Networking Buying Guide

In any modern home, a reliable Wi-Fi network is essential in keeping a growing number of wireless devices connected to the Internet and running smoothly. This guide will assist you in selecting a router, building an effective network, and making sure you have a strong wireless connection throughout your entire home.
The Key Components of Your Wireless Network

Your network is made of several parts, and the major components are routers and modems. Alternatively, a gateway may be used, which consists of a router and modem together in a single piece of hardware.

Router

Modem

Gateway

Your router is the hub of your network, serving as a point of contact for all of your connected devices.

Your modem connects your home network to the Internet, usually via a cable jack or phone jack.

A gateway is a modem and a router combined, providing an all-in-one solution.

Benefits of Upgrading Your Router

If you're having problems with your network, such as weak signal strength that causes buffering when you're trying to watch videos, replacing your router with a newer, more powerful model might be an effective solution. Upgrading your router could give you several benefits:

  • Faster speeds
  • Increased range
  • More devices connected at once
  • Versatile new features

If you are unsure about whether it's time to upgrade, here are some factors to consider:


How old is your current router?

Several new technologies have emerged in the past 2 or 3 years that could give you better, faster performance. If your router is more than a few years old, it might be time to upgrade to take advantage of this new tech.


Did you buy your own router, or did you get one from your service provider as a part of your Internet package?

When you signed up for your Internet service plan, a technician likely came to your home to set it up for the first time. You were probably given both a modem and a router at that time.

The router you got from your service provider might be outdated or underpowered, so purchasing your own may be a better option than continuing to use the one that came with your Internet plan.


How many devices does your network support?

If you were asked to count the devices connected to your network, you'd probably think about your computers right away. What many people don't realize, however, is that the connected devices don't end there. In fact, the average household has 7 or more, and all of them are sharing the same network

Connected devices include smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, smart TVs, streaming media players, home automation devices and more, and every family member probably has several of his or her own devices. With so many devices connected at once, your router is doing an incredible amount of heavy lifting.


What do you want your connected devices to do?

Some activities require more bandwidth than others. For example, if you plan on streaming movies in 4K resolution, you are going to use substantially more bandwidth than someone who is simply surfing the Internet. If you have one family member streaming Ultra HD movies in one room and another family member playing online games in another at the same time, you might need a high-performance router to prevent lag and buffering.

Which router is right for you?

There's a lot of variety in power, speed and features between router models. Here's a brief breakdown of three basic tiers of routers:

Basic Routers (N300-N600)

This tier is recommended for up to 6 Wi-Fi devices, and it supports email, web-surfing, file downloads and music streaming.

Shop basic routers ›

Premium Routers (N750-AC1200)

This tier is recommended for 8 or more Wi-Fi devices. It supports all of the functions of the basic tier, plus low-quality video streaming.

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High-Performance Routers (AC1600 and higher)

Recommended for more than 10 Wi-Fi devices at a time, high-performance routers offer AC1600 and greater technology — the next generation in Wi-Fi standards. They include all of the features of the other tiers, but they are also the best for multi-device streaming and gaming, giving you more bandwidth for 4K streaming video and lag-free gaming.

Shop high-performance routers ›

Understanding Wireless Speed

Most current routers are given numbers that represent some of their most basic specs. For example, you might see a router labeled N600 or AC1200. The letter (or letters) represents the type of wireless connection, such as Wireless-G, Wireless-N or Wireless-AC, while the number represents the maximum speed of that router. A router labeled N600, for example, is a Wireless-N router with a maximum bandwidth of 600Mbps (megabits per second), and an AC1200 router is a Wireless-N router with a maximum bandwidth of 1200Mbps.

In the case of dual-band routers, that number is composed of the maximum bandwidth of both bands. For example, a dual-band Wireless-N router with a maximum speed of 300Mbps on each of its bands (300 + 300) will be labeled N600.

