The Specs That Matter [and the Specs That Don't]
Once upon a time, cobbling together a network was a painful procedure reserved for businesses, hard-core geeks, and kindly elves that appeared mysteriously at midnight. But these days, setting up a network--wireless or not--has never been easier. That said, it's still not as simple as purchasing the first router you see, plugging it in, and starting up. You still have to navigate the ins and outs of optimal connections. With a home network, you especially need to take into account not just what you're planning to hook up but also the layout of your house.
Wireless speed: Vendors will happily tell you the network's theoretical speed limits, but here's the ugly truth: You'll be lucky if your network hits 150 mbps. Take 802.11n, the latest draft of Wi-Fi. In our lab, we test with encryption on (a must!), and we rarely see speeds higher than 100 mbps. Also, beware of vendors promising proprietary technology that will provide a speed boost. The latest draft of 802.11n eliminates the need for most of those special "extras."
Wi-Fi standards: Draft-n routers are backward-compatible with older specs (802.11a, b, g, and pre-n), but those specs may slow the whole network down. Any 802.11b/g devices that are connected to your draft-n router may hobble the entire network with 11b/g speeds. Also, avoid older, "pre-n" (as opposed to draft-n) routers if you come across them at clearance sales. Pre-n gear may work with 2.4-GHz draft-n products, but only at the speeds of aging 802.11g gear.
Security: Using a Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) password is about as effective as hiding your system under a wet paper bag. That said, older devices might not support the more secure (and more recent) Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) standard, much less the current (and most efficient) WPA2 security standard. Regardless, any new gear you buy should support WPA2 because--even if you have to stick with WEP for a while to accommodate older gear--you'll want to move up to snappier speeds eventually.
Wireless antennas: Generally, the greater the number of antennas that are sprouting out of your router, the faster you can transmit data. So if you are a fan of video streaming and multimedia, three is your magic number.
Wired alternatives: Wired connections may be a pain to install, but they are still the most reliable and secure high-speed broadband option. If snaking Cat5 ethernet cable throughout your home isn't feasible, consider getting a power-line network designed to work with the electrical wiring you already have.
Alas, power-line networks have their own issues: You will need adapters for each outlet you plan to use (plus one for an existing router); and there are three power-line standards, each of which is incompatible with the other two. Our advice: Look for HomePlug AV products.