At the center of any Wi-Fi network is a device called an access point (AP). The AP connects Wi-Fi devices (laptops, tablets, phones, etc.) to the broadband link to the Internet. Many households may refer to this a simply a “router,” as an AP includes router functionality to enable multiple devices to share an Internet connection. Though many people may use the terms interchangeably, there are some key distinctions. If you’re interested in learning more about the difference between APs, routers, hubs, and switches, then take a moment to review this helpful post from Microsoft explaining the terms.
Enterprise level IT departments often need to distinguish between the different pieces of technology, but if you’re simply looking for enough knowledge to get the Wi-Fi speeds you need at home, then when shopping the most common term to use is “wireless router.” Remember, to experience the Autobahn-like speeds of the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, you need both the wireless router and the devices to include the 802.11ac technology.
An 802.11ac wireless router can easily handle the ever-growing load of Wi-Fi devices as well the traffic from data heavy apps such as video streaming and gaming. And like many 802.11ac devices, new wireless routers are backwards compatible, often supporting the older 802.11n wireless standard. There are several wireless routers available, so take a moment to see which are recommended by consumer review sites CNET and Lifehacker.
Most 802.11ac devices available now support dual band and 3×3 (three antennas and three streams). Supporting dual band allows the wireless router to broadcast both a 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi network. Your older Wi-Fi devices can connect to the 2.4GHz network while your 802.11ac devices connect to the 5GHz network for maximum speed and capacity.
To connect to the wireless router, each device must have a Wi-Fi adapter, which is built into the device by the manufacturer. As a consumer, you will need to find out which Wi-Fi standards the adapter supports. Look for Intel Wireless-AC to ensure you’re getting the best technology available.
To achieve the data speeds of a given 802.11 standard, both the wireless router and the client’s Wi-Fi adapter must support the same maximum configuration. For example, if you have an 802.11ac 3×3 AP and an 802.11ac 2×2 adapter, the maximum data rate reaches up to 867 Mbps. If the 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter is 1×1, the maximum speed drops to the capability of the 1×1 adapter, which is 433 Mbps. For more on data speeds, read this short blog explaining throughput in more depth.
Purchasing both a new device and a new wireless router is an investment, but one that will better prepare your household for the flood of data and connected devices expected to enter the consumer market in the coming months. If you’re ready to upgrade to the Internet speeds of today, use this handy list of five easy tips for Wi-Fi shopping so that you’re ready to find the pairing that’s best for you.