Things You Should Know About Choosing an 802.11ac Wi-Fi Router

by Aeyne Schriber on July 27, 2014 in 802.11ac,Router

About 18 months ago, the very first 802.11ac routers were introduced to the marketplace. And although the IEEE has yet to approve the new wireless standard, router manufacturers are already releasing the second generation of 802.11ac routers.

The wireless networking industry appears to be moving faster than the governing bodies that approve the wireless standards. Believe it or not, the second generation of wireless routers running on the 802.11ac standard are about to hit the market.

If you are unsure what 802.11ac is, this is the newest wireless standard for connecting to the Internet. The standard was established by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), which is the largest global technical professional organization that facilitates the development of national and international technology standards.

802.11ac is preceded by 802.11a, b, g, and n, and is now the fastest standard for connecting to the Internet. In comparison with its predecessor 802.11n which provides a bandwidth of approximately 450 Mbps (megabits per second), the 802.11ac standard is capable of providing bandwidth of up to 1300 Mbps. The purpose of the new standard is to accommodate new technologies and applications that require a faster connection speed.

Although the second round of 802.11ac routers are in the process of being released, 802.11ac routers are still being manufactured to be backward-compatible with the older connectivity standards of 802.11a/b/g/n. The second generation routers are also designed to connect to the previous Wi-Fi standards as well, using a client adapter.

The fact that approval of the new 802.11ac standard has yet to come to fruition and the second generation is already being released, can make choosing an 802.11ac router confusing. In this article, we will cover some of the things you should know before choosing a new router. Although the routers are backward-compatible, if you are using it to serve a specific purpose there are things you should know and features you should look for before choosing the appropriate router.

Router Manufacturing Protocols

802.11ac is specifically designed for applications that require high speed connectivity. This is what makes an 802.11ac router perfect for streaming video to your home entertainment system. Even if you still have a few devices running on the 802.11n standard, you will still experience a significant boost in connectivity speed with an 802.11ac router when it is configured properly. This is mainly because the routers are capable of transmitting a longer range signal and higher throughput using both standards of 802.11ac and 802.11n. But before you go ahead and purchase an 802.11ac router there are few more things you should know:

1. The 802.11ac Standard is Incomplete

Although this is the most recent wireless standard, the standard is incomplete for reasons we mentioned earlier. The most recent 802.11ac routers are a second draft of the first generation ones that are not certified. One would think that this would cause a host of issues however, no problems with compatibility have cropped up yet. This means it is highly unlikely you will experience any issues if you decide to purchase one of the newer routers just released on the market.

2. An 802.11ac Wireless Adapter May Be Necessary

If you are looking to benefit from the higher speed connectivity of 802.11ac and your devices are equipped with 802.11n, you may need an 802.11ac wireless adapter to achieve the higher speed connection. The adapter has a USB connection that will add the next generation 802.11ac to your existing 802.11n device. Then you can enjoy the high speed connection that an 802.11ac router will produce.

3. Connecting Home Theater Devices May Require an Ethernet (Media) Bridge

Depending upon the types of devices you have connected to your home entertainment system, you may need to use an Ethernet bridge which is also known as a media bridge to achieve 802.11ac connectivity. The devices may include a Blu-ray player, media streaming box, PC, or other type of device you have connected to the home entertainment system. Buffalo Technology is a key manufacturer of this type of configuration. You can learn more about it by viewing the short video below.

4. Router Labeling

The manner in which manufacturers in the router industry label routers can be confusing in terms of what the router is actually capable of. For example, if the router has a model number labeled AC1750, the letters “AC” tell you that the router is 802.11ac and is of course, backward-compatible with the older wireless standards we discussed earlier. The router is also dual band which means that it can operate on two different frequencies of 2.4GHz and 5GHz simultaneously.

The number “1750” means that the router has the capability to send three different spatial streams. Spatial streams are wireless signals that are transmitted or received simultaneously in an environment that supports multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO). The number “1750” indicates the total Mbps (megabits per second) that can be sent or received simultaneously on the routing device over the three spatial streams.

Other 802.11ac routers only send or receive two spatial streams and this may be indicated by a model number such as “AC1200.” The difference in the two types of 802.11ac routers is one is known as a 2 x 2 router where the other is a 3 x 3 device. The latter is the more capable router of the two.

