Are you still using the router that your Internet service provider gave you? If so, you might not be getting the best results possible. Routers that ISPs provide tend to be older models running custom firmware, and the download and upload speeds from these routers may not match the speeds you pay for.
The situation is even worse if you rent your router from your ISP, because that's money that could be better spent on more-glamorous gadgets. Though purchasing a router off the shelf requires making an initial investment, doing so will save you money in the long term, and the router you choose is yours to do with as you please. Before you run off to your nearest electronics store (or online storefront) to buy a new router, however, you need to take a few things into consideration.
First, you should figure out how much you're willing to spend. A good midlevel or high-end stand-alone router will set you back anywhere from $50 to $200. If you want to connect just a handful of devices to the Internet, and you aren't interested in streaming high-definition video or playing games online, a midlevel router should address your needs nicely. Most routers in the $50-to-$70 price range should be more than capable, though Cisco's Linksys E series seems to give the most bang for the buck.
For top-notch performance, you'll need to spend around twice as much. A full-featured router such as the Netgear N900 may seem pricey at first, but it's worth the cost if you're looking to get the most out of your wireless network. If you're a gadget-head like most of us here at PCWorld, you'll also want a higher-end router in order to put all your devices online without slowing down your network.
You should also take into account the types of connections that a router supports, plus the router's broadcast range. If you have older devices running on your home network, be sure to select a router that supports the 802.11g and 802.11b protocols. Most of the routers you'll find at the store broadcast on the 2.4GHz band and support those protocols, but routers that broadcast solely on the 5GHz band do not support those types of signals.
Routers using the 2.4GHz band tend to have a decent broadcast range, but you'll suffer when it comes to speed. Since most wireless routers (and some cordless phones) use the same band, the signal coming from your router can become noisy and bogged down--especially if you live in an apartment building or another densely populated area with lots of wireless networks present. On the flip side, you're less likely to encounter interference while on the 5GHz band, but the range will be much more limited: Although everything from walls to people can cause the signal to diminish, you'll notice an overall boost to your network speeds. As I mentioned earlier, however, some of your older tech may not be able to connect to a network being broadcast in the 5GHz range.
If you want to ensure that all of your devices will be able to connect to your router, I suggest going with one that operates at the 2.4GHz band. Most such routers support 802.11b/g/n broadcasting, so older devices will work with it, and newer devices that support 802.11n (such as Apple's iPad) should have no trouble connecting either. Keep in mind that having too many devices connected can create interference and cause them to drop their Wi-Fi connection randomly; I experienced this problem firsthand when I tried connecting six devices at once (two computers, two phones, an iPad, and a game console) to a single-band 2.4GHz router.
Of course, dual-band routers don't have the same broadcast issues as single-band routers do, so they allow you to enjoy the best of both worlds. Dual-band routers are more expensive than single-band routers are, but they use both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands and often feature some neat extras.
Dual-band routers are great for setting up a wireless home entertainment system, because you can have different devices on different bands depending on how you want to use them. For example, I stream a lot of HD content, so any devices that I use to watch Netflix or Hulu Plus are on a 5GHz band. This keeps my streaming activity from dramatically affecting the network speed of any computers that may be browsing the Internet while I'm watching a movie or TV show.
It's ultimately up to you and how much you're willing to spend, but if you can afford a dual-band router, then I definitely recommend investing in one.
After figuring out your budget and whether you want a dual- or single-band model, it's time to look at the extra features. Not all routers are created equal when it comes to specs, so you can be a little picky in selecting a router with features that you need or like. For example, some routers have few ethernet ports, making them a poor choice if you own a lot of devices (such as desktop computers or game consoles) that lack built-in Wi-Fi.
Higher-end routers (like the Netgear N750) sometimes have USB ports, which allow you to connect hard drives and share media with machines connected to the network. While this feature is by no means as effective as a stand-alone network-attached storage drive, it can be useful for sharing a few files among a small group of machines. Other features to look for in a router include parental controls, guest network access, and gigabit ethernet ports.
Once you've picked a router, be sure to check out our articles on how to set up a router and how to secure your Wi-Fi network to prevent your neighbors from stealing your Internet. Enjoy your new router, and enjoy getting the most out of your Internet connection at last.