This convenient chart offers a breakdown of the most recent wireless standards:

TYPES WIRELESS-G WIRELESS-N WIRELESS-AC
Maximum bandwidth 54Mbps 600Mbps 1Gbps and higher
# of bands Single band Single band, dual-band Dual-band, tri-band
Applications - General Web browsing
- Downloading small files (text documents, etc.)
- Web browsing - Streaming music - Streaming low-quality videos - Downloading medium-sized files (mp3, photos, etc.) - Streaming high-quality video - Online gaming - Downloading large files (Blu-ray-quality videos, etc.)
Backward compatible with... Wireless-B and older Wireless-G, Wireless-B and older Wireless-N, Wireless-G, Wireless-B and older

Why would you need 1000Mbps or faster when you're only paying for 10Mbps or 50Mbps Internet from your ISP?

If you're paying for 10Mbps Internet speed, having an incredibly fast wireless router may seem like overkill at a glance. However, there are several reasons your router's wireless speed should be much faster than your Internet speed.

Your wireless speed diminishes as you get further away from your router

The speed of your router is the theoretical maximum, not a hard cap. If your laptop is 30 feet from your wireless router, your wireless speed will be less than it is when your laptop is right next to your router. If you want to ensure that all your connected devices are making full use of their potential, you'll want your router's maximum speed to be several times that of your current Internet speed.

Connecting to the Internet is not the only thing your network does

Your network can be used for several things that are unrelated to the Internet, like wireless printing and file sharing. Keep in mind that a large file, such as a 20GB video, will take just a few minutes to transfer over a 1000Mbps connection. Now imagine your router's maximum speed reduced to the speed of your 10Mbps Internet connection; transferring that same file would take over 4 hours. Having faster wireless speeds on your router lets you to transfer files in a fraction of the time that a slower router would take.

Future proofing your network

As you add devices to your network, you will probably want to increase the bandwidth of your Internet plan to support them all. If your router can handle more bandwidth than you're currently paying for, then you won't have to upgrade in order to support an increase in your service plan.


What speed/bandwidth Internet connection do you need?

The speed of your Internet is dependent upon the amount of bandwidth you are paying for. If your streaming videos spend a lot of time buffering, it might be time to upgrade to a plan with more bandwidth. Many service providers are currently offering 50-100Mbps Internet plans, and if you live in a neighborhood where fiber-optic Internet is an option, you might be able to get speeds much faster than that.

Test your current Internet speed using Geek Squad's speed test page ›

Find the speed you need with this helpful comparison chart ›

Find an Internet service provider in your state ›

Passwords and Security Features

It's your network; you should decide who gets to use it and what they get to use it for. You probably don't want your neighbors using your bandwidth without your permission, and you certainly don't want your children accessing content that's not appropriate for them. Thankfully, most routers come with features that give you a great deal of control over your network.


Setting passwords

Virtually any current router will let you protect your network with a password of your choice. This means that only users who are given the password can access your network or use your Internet connection.

Additionally, a lot of routers also have the option for you to set up guest access, which lets people temporarily access your Internet connection without knowing the password or having access to the rest of your network.


Parental controls

If you have children, parental controls can be invaluable. Several current routers will let you have control over what websites your children have access to, protecting them from viewing inappropriate content.


Prioritizing devices

QoS (quality of service) features let you prioritize your applications based on which ones need the most bandwidth. If you are streaming a high-quality video, for example, you can have your router prioritize that video over a person using a smartphone to check social media. This way, your bandwidth goes where it's most needed and additional applications will have less impact on overall performance.


Port forwarding

Typically, you want your Internet connection to be a one-way street, where your computer can access the Internet without allowing other people on the Internet to access your computer. This is why most routers come built with security and firewall features enabled automatically. However, there are times when you will want to have other computers access yours. For example, when you are playing an online video game or when you want to share a large file with a friend or coworker over the Internet, you might need to open up a data stream that flows both ways. Port forwarding allows you to make exceptions to your router's security so select applications of your choosing will be able to bypass your firewall and function properly while the rest of your computer's files remain protected.

Additional Router Features

There are several optional features and technologies that can make your network more useful or powerful. Here are a few of them:


USB ports

Many routers come with built-in USB ports, which allow you to do several useful things. If your printer is not wireless, you can connect it to your network via USB and print using a wired connection. If you have an external USB hard drive, you can connect it to your router and share files and storage space across your network.


