Just a few years ago, routers probably cost under $50 and were fairly simple, built for the days when we had to worry about connecting a laptop and maybe a smartphone or two. Now the average house has multiple smartphones that are constantly connected to the WiFi network, not to mention tablets, a gaming console, maybe some watches or even the occasional fridge or thermostat. On top of all those gadgets, we're demanding connectivity now in every part of the house rather than just in the office and den.
While the way we use our WiFi networks has completely changed over the past five years or so, chances are most people haven't given a thought to upgrading their router. That, in a nutshell, is why your WiFi is struggling.
If you haven't updated your router in the past five years or so, you should know there's a new generation of routers out in stores that are more up to the task of dealing with the modern gadget-heavy home.
But there's a big downside: Price.
You could easily spend more than $200 for some of the best routers on the market these days. That's because there is some revolutionary new technology going into the humble router. If you've glanced at the newest products, you'll notice that a lot of them have a bunch of antennae sticking out of them, or have a different shape altogether — designs that enable them to handle heavier workloads and the way people walk around their homes with WiFi connected devices in their hands.
More specifically, there have been two major breakthroughs in WiFi technology that are now showing up in consumer routers, according to Ted Rappaport, a fellow with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
One is MIMO, short for multiple-input multiple-output. This is sort of like adding more lanes to a highway — routers now have multiple transmitters and antennae that allow for data to stream from more devices simultaneously. Extending the highway metaphor a bit -- MIMO is not necessarily allowing more data (the cars) to go faster on the road. It's enabling more data to get through at a single time. "This enables ten, maybe up to 50 times the data rate of what routers could do a few years ago," Rappaport said.
The other technology poised to improve the router even more is the use of so-called millimeter wave frequencies. This gets a bit technical, but the upshot is that the very latest routers have the ability to use different frequencies in the radio band that allow them to transfer more data than ever. Rather than adding lanes, this is sort of like adding more roads. So if one highway is congested, you can just drive on an alternate road. "These two things have combined to enable your router in a home now to exceed a billion bits per second," Rappaport said. "Five years ago, you'd maybe get 10 million."
From a purely aesthetic point of view, the new routers are also designed to look a little bit cooler, so you might not mind displaying them on a tabletop in your living room. The practical upside is that if your router is out in the open, rather than tucked in a closet, you should get a better signal.
I took a look at four popular routers that the average consumer might want to look at and plugged each into my home network. I chose the $40 TP-Link TL-WR841N (one of Amazon's best-selling routers) as a cheaper option, and also picked up a $199 Apple AirPort Extreme. Both have been around for a few years. I also tried two routers provided to The Post by Google: the $199.99 OnHub and the $219.99 Asus OnHub, which have been on the market only for a few months. I wanted to know how easy it was to set up these devices, how well they worked and whether the price tags of the pricier versions were really worth it.
This wasn't an entirely altruistic test. My home office is one room (and a thick wall) over from my three-year-old router, but the signal in there is awful — speed tests taken in my office show I'm getting just a fraction of what I'd get if I were plugged in. And while the tests in my apartment were hardly done in lab conditions, I tried to use the routers just as if I bought them myself.
The set-up of a router is particularly important, because there's a good chance after the initial tinkering, you probably will only rarely interact with it again. The TP-Link router had the standard set-up guide: plug the router in, connect it to the network by typing in the default IP address, and navigate through somewhat clunky but perfectly clear menus.
Apple and Google have both taken steps to design their set-up to be even less painful — with some caveats. Apple's router is best set up using an Apple product; connecting to the network automatically called up a set-up wizard, AirPort Utility, on my Mac that was simple to use and required almost no input from me.
For the OnHub devices, Google has a set-up process that works with an app on your phone, where you can also adjust settings for the network on the fly and monitor activity. It doesn't allow for much in-depth tinkering — you can't, for example, set up a guest network or adjust the channels it operates on. For most home users, that may not matter, but it will be frustrating to anyone who is used to customizing their personal network.
In terms of performance, I found that the pricier routers delivered faster speeds, even through my office wall — likely thanks to the fact that they all use newer technology. But they were not always worth their price tags. The Apple router, for example, performed only a hair better than the TP-Link, which costs $160 less. Both were able to handle everything I needed -- a Netflix movie streamed through both devices without stuttering — it's cool to watch Netflix during the day if it's for work, right? — but the performance wasn't exactly snappy.
Google's OnHub models both provided speeds that are nearly as fast as a PC using Ethernet on our network, and on pure performance were clear winners. But they come with their own drawbacks. Both have only one port that you can use to plug directly into the router — a computer or game console for example. After all, WiFi isn't perfect and is certainly slower and less reliable than Ethernet. That's annoying when you're in a live multiplayer match and end up getting shot in the face because your connection was too slow to let you know to take cover.
So is there a point in waiting for future technologies to come up, and wait for these to mature?
When it comes to wireless technology, said Rappaport, who is also a professor at New York University, things will get even more interesting in light of a proposed rule from the FCC that would unlock even more bands of radio waves for faster wireless networks for cellphones as well as connected "Internet of Things" devices, giving wireless technology even more room to run. That means WiFi routers will only get better in the future.
For now, Rappaport said, if you are looking to buy a router today, you should look for a router with some of the more recent standards advertised on the packaging. The latest routers for the home use the IEEE standard 802.11n and 802.11 ac, which operate on different bands — and give you wider bandwidth. (In the future, the 802.11 ad standard is one that uses the millimeter wave technology.)
And if router prices seem a bit steep for you these days, Rappaport said he expects the price of the devices to come down over time, as companies recoup the research investments they've made in the technology.