If you’re in the market for a new router for your small business, you might be tempted by the flashy features, high speeds, and low cost of consumer-oriented routers. The latest models, based on the IEEE 802.11ac standard, look particularly attractive.
But can a consumer router deliver everything your business needs? Is it sufficiently secure? Is it scalable? Does it provide redundant connections to the Internet? If it’s a wireless model, does it provide enough range to cover your entire office?
Should you instead invest in a router that’s specifically designed for the needs of small- to medium-size businesses? What exactly distinguishes a consumer router from a business-class model, anyway? Glad you asked.
Consumer Router Priorities: Speed, Media Streaming, and Security
Walk into your local electronics retailer or shop online, and you’ll find at least a dozen consumer wireless routers selling for $100 or less, from such well-known brands as Asus, Buffalo, Cisco (Linksys), D-Link, and Netgear.
The prices are certainly appealing. Even better, all the essential features seem to be in place, including compatibility with the IEEE 802.11n wireless networking standard, a four-port ethernet switch, wireless encryption, and a built-in firewall. Most routers in this class have 2x2 antenna arrays (two transmit and two receive antennas), which are capable of handling two 150-megabits-per-second spatial streams (one on each antenna) for a total theoretical throughput of 300 mbps. You’ll never see real-world performance that fast, however; overhead, distance between the client and the router, and environmental factors can whack that number down. The industry refers to this class of router as "N300."
Many lower-end consumer routers are dual-band models, capable of operating wireless networks on both the 2.4GHz frequency band and the 5GHz band. The 2.4GHz band delivers better range--but since it provides only two nonoverlapping channels, and since so many routers have been deployed, the spectrum has become congested. The 5GHz band boasts 23 nonoverlapping channels, so it’s significantly less crowded, but it provides much less range. Many people use the 2.4GHz band for data and Internet access, and reserve the 5GHz band for streaming audio and video over their network.
The industry refers to this class of router as "N600," but the term is misleading because it implies that routers in this class can stream data at 600 mbps. They can’t. The N600 claim comes from summing the speeds of the two concurrent but independent 300-mbps networks. You’ll never be able to connect a client to either network and expect it to stream data at 600 mbps, nor can you connect a single client to both networks simultaneously.
Move up the consumer market to the $200 price range, and you’ll see more-advanced dual-band routers from the same manufacturers. These devices come outfitted with 3x3 antenna arrays and promise a theoretical throughput of 450 mbps on each band. Routers in this class are often described as "N900" models; here again, however, it’s not because they can deliver throughput to a single client at 900 mbps. Typically these routers are also outfitted with a four-port ethernet switch, but they support wired connections at gigabit speeds, versus the 100-mbps switches on less-expensive routers.
The IEEE 802.11ac wireless networking standard isn’t likely to be ratified before early 2013, but that hasn’t stopped router manufacturers from introducing routers based on the latest draft definition. We saw a similar pattern of events when the 802.11n standard was being finalized.
Only two such routers are on the market right now: The Buffalo WZR-D1800H arrived first, followed by the Netgear R6300. Both manufacturers are aiming their products squarely at consumers, emphasizing the devices' ability to stream media. Thanks to a much-improved modulation scheme, 802.11ac routers can pack more data into each spatial stream: 450 mbps, versus 150 mbps for 802.11n. An 802.11ac router with a 3x3 antenna array can deliver a theoretical throughput up to 1300 mbps (1.3 gigabits per second). Buffalo, for one, is marketing its product as an "AC1300" router.
Since there’s an outside chance that these products will be incompatible with equipment based on the final standard, we don’t recommend buying such devices for your business.
Next Page: Common Features in Consumer Routers