Bin Your ISP Router (Part 1)

7/22/2013 11:38:59 AM

Most major ISPs supply a router for free when you sign up to their broadband services, but are those units holding back your Wi-Fi speeds? We've pitched BT, Sky and Virgin Media's offerings against nine third-party routers to find out if it's worth switching

Buyer's guide

ISP-supplied routers, like other areas of the wireless industry, have been steadily improving over the years. Once, they were hardly worth the plastic and precious metals from which they were made, but they now offer better performance, and some unique and interesting features.

Sky and BT offer channel-hopping interference dodging in their routers, while Virgin Media combines cable modem and 5 GHz support in its bundled offering.

So, why should you make the switch? What makes a third-party router deserving of your cash? The answers are threefold: features, flexibility, and vastly increased wireless speed and coverage.

ISP-supplied routers, like other areas of the wireless industry, have been steadily improving over the years

ISP-supplied routers, like other areas of the wireless industry, have been steadily improving over the years

Despite those improvements, the ISP-supplied routers are basic devices. Only one has a USB socket (useful for sharing storage, or networking printers). None of them have advanced, router-centric, category-based parental controls. And none of them offer smartphone or tablet apps for router and network management . The best third-party routers take all this in their stride.

They’re also limited when it comes to flexibility. None of the ISP routers support concurrent dual-band networks, essential if you want to connect older devices as well as benefit from the increased speed and stability of 5GHz networking. None make it particularly easy to access the router remotely, either, whereas D-Link, Asus and Cisco Linksys all have their own dynamic DNS services that make it a doddle.

All the ISP-supplied routers we’ve tested this month are locked to their respective broadband services, too. Even if you did want to take them elsewhere, there’s no way to do it. Contrast that with the Netgear routers in this Labs, which can be used on both ADSL and cable connections. Even the single-connection routers reviewed in this Labs can be carted from service to service.

Despite those improvements, the ISP-supplied routers are basic devices

Despite those improvements, the ISP-supplied routers are basic devices

And, of course, you only get access to the latest technology namely 802.11ac - if you opt for a third-party router. We have three routers with this onboard in the Labs this month, and they all promise superfast wireless speeds of up to 1.3Gbits/sec. The new standard can achieve these results by supporting wider channels in the 5GHz spectrum (up to 160MHz versus 40MHz) and more MIMO spatial streams. Although 802.11ac is still under development (it’s at the draft 5 stage), these routers are still backwards-compatible with 802.11n devices, so early adopters aren’t negatively impacted.

Whether or not you opt for the latest technology, though, there are some fantastic wireless routers reviewed in this Labs that have the potential to super-charge your wireless network, and whisk a high-speed broadband connection to every corner of your home. If you don’t make the switch, you’ll never know what you’re missing.

How We Test

Testing wireless routers is tricky. Not only do we need to provide an idea of how fast a router can be, but we also need to be able to indicate how well it performs at short and long ranges, and test performance in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands.

Netgear WGR614 802 11g b WiFi

Netgear WGR614 802 11g b Wi-Fi

To test these elements, we use two laptops running Windows 7: one connected to the test router via a wired connection to eliminate bottlenecks, and the other connected via wireless, using the 3x3 MIMO stream-capable Intel Wi-Fi Link 5300 chipset. We then set up each router to use WPA2 security with AES encryption and, if possible, enable channel bonding to ensure maximum performance.

To assess speed, a series of large and small files is copied between Windows shares on the two laptops. We run these tests in the 2.4GHz frequency band, then over 5GHz at a range of 2.5m, to assess top speed. For the 802.11ac routers, we test again using the manufacturer’s own 802.11ac USB adapter; none of the manufacturer’s USB adapters could complete the long-range test, though, which is why you won’t see the figures in the feature table.

Next, we repeat the tests in each frequency band, and over 802.11ac, with the wireless laptop placed at a distance of 40m from the router, with one 19mm-thick wooden wall and a double-glazed window in the way. This test indicates how each router performs at long range. There’s a full breakdown of speed figures in the feature table and graphs.

During testing, we monitor the airwaves using another laptop equipped with a Wi-Spy DBx radio-frequency spectrum analyzer. Supplied by MetaGeek (, this allows us to ensure each router is using the optimum channel, and that no other devices in the vicinity are causing interference. Where available, we test the speed of each device’s shared-storage feature. Using a portable USB 3 hard disk as the source, we connect a laptop to an Ethernet port on the router, and use Iometer to assess raw speed. Finally, we test for ADSL speed and reliability. Using a DSLAM (the type of device your router talks to in the local telephone exchange) loaned to us by DrayTek, we set up our own virtual private ISP, then carry out a series of small- and large-file downloads and uploads over an FTP link, measuring the speed.

Video tutorials
- How To Install Windows 8

- How To Install Windows Server 2012

- How To Install Windows Server 2012 On VirtualBox

- How To Disable Windows 8 Metro UI

- How To Install Windows Store Apps From Windows 8 Classic Desktop

- How To Disable Windows Update in Windows 8

- How To Disable Windows 8 Metro UI

- How To Add Widgets To Windows 8 Lock Screen

- How to create your first Swimlane Diagram or Cross-Functional Flowchart Diagram by using Microsoft Visio 2010
programming4us programming4us