With the ever-increasing speed and prowess of broadband internet, the hardware associated with it has also continued to improve exponentially. Computers are better than ever, as are external storage devices, and peripherals such as keyboards and electronic mouses. However, one device that you might not have considered to be making impressive leaps forward is the humble router. Many internet providers have been working hard on what their routers can do – including the speeds they can handle, and number of devices they can accept at once. We tend to overlook the router and everything it does. However, we are going to look into the router in detail. We will see exactly what it does in order to provide you with a good internet connection, and also how to extend it if it can’t reach all the areas you need. In addition, we will look at some of the best routers available on the market and the various UK Internet Service Providers that are offering them.
When using the Internet, a broadband router is the vital piece of hardware that allows your computer to connect to the internet. If you have ordered a broadband package with an internet service provider, then it is almost certain that they will have provided you with a router, unless you they have a specific cheaper package that requires you use one that you already own, or you have one already that you would prefer to use. That said although there are other ways to connect without them, in a standard household, you’re going to need to have one in order to get hooked up and go online. These can be wireless routers or hardwired, depending on how advanced the technology is within the router itself. These days most companies will provide you with a decent enough router (even for basic packages) that has the capability of producing both wireless connections and hardwired (through an Ethernet cable).
Most people think that routers are incredibly complicated pieces of equipment that produce all sorts of data wizardry in order to get you online, but the truth is that they are actually relatively simple. What we are going to look at specifically now is the router themselves, and what happens inside them to convert all that data into a method that you can use to access the internet. We will do this via specific steps that will break everything down into easy to understand processes so that you’ll have a full picture of what is going on.
To firstly understand how a network works in order to get you online, we are going to imagine a diagram. The first to consider is the internet, which you’ll need to view as a tangible thing – say like a cloud with the word INTERNET inside it. Although the web is an abstract concept rather than a physical thing, for the process of simplification its best to describe it as such.
Next, imagine the router in the middle of everything. View it as a little box. Imagine a line coming from the internet to the router.
Connected to the router imagine three lines, one connected to a PC, a laptop and a Macbook. These are going to be connected wirelessly, but for the sake of comprehension, imagine a line going from the router outwards towards all three devices independently. Using a Mac shows that it doesn’t need to be the same device. This could just as easily be a tablet or a phone connected wirelessly to the network etc.
These devices work both ways. For example, someone on the PC might be streaming a film on Netflix or listening to music. The person using the Mac might be uploading a video to YouTube that they recently recorded, and the third person might be viewing web pages whilst downloading a game they just purchased from Steam or another digital game site. As you can visualise, this means that data is working both ways, both going towards the internet, whilst some is also being downloaded (pages need to be 'downloaded’ to be viewed to) to the devices in question. It might seem unbelievable, but a router can actually only do one process at a time (uploading or downloading). However, it happens so quickly that they will appear to be happening simultaneously.
·Each of these communications to the internet happens via data collections known as packets. In order to receive and distribute these data packets, your devices will have been given a unique identifier known as an Internet Protocol (IP) Address. In addition, the source of where you are taking the information or uploading to will also have an IP address. These are known as the Destination Address and the Source Address. (It is not hugely important, but you will probably have seen local IP addresses begin with a 198.168 coding or perhaps a 10.0.0. These are simply the addresses that were decided as the ones that would be utilised for home network use. Many others exist.)
Because there are an almost countless number of local networks floating about on the internet and many of them use the exact same IP address like the one that you have on your home network, it is the job of your router to analyse this and tag your packets with the unique stamp that is your true IP address and applied to your modem via your service provider to stop data getting confused.
The router does this in a very simple way that sounds super complicated. Basically, the computer takes away the local IP address of the source address packet and instead puts the external IP into the space made available. It also then copies the destination address IP from that same packet and associates it with your local IP. So when that packet goes from the server into the big bad world of the Internet, the destination address IP has now become your external IP and the source address IP has now become the IP address of the server that is sending you the packet. If this is still a bit confusing (because it can sound it), it is good to think of it like a parcel.
