There are many reasons to upgrade to a fast new wireless network for your home. You may already have access to NBN (national broadband network) fibre and need the extra Wi-Fi capacity to distribute your faster Internet connection; or you may just want to move files across various devices at a quicker rate than you're used to. Whatever your reasons, the wireless network standard that you should be looking is 802.11ac. It's the latest and greatest and will provide the best transfer rates.
What is 802.11ac?
This is the wireless standard that has replaced 802.11n at the top-end of the Wi-Fi market, and while take up of this new standard has been somewhat slow, we are now starting to see more devices being released with support for the faster transfer rates that it can provide. There are many 802.11ac wireless routers on the Australian market now, and, rest assured, while they offer the brand new standard, they are also backwards compatible with 802.11n devices.
Speeds available from 802.11ac wireless routers vary (starting at 867Mbps), but there are now products on the market that support rates up to 1300 megabits per second (Mbps). The 802.11ac standard runs in the 5GHz frequency band, which means you won't have to run it on the congested 2.4GHz band (though you can still run the 2.4GHz network simultaneously), and some routers that use the standard also implement new features such as beamforming antennas, which can adapt to the way signals are sent depending on the environment.
Some of the marketing terms used for 802.11ac wireless routers are a little misleading, and you should keep this in mind when purchasing. Often, a vendor will quote a single speed such as 1.75Gbps (gigabits per second) for its wireless router. This doesn't mean that the router can perform at that maximum speed. That figure is an amalgamation of both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz capabilities of the router. For example, to achieve the 1.75Gbps figure, the vendor is adding up the 1.3Gbps speed of the 5GHz network with the 450Mbps speed of the 2.4GHz network. The total figure is the speed at which the router can run both networks simultaneously.
Will an 802.11ac router work with current devices?
To reap the benefits of an 802.11ac wireless router, you will need to run client devices on it that also support the faster specification, and this means either buying computers that already have 802.11ac as part of their configuration, or buying USB adapters that can be used to connect to the 802.11ac wireless router at a faster rate than 802.11n. Many flagship smartphones that have been on the market since last year also support 802.11ac and will benefit from the extra speed that an 802.11ac wireless router can provide. HTC's One (M8), for example, connected to an 802.11ac router at a speed of 433Mbps in our tests.
Basically, though, even if you don't have any 802.11ac devices, and don't intend on upgrading to them soon, if you're in the market for a new high-end router for your home network, you should still consider an 802.11ac wireless router, mainly because it will give you extra speed when you finally do get devices that support the faster networking standard. Of course, the usual caveats about your budget apply, and some of the routers that support the new standard are north of $300. Meanwhile many 802.11n routers that support speeds of 300Mbps can be found between $80 and $150.
How to set up an 802.11ac network
Once you've bought your new 802.11ac router, you'll need to set it up. In doing so, make sure you don't throw out any of the packaging. Most new routers on the market come with a little label in the package (or stuck on the router itself), which gives you the names and passwords of its wireless networks. Because you have this wireless information, it means that you can simply power on the router and then use a laptop or tablet to log in to its Web interface and set up your Internet connection.
But let's backtrack a little. If you've got a wireless router only, then you will have to make an extra physical connection: your modem will need to be plugged in to the router's Ethernet port that is labelled 'WAN' or 'Internet'. This is what will allow the router to communicate with your modem. If you have bought an ADSL2+ modem-router unit, then all you will have to do is plug in your telephone line to the ADSL port on the router.
To get on the Internet, you will have to log in to your wireless router's Web interface. The instructions for doing so vary depending on the router, with some having their own software for you to run, while others simply tell you to type in an IP number in a Web browser's URL bar (usually a number such as 192.168.1.1). The login details for your router should have been supplied in the box, with the username and password usually being variations of 'admin' and 'password'.
In the Web interface, look for an 'easy setup' or 'quick setup' feature and go through the steps that are available for entering your ISP details and getting connected to the Internet. For most routers, you will only need your ISP username and password details, though some routers might also ask your for the connection type (usually PPPoE), and the VPI/VCI numbers (these stand for virtual path identifier and virtual circuit identifier). You will be able to get these details either by hunting around on your ISP's Web site, or by just giving them a call.
