Today's home networks are under more strain than ever before. High-definition video requires fat, empty pipes to flow smoothly, and families are using more connected devices simultaneously.
To mitigate congestion and keep high-bandwidth content flowing smoothly, some consumers are upgrading their home networks to dual-band routers that offer persistent streaming speeds as high as 450 megabits per second.
We took a look a couple of the most recent routers in this category to arrive in Canada.
Among the cheaper legitimate dual-band routers currently available, the Belkin N750 DB Wireless Dual-Band N+ Router ($129.99) is an affordable way to ensure your network is ready to handle serious data transfer and video streaming duties.
Setup is a snap. Just plug the router into your modem with the included Ethernet cable (which is already plugged into the proper port on the back of the router in the box) then jack the power adapter into a socket. Pop the CD into your main computer, click "next" a few times, and you're up and running.
Network names and encryption keys for both primary users and guests – the guest network operates on a separate band that supports up to ten users via open, secured, or cafe-style web sign-in – are on a label that slides into a slot at the base of the router's stand.
You can alter network names, keys, and security standards (WPA, WPA2, or WEP) by jumping into Belkin's router configuration page, though networking rookies could be confused by the lack of simple buttons for common settings. Thankfully, the N750 DB supports Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) protocol, which means connecting new clients that also use WPS is as simple as pressing a single button on both devices. Networking gurus, meanwhile, should appreciate the professional, straightforward layout of the web interface for accessing and tinkering with more advanced settings.
The back of the router sports a quartet of gigabit ports to facilitate wired connections, plus a pair of USB cables to connect network drives. However, we found that eight wires running up the router's spine – that's five Ethernet cables, two USB cords, and a power cable – made this slender, vertically oriented router very easy to tip. Make sure it's set up in a space where you're unlikely to nudge it.
Included in the setup software are four "apps" to help users stream video, set up network printers, create backups, and automatically resolving network issues. The network repair function could prove useful if your network goes down, though this didn't happen during our evaluation. The others are rudimentary and unlikely to replace the systems you currently use.
We found performance on both the popular 2.4 GHz band and newer, cleaner 5.0 GHz band – which supports speeds of up to 450 megabits per second for compatible devices – to be good at average home use range (less than 100 feet with moderate obstructions). HD video streaming from a PC to a PlayStation 3 in the same room played stutter-free while we were transferring gigabytes of data between two PCs. However, grabbing content from a drive attached to one of the USB ports was noticeably slower than a WiFi-connected device. You probably won't want to stream video this way.
Simple configuration tasks could be made a little more novice-friendly, and its tippy hardware design needs a redo, but you're unlikely to find a quicker dual-band home router for less.
Linksys E4200 Maximum Performance Dual-Band N Router ($189.99)
With six antennas, two high-speed bands, and excellent range, Cisco's latest Linksys home router is an outstanding performer.
Sporting a clean, modern look free of the LED lights that dot the front of most routers, the E4200 is a simple black shield crossed by a silver ribbon. Its only visible light is the Cisco logo, which glows a gentle white when everything is running smoothly and flashes when the router is booting up or experiencing connection issues.
The back side plays host to four gigabit Ethernet ports, a USB port for network attached storage devices (suitable for transferring files and streaming music, but not video), and a button to establish connections with devices that support WiFi Protected Setup (WPS). We just wish the WPS button was a little larger and more prominent.
Installation is a breeze. We simply plugged it in and waited a couple of minutes as the CD software established a connection, automatically generated an easy-to-remember network name (QuietCat), and provided a secure WPA2 password. All of this information can be transferred to a thumb drive for quick network setup on other computers.
Cisco Connect, a laudably intuitive application used to view and alter commonly accessed settings, is a godsend for network greenhorns who dread managing their routers. Once installed, giant buttons and simple instructions make figuring out how to set up parental controls, configure primary and guest access network names and passwords, and even test connection speeds a piece of cake for anyone with a modicum of computer experience.
More advanced users, meanwhile, have easy access to Cisco's standard web interface, which includes settings for managing user access to attached storage, prioritizing bandwidth for certain data types (such as movies and music), and – future-proofers will dig this – options associated with IPv6, the fast approaching new Internet protocol.
We had no qualms with speed. The router uses its 2.4 and 5.0 GHz bands – the latter supporting throughput speeds of up to 450 when connected with appropriate clients – simultaneously. We streamed a variety of HD videos from PC to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 while transferring folders filled with gigabytes worth of data without a hint of lag. The guest network gets its own 2.4 GHz band, so there's no chance of friends congesting your family's traffic.
It's not cheap, but the Linksys E4200 Maximum Performance Dual-Band N Router is worth the stretch for consumers looking for high speed, multi-band network performance paired with excellent ease of use.