A networking guide: Buying the right ASUS wireless router for your needs
Common wireless networking questions
A good home wireless network = A happy family
Picture this: You’re coming home after a long, hard day at work. All you really want to do for the rest of your evening is to make some Milo and watch the new season of Mindhunter on Netflix. You turn on your notebook, but something’s wrong. The streaming is spottier than a Dalmatian!
You glance over at your Wi-Fi signal strength and instantly realize your home router has got to be the culprit! What follows is an hour’s adventure around the house trying to find that “sweet spot”, but to no avail. You can’t get the connection to behave, and now you’ve missed this week’s episode of Mindhunter to boot!
Well, that’s just great. Looks like it’s time to replace that router. But the gazillion product choices and the variety of Wi-Fi standards and terminology can be confusing for many. Some brands like ASUS even have their own proprietary technologies to further boost functionality and capabilities.
With that in mind, we’ve prepared a streamlined guide to help you not only better understand the key Wi-Fi standards, terminologies and decision factors to consider for your next router, but also some recommendations from ASUS to cut through their vast catalogue of options to best suits your needs
1) Wireless N, AC, AX or Wi-Fi 6? What do they mean?
When it comes to finding a new router, it’s important to check out the wireless standard it supports. Wi-Fi standards naming can go from 802.11b to 802.11ax, which can be intimidating and confusing to most consumers who won’t need to know what these letters and numbers even mean.
Essentially, you just have to pay attention to the alphabet at the end, as they refer to whichever Wi-Fi version the router supports. Here’s a handy list of Wi-Fi versions, from old to new:-
- 802.11b is also known as Wi-Fi 1, released in 1999
- 802.11a is also known as Wi-Fi 2, released in 1999
- 802.11g is also known as Wi-Fi 3, released in 2003
- 802.11n is also known as Wi-Fi 4, released in 2009
- 802.11ac is also known as Wi-Fi 5, released in 2014
- 802.11ax is also known as Wi-Fi 6, and is the latest standard that leading-edge routers support and will be officially ratified later in 2019.
The main differences between all these versions are speed, range and even efficiency as the standards evolve to embrace new expectations. If you’re getting a new wireless router today, it’s best that you look for one that supports at least the Wi-Fi 5 or 6 standard (also note the new Wi-Fi logos) to future proof your purchase. While Wi-Fi 5 might seem ‘old’ as it was first released in 2014, it’s still by far the most supported standard among modern devices and networking equipment so you can’t go wrong with new Wireless 802.11ac routers too.
2) Understanding what affects your connectivity speed and performance
First off, we need to talk about the difference between Mbps and MB/s (or MBps). These two terms are confusingly similar but stand for very different things. Mbps stands for megabits per second, while MB/s stands for megabytes per second. One megabit is ⅛ the size of a megabyte, so if you download a 1 megabyte file over an 8Mbps connection, it would take 1 second. Gbps and GB/s (GBps) have the same key differences.
The typical rate of data transfer in routers is measured in megabits per second (Mbps). To decide what router would best suit your internet plan, you’d have to look back at the different Wi-Fi generations and their maximum data rates. For example, Wi-Fi 1 (802.11b) had a maximum data rate of 11mbps, which is abysmal by today’s standards. Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) is already a massive upgrade from that, with a theoretical maximum data rate of around 2.5Gbps.
Having said that, those are theoretical data rates and in the real world, it is affected by several factors:-
- The kind of devices you are using to connect to the router.
- The wireless standards supported by those devices and their antenna configuration.
- How far you are from the router.
- How many physical barriers and obstacles separate you from the router.
- The wireless encryption standards chosen and many others.
To give you an idea of how real-world performance varies, you could be getting close to 500Mbps wireless throughput between your router and your device at close ranges such as within a 5-meter radius. However, this throughput can half when you move further away (such as 10 meters) or move to another floor.
Even wireless router placement is a big deal to help improve both connectivity and performance. Here are 7 quick tips to help improve your home Wi-Fi before you embark on buying a replacement.
3) Is signal strength and signal range really important?
Well, the rated speed of your router really doesn’t matter if you go into your room and end up with two bars of Wi-Fi on your phone! You want to make sure that your router provides maximum coverage, so you don’t encounter difficulties while moving from place to place in your own home as described in the above example.
Looking for a router with a good signal range and strength (depending on how many square feet you need to cover) is really important for this. Some wireless routers and mesh networking products indicate a rough coverage area to give you some guidance of their capabilities.