You sell something and send the parcel to the customer. On the back you put your return address, whilst the sending address is the customers. Let’s say they then respond with a thank you letter, which has their return address on the back and yours on the front. Data packets work exactly the same way. Apart from of course selling your stuff.
Going back to the router, its job is to analyse the source address IP that contains the packet being sent to your device. It then checks its previous destination address IP. Upon discovering it, it realises (unconsciously thankfully) that the device sent a packet to the specific internet address and knows that the device is now waiting for a response. It then removes the external IP address and replaces it for the local address and then sends the packet out.
A router is capable of handling thousands of these packets coming in and going out at lightning fast speeds that would make your head spin. These communications are constantly happening between the Internet, the router and your devices. So now you can probably realise why when you have way too many devices connected to Internet services that have reduced bandwidth capability (basically the traffic of information of thousands of these packets), that you will get a reduce performance from the internet and our computer devices.
Simply put this is what is happening inside that little box of tricks that connects to the Internet. They are extremely capable devices that allow you to turn those garbled packets of information into tangible things that you can see, listen to and enjoy, all whilst ensuring that your data is kept safe and doesn’t get confused with other people’s using the same address. It’s all pretty incredible when you think about. However, this also explains the absolute headache of when a router goes wrong, which is why you get the hair-tearing situations of web pages won’t load and things you can’t download among other general annoyances. So treat your router well, they are hardworking pieces of kit!
Wireless Internet connections have now overtaken wired, and are as easy as they are convenient. All you do is put in the dedicated password for your router on the wireless broadband connection section of your device and voila you are ready to start surfing the web. However, with wireless technology comes specific technical issues that can mar its performance. The two are being out of router range and black spots. Being out of range is exactly what it sounds like – the device is located too far away from the source router in order to receive the signal and work effectively. This can be caused by solid surfaces such as walls, which the signal will have a harder time penetrating. (More powerful routers can of course help with this as they have better coverage, but they usually require you to go and purchase one yourself at a steep cost, or a better tier package from your ISP that will cost you more monthly). Black spots are a bit more unusual in that it’s very difficult to know that you have one until you try to connect. These are basically areas where for a variety of reasons, the Wi-Fi struggles to reach effectively, such as interfering materials.
If you are having trouble with either of these things, then the solution is generally to use an extra device to boost your signal. There are three types of devices available on the market at present and they are: repeaters, extenders and boosters. Typically speaking they are pretty much the same thing – units that will improve the Wi-Fi coverage and allow it to travel further.
A WiFi repeater or extenders increase the range of your Wi-Fi signal by connecting wirelessly to your router and then amplifying it through a boosted transmission signal. In some cases you can actually double the surface area covered by your standard area, making them a perfect purchase for people who have bigger houses or need a stronger signal due to black spots. This coverage works vertically as well as horizontally, so if the issue is upstairs, you’ll likely be able to rectify it with a booster.
Broadband boosters and repeaters are incredibly easy to install too. To use them, simply plug the unit into a plug socket in an area that can receive the original Wi-Fi signal, and switch it on. After that then all you need to do is login to the repeater itself via your computer – you should see it on your list of connectable devices. The passwords will be the same as on your original router, so there’s no headache-inducing extra setup. An added benefit is that if you have a good spec device, it will automatically swap between the extended signal and the original single depending on where you are in the area, meaning that you’ll always get best coverage.
A downside to broadband range extenders is that you have to buy a good one, otherwise they won’t give you a very good internet speed. Its best to shop around for reviews to see models that people have used with similar Internet packages to yours and received good results.
There are a number of different routers to choose from on the market, some which are offered by Internet Service Providers themselves, and others that you can purchase yourself online, or via electrical stores such as Maplin’s or Curry’s. Below we are going to look at the very best UK broadband routers that your money can buy, as well as where they are offered. Firstly, however, let’s look quickly at the types of broadband router you can get and how they differ:
If coming in through your router, you’ll be getting either an Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) or Very-high-bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL). Both utilise your existing phone line, and the former is limited to around 24Mbps transfer rate, whilst the latter can handle around 60Mbps, depending on location to the provider.