5. Setup and Configuration

As you can see by the information described above, not all routers are created equal and this includes the setup and configuration process. Especially when you figure in possible Ethernet bridges, wireless adapters, and other parts of the configuration that can make getting set up complex.

The options for setup and configuration can vary widely and no one wants to spend a whole day or more trying to figure out settings and optimization adjustments. Many of the high quality routers such as D-Link include features that have you up and running in minutes. A little time invested to discover the ease-of-use factors may save you tons of time dealing with headaches.

802.11ac Routers: What to Look For

802.11ac routers can vary somewhat when it comes to different features, however there are several common features that should be present when choosing a high quality router.

  • Dual-Band: As described earlier, a dual band router can increase the capability of wireless connectivity. Because they are capable of operating simultaneously on 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, this provides you with support for older devices that only operate on 2.4GHz while also accessing connectivity for newer devices that run on the 5GHz frequency band.
  • UPnP: With the increased demand for streaming video and music, the router should at the minimum be equipped with Universal Plug-n-Play (UPnP). This allows you to stream video and music to multiple devices connected to your home network. Additionally, if you have a Network Attached Storage device with media you want to access, a router that is compatible with DLNA-enabled devices such as your high definition television will allow you to stream media from your Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. DLNA stands for Digital Living Network Alliance and is an organization established by Sony that defines sharing standards for network connected devices.
  • Beamforming: Beamforming provides a way to use bandwidth more efficiently which means achieving a high quality connection. When your router supports beamforming, the router communicates with the client device on your network to determine the best path for transmitting data. This makes the best use of bandwidth and results in better performance. When beamforming is not supported, the router will simply broadcast signals in random directions which can compromise the quality of your connection. There is an interesting article that explains beamforming in detail in PCWorld magazine.
  • Guest Capability: A router that supports guest networking allows you to provide a separate wireless network that occasional guests can access. This protects your privacy since the guest is only allowed to access the Internet and not the other devices on your network.
  • Quality of Service: The higher quality 802.11ac routers provide a way to customize Quality of Service settings. Most of the routers only support the basics when it comes to QoS. In other words, they are capable of telling the difference between latency sensitive data packets such as video streaming and VoIP and regular data packets as in file transfers. If you rely on your router for streaming video or using Skype, the router should offer customized QoS configurations that allow you to work with advanced settings and even create your own customized settings. This allows you to control and prioritize how your router handles packets of data.
  • Parental Controls: If you want to keep your children safe from the dangerous sides of the Internet, an 802.11ac router with parental controls allows you to block websites from specific categories. You can also configure individual devices to control when they access the Internet. The higher quality routers also allow you to set your own rules when it comes to blocking children from specific websites and access to the Internet.
  • Firewall: Most 802.11ac routers are equipped with a firewall that allows you to set rules and guidelines for incoming and outgoing traffic to and from your network. This allows you to restrict traffic you do not want while allowing the trustworthy traffic to use your network.
  • USB Ports: The addition of USB ports extends the capability of your router and the ability to connect other devices on the network such as a printer or shared storage. An 802.11ac router that offers more than one USB port provides you with flexibility when connecting other devices on your network.

Finally, some of the 802.11ac routers offer the capability to manage the router using your Internet connection. The more advanced routers that have hard drive storage included in the device also provide cloud services that allow you to access stored files on the router using an Internet connection.

802.11ac Routers 2014: What’s New?

2014 promises to be the year of the high powered router. Recently, ASUS introduced a very high end router at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014 in January. The RT-AC87U features a QSR1000 802.11ac chipset and offers faster performance and a larger wireless range. It also supports beamforming and is equipped with USB 3.0 as opposed to USB 2.0. You can see an overview of the new ASUS router demonstrated at CES 2014 by viewing the short video we have included below.

PCWorld also released an interesting article on the newest high powered 802.11ac routers that are due to be released during 2014. All of the routers in this article were featured at CES 2014 and include mobile and travel routers that run on the second generation 802.11ac standard.

It will be interesting to see where 2014 takes us in terms of more powerful routers with enhanced capabilities that accommodate new technologies and applications.

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