Good signal range will ensure that you have a higher chance of maintaining a good signal strength as you move around your home, so you won’t have to hang around the router just so that your Youtube videos load. The strength of your signal is critical too, as a stronger signal will be able to pass through walls/obstacles and maintain a stable connection. Once again, you can optimize router placement (be it old or new) to improve signal strength and range.
4) How can I have strong wireless coverage for the whole home?
Until recent times, the solution has been to use multiple routers, but administration and using multiple network IDs doesn’t offer a seamless user experience for most consumers. Wireless extenders and powerline adaptors have been around, but they are not optimal and have their own limitations.
A more ideal solution is to invest in true mesh networking systems where the networking unit (or node) can communicate with multiple other networking nodes with easy wireless daisy-chaining capability and extending Wi-Fi coverage to the entire home with just a single network ID (or also known as SSID).
Mesh networking systems are now often pitched as the easiest networking solutions for homes and brands have strived to make their products simple to use and are easy on the eyes. This also makes them an easy recommendation that solves multiple pain points.
5) What if I wanted both high performance and mesh functionality?
ASUS has taken the basics of mesh networking and extended it to their newer crop of traditional routers to offer the best of high throughput, connectivity, manageability and control through their AiMesh feature.
It uses either 2.4GHz or 5GHz channel for backhaul data transmission to relay data from your primary node and across other daisy-chained nodes to your client device. When using a tri-band ASUS router, it will try to use 5GHz network for backhaul communications since the 5GHz network is faster and there are two 5GHz channels instead of just one.
You could even free up all wireless bandwidth if you choose to run an Ethernet cable between the different nods, but that’s if you don’t mind cables running around the house or have pre-routed network cabling within the walls of your home.
For those of us who don’t mind having more control, you’ll appreciate that AiMesh allows backhaul configuration (wireless, vs. wired), and even maintain separate wireless SSIDs instead of combining it all under a single SSID. The choice is yours.
Does AiMesh work? Among AiMesh supported routers, yes and we’ve tested the setup aspects and performance for your reference.
6) Alright, but what are these other terms - I need help!
- MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multiple-Input and Multiple-Output)
Despite its long name, MU-MIMO is quite simply a multi-user version of wireless technology that’s been around for a while. It’s essentially an upgrade of its predecessor MIMO, and created to better support wireless environments that have multiple user connections occurring at the same time.
But in a nutshell, MU-MIMO increases the overall wireless capacity for routers, and usually works with 802.11ac protocols and upwards.
- OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access)
OFDMA stands for orthogonal frequency division multiple access. It’s borrowed from the world of LTE and is introduced in Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) to improve the router’s ability to support multiple clients. Essentially, it takes each Wi-Fi channel and chops it up into hundreds of small sub-channels. The aim is to increase the capacity of a single channel so that it can accommodate even more clients. With OFDMA, a single channel can theoretically support as many as 30 clients, giving Wi-Fi 6 routers a huge advantage over old routers in its ability to support more wireless clients.
- DFS (Dynamic Frequency Selection)
DFS is arguably one of the newer terms you see being tossed around on the market, and for good reason. It’s a spectrum-sharing mechanism that enhances wireless performance by tapping into 5GHz channels, which are usually restricted for government radar operations.
Confused? Ok, here’s an analogy. Like traffic, wireless connections can slow down if there are too many within a given channel or “road”, so what DFS does is it allows “drivers” with this feature to take a detour via a less congested route, which are the restricted 5GHz channels, as long as it checks to ensure these channels are not currently required for official use.
However, in return for their higher performance, routers with DFS functionality tend to cost more than run-of-the-mill ones, since they pack specially-customised chipsets that can access these restricted “highways”, and those don’t come cheap.
7) Will my new router work with my existing setup? How compatible will it be?
By and large, as long as your router is developed to work with the corresponding type of Wi-Fi standard, there should be no issue in this department. However, given that many modern “smart” devices, like TVs and game consoles only sport Ethernet (wired) connections, you could also opt to use an old router to fill in the gaps, or as we call it, a wireless bridge.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be a tech whiz to do that. Simply download the DD-WRT Linux-based software for your router and let it handle the heavy lifting.
In a holistic sense, some routers with specially-included perks like the aforementioned AiMesh will naturally work better with similar pieces of tech, although the best setup per se still depends on your intended purpose and some good old trial-and-error.
That being said, don’t sweat it too much; we’ll be taking a closer look at that in the next section to help you define what's best for your needs.