Fibre Optic Cable doesn’t require a phone line but instead uses Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) connection that means it goes to a cabinet close to your home rather than into it directly, and your router then picks up the signal it provides. It is generally much, much faster than ADSL and VDSL, capable of handling speeds of over 900Mbps. But it is also far more expensive in most cases and less readily available depending on your area.
It would be impossible to look at top routers without taking a look what one of the market leaders in computer products has to offer. Stylish as any other product they do, the rounded-corner rectangle box of magic looks more like a space-age storage device than a router – and that’s because it is also a storage device. Both versions of it come equipped with Time Capsule so you can back up your data, with the lesser model having a 2 TB SATA hard drive, whilst the better has 3. The AirPort Extreme is famed for being incredibly simple to setup and use making it more accessible for the average person. It has an 11n performance, which is fantastic, but a little less than the best on the market. In terms of other features, it has four Ethernet ports and a USB for charging other devices, (such as an iPhone through the Lightning Cable).
In the past, routers that you got through your Internet Service Providers weren’t usually known for their super-fast speeds, usually opting to give you the most basic router available for your money. However, BT’s latest addition has been trying to squash that old rule. Because they offer more expensive tariffs with better speeds, they have produced a router than sits in line with that new business model.
The design is very simple and basic, with a minimalist two-tone black front and a single light that glows in the centre. This light will change depending on the connection status. In terms of hardware, it has seven antennas which BT say will give massive improvement of range over their previous Home Hub 5 (which had 4). Unfortunately however, unlike Apple’s unit, there is no USB for device charging.
In terms of other features, it has a USB 3.0 which is a notable improvement on the USB 2.0 on the back of the Home Hub 5, allowing for improved speed of data transfer. There are also four Ethernet ports and a typical RJ-11 slot for broadband. If you are using their Infinity service, then the Smart Hub will allow support of VSDL for faster speeds.
For those who like their broadband to come in the flavour of Fibre Optic, then Virgin are the go-to company offering faster-than-light speeds and a good stable connection that can have you surfing for hours uninterrupted. They also have a swanky new router on offer for their customers, under the simple name of Super Hub 3.
Utilising the vertical form of its predecessors, the Super Hub 3 has a more utilitarian, hard line design. It comes in black or white and looks a bit the router looks a bit like a small speaker due to its grilled sides, and fits in perfectly with modern designed houses. It’s all very arty.
It is available to all new customers when they take out a package with Virgin Media, but also as a free upgrade to anyone who asks for it, (which isn’t often the case with other service providers. Cough, cough BT cough). Regarding features the Super Hub 3 has a 3.0 modem with eight bonded upload streams and 24 downstream channels. The total possible speeds possible are a jaw-dropping 912Mbps download and 216Mbps upload.
On the front, you’ll find the Wi-Fi light as well as one for the phone and internet activity. On the rear, you’ll see four Ethernet ports, as well as two inactive/disabled telephone ports, as well as the reset and power switch, and of course connection for the coaxial television cable, and power cable. No USB port to charge devices here unfortunately, and no storage like Apple’s offering. The setup is easy, and Virgin give you everything you need to be able to get up and running with ease. The Hub 3 will be able to eventually support VoIP calling via its phone connection ports, but it’s something they are still working on. Good to know it’s there though as it shows they are thinking of the future. The hub also supports 802.11ac on a 5GHz band across three spatial streams. It also includes built-in features of F-Secure Safe and Web Safe, for added browsing security.
As a quick note, it is important to note that when you buy a router through an Internet Service Provider, you are bound by their service rules. You are effectively only renting it, so I you cancel the contract early, they are within their rights to charge you full price for it. Also if you tweak it in ways that the company doesn’t consent to, you may be in breach of your contract rules. The plus side is that rather than having to go into a store and pay out quite a large amount for the router, the cost is absorbed into your monthly repayments, making it something to consider – especially now that companies such as BT and Virgin are offering fantastic routers with great speeds as part of their packages.
So there you have it. Now you know exactly how those wondrous little boxes we call routers work, as well as having an idea of what to do should your internet is struggling to connect to your devices in larger homes and places with black spots. In addition, we have taken a look at three of the best routers on the market, so that you can make an informed decision which way you want to go, should you be in the market for a new router. Happy surfing!
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