependent smart technology to their internet provider. The wireless router, perhaps the size of a shoe box or smaller depending on the variety, links to the wired modem and then provides wire free connections to the internet for all those gadgets and computers that are now an everyday part of our lives. Routers include security protections, parental controls, guest networks and come in a wide range of prices that can range, from $60 to more than $300-depending on the brand and design.
Andy Isackson, director of member operations at Consolidated Telecommunications Company, said one of the company's main troubleshooting calls is related to Wi-Fi. Customers may think their internet connection is dropping off from their provider, but Isackson reported in most cases the issue is an old router without the range to cover the house or one that is unable to support the additional demands of more devices. Isackson said some routers have a limit on how many devices can be connected to it.
My 2012 wireless router recently hit that wall and simply would not allow any new devices to be connected to it. I put a new one on the Christmas list.
"Most households have wireless routers that are a few years old," Linksys reported in a primer on routers on its website.
Linksys is one of a host of wireless router providers along with tech companies like Netgear, TP-Link, Asus, among others. "With each passing year, more connected devices join your home Wi-Fi network, putting more stress on that outdated router. It's important to know what to look for in a router, because like most people, you're probably due for an upgrade. In fact, you should replace your router every two years to stay current with advances in Wi-Fi technology."
Linksys describes the router as the gateway to the internet connection with Wi-Fi traveling through a router on radio bands that act like invisible highways.
"Each band is a different lane, keeping data on separate routes to avoid congestion. Because certain devices demand more bandwidth than others, your router's efficiency depends on the number of bands it has - single, dual, or tri-band," Linksys stated. "A three-lane highway (or tri-band router) has one 2.4 GHz and two 5 GHz channels to support more simultaneous users - a huge plus for families, who average eight devices per household and have high bandwidth activities."
So how does one go about choosing a router? PCMag advises considering the coverage area or home size, how many people are using it and what type of devices will be connecting to the router.
"How you use your Wi-Fi also helps determine what router best suits you," Linksys noted. "For instance, a tri-band router is a great choice if you're a movie streaming buff with a number of TVs, you have a gamer in the house, or you work at home and want your own dedicated band. On the flip side, if you're a light internet user who primarily emails or browses Facebook, a dual-band router will work just fine."
For those with 4K or ultra high definition TVs, high definition streaming or gaming, Linksys states a tri-band offers the fastest speeds. Few things are as frustrating in technology than waiting for downloads and being stymied by that spinning wheel on the screen or buffering instead of a seamless transition.
In some cases, the router may need a boost to reach all parts of a larger multi-level home. Extenders do just that, by extending the router's reach but there can be limitations with the signal.
"If a range extender doesn't do the trick, consider overhauling your network with a Wi-Fi mesh system. This technology offers an easy way to blanket your home in Wi-Fi without the need for additional wiring, range extenders, or access points. They utilize extension nodes, or satellites, to extend your Wi-Fi signal across a larger area than most routers are capable of," PCMag reported.
The location of the router is also a key part of the equation.
"If your modem is located in a far corner of your home, even a router with a lot of throughput can't guarantee a good connection on the other side of the house," Consumer Reports stated in a wireless router buying guide. "For this situation, mesh networks, which comprise two or more routers that work in unison, may be the solution. This system improves on wireless repeaters by expanding the reach of your network without a drastic drop-off in speed."
And if the router is several years old, it may not be up to the current task.
Linksys notes traditional routers respond to one device at a time while newer MU-MIMO technology, standing for multi-user input and multiple output, connects to multiple devices at once at the same speed. And when it comes to placement, Linksys recommends putting the router in a central uncluttered place in the house and in an elevated spot such as a bookshelf away from large objects and other electronics.
Other things to take into consideration is whether the router has external antenna, which can improve the signal, and how many ports it has for connections, which could allow it to connect directly to a printer or a flash drive or external hard drive. Consumer Reports also notes some come with the ability to prioritize bandwidth for better performance for movie streaming.
There is a lot of data available and online reviews from multiple reliable sources on which routers are recommended for 2018, looking at ease of setup and use, security, options, price and ability to handle the workload. So if there are a number of tech gifts under the tree this year, investing in a new router may be one way to ensure a smooth holiday.