Remote access

Many current routers have apps that let you control them using a supported mobile device. This way, you can set passwords, change parental controls, and see which devices are currently connected to your network — all using a smartphone, tablet or laptop.


Dual-band/tri-band

Dual-band routers send two wireless signals at the same time, both operating on different frequencies, so they don't interfere with one another. This means you can have your slower devices on one channel and your faster devices on another, so your faster devices won't be slowed down by the slower ones.

With tri-band routers, there are 3 simultaneous signals. This allows you to separate your bandwidth-heavy devices across more bands so that they aren't constantly fighting over bandwidth.


Beamforming

Most routers send out a wide signal so you can connect in a variety of locations across your home. While thorough coverage sounds like a great benefit, it also has the downside of weakening the signal strength.

A new technology called beamforming gives you the best of both worlds. Once it connects to a device, it sends a narrow, focused signal directly to that device. If you're using a cell phone or tablet and you're moving around a lot, your signal will "follow" the device around. This way, you can take advantage of the full, concentrated signal.


MU-MIMO

MU-MIMO (multi-user, multi-input/multi-output) is new technology built to handle multiple high-bandwidth devices simultaneously. Before MU-MIMO, routers could handle several devices at a time, but they would have to make compromises, oftentimes prioritizing one device over another. Now, several bandwidth-intensive devices can enjoy fast connection speeds without jockeying for position.

Benefits of Upgrading Your Modem

When you signed up for your Internet plan, your Internet service provider (ISP) probably sent you a modem as part of your plan. The rental fee for this device is typically rolled into your monthly payment, but you can usually circumvent that fee by purchasing your own modem, which may actually save you money over time.

Also consider that the modem provided to you by your service provider might be an out-of-date model, especially if you've had the same service plan for several years without upgrading. A new modem may increase your Internet speeds substantially.

Shop modems and gateways ›

Network Extenders

If you have a large home, or live in an area where there is a lot of interference, you might need additional hardware to make sure every corner of your house gets wireless coverage. Here are some options:


Network range extenders

If you need to increase the coverage area of your wireless network for getting coverage in an attic, basement or garage — or even just to fill in the wireless "dead zones" in the corners of your home — you might want to consider range extenders. An extender will pick up the signal from your wireless router and re-broadcast it.

Shop range extenders ›


Powerline adapters

Adding powerline adapters to your network is an easy, low-cost option for expanding the reach of your wireless network. Powerline adapters work by sending a signal through the electric wires that already exist inside your home. This means you can extend your network to any location where there is an electrical outlet.

Shop powerline adapters ›

Wired vs. Wireless

While it is convenient to have all of your devices connected to your network wirelessly, there are cases where you might want to make an exception. If you have a gaming console that you use to play online games frequently, a wired connection might get you better performance. You also might want to keep your laptop wireless but connect your desktop computer using a cable, especially if it's located right next to your router. Since most routers come with 4 Ethernet ports built in, you can take advantage of wireless connections and wired connections simultaneously.

Of course, not all cable is created equal. Here is a simple chart that illustrates the levels of cable on the market:

CAT-5 CAT-5E CAT-6
Old standard Current standard Future standard
maximum bandwidth - 100Mbps maximum bandwidth - 1Gbps maximum bandwidth - 10Gbps

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Geek Squad

If you need assistance in setting up your network, a Geek Squad agent can come to your home to assist you with:

  • Testing your current Internet speed and making recommendations
  • Testing signal strength throughout your home and isolating weak points
  • Suggesting additional devices to help you get the most out of your network
  • Configuring your network settings
  • Fine tuning your Wi-Fi channels and bands
  • Connecting up to 10 devices to your network
  • Prioritizing your devices to your preferences

Call 1-800-433-5778 to schedule an appointment.

Learn more about what Geek Squad can do for you ›

Shop Online or In Store

Find a variety of networking hardware and accessories at BestBuy.com. Your local Best Buy store also has a variety of routers, extenders, Ethernet cable and more. Plus, our Blue Shirts can assist you in choosing the hardware that will best suit your needs.

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