With the Internet details out of the way, you may want to change the Wi-Fi settings to names and passwords that you will more easily remember, rather than keep the default settings that the manufacturer has given you. This can be a fiddly process if you are changing the Wi-Fi settings over the wireless network through a laptop or tablet, as it means you will have to re-connect one or two times, depending on how your router handles wireless settings.
On some routers, the Wi-Fi name and the password are on separate pages, which means you have to change the name, reconnect to the new name using the existing password, and then change the password and reconnect again using the new password. Make sure you remember to change the details for both the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz network (sometimes these are on separate pages, too), and if there is a Guest network setting, you might want to make sure it's disabled if you don't plan on using it. Guest networks allow you to share your Internet connection with visitors to your home, but they can't access any other devices that have shared folders on your home network.
In terms of basic set up, that's pretty much it. As long as all of your client devices (laptops, desktops, tablets, smartphones and gaming consoles) all have the wireless credentials entered, then they will automatically connect to your new wireless network. Another way to connect all of your devices is to use the WPS feature. WPS stands for Wi-Fi Protected Setup, and it can be set up in a couple of ways: either by pressing physical buttons on both the wireless router and your client devices within a specific period of time, or by entering a PIN in your client devices, which is generated by the router.
You should check the speeds that are present in the wireless settings for your 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless networks. You can usually turn these values to the maximum (if they are not already), and we have run many routers at the maximum speed during our tests without noticing any problems.
Note that the speed of your network will be dependent on client devices, as we've already mentioned, and also on the distance from which they are operating. The closer your 802.11ac devices are to the router, the better the speeds will be. This means that you shouldn't set up your router too far from your main devices if you can help it. It can be difficult if your router has the modem built in and the port for your phone line is located in a spot that's distant. We'll address some of these issues in our next instalment, in which we will discuss how you can improve the coverage of your wireless network.
Which 802.11ac router should I buy?
There are many products you can consider that feature the 802.11ac standard, primarily from vendors such as Netgear and Belkin, but smaller players such as Billion and TP-Link have now also joined the fray. They don't all have the same 802.11ac speed, and the other features they support can vary depending on the price. If you want the fastest current 802.11ac speed, you will have to spring for a router that can do 1300Mbps. Note that not many client devices can reach this speed, with most topping out at 867Mbps.
Look for a product with Gigabit Ethernet ports if you plan on connecting desktop PCs and network attached storage (NAS) devices, as this will give you the quickest throughput from those devices to your wireless network. Furthermore, you might want a USB port or two in order to plug in and share external hard drives or printers.
If you have an ADSL2+ connection, you can consider a wireless router that also has an ADSL2+ modem built in. This will make set-up a cinch as it means you only have to configure one device and take up one socket on your power strip.
Some of the 802.11ac wireless router products currently available are listed below, with their maximum supported speed. Note that some of the products below use the draft version of 802.11ac. The 802.11ac standard was only ratified at the end of 2013.
Wireless routers only
Asus RT-AC56U802.11ac speed: up to 867Mbps
Asus RT-AC66U802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Belkin AC 1200802.11ac speed: up to 867Mbps
Belkin AC 1750802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Billion BiPAC 8800AXL802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
D-Link DIR-810L802.11ac speed: up to 433Mbps
D-Link DIR-850L802.11ac speed: up to 867Mbps
D-Link DIR-865L802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
D-Link DIR-868L802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
D-Link DIR-880L802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Linksys EA6300802.11ac speed: up to 867Mbps
Linksys EA6700802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Linksys EA6900 AC1900802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Linksys WRT1900AC802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Netgear AC1200 (R6200)802.11ac speed: up to 867Mbps
Netgear AC1750 (R6300)802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Netgear Nighthawk (R7000)802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
TP-Link AC750 (Archer C2)802.11ac speed: up to 433MHz
TP-Link AC1350 (Archer C5)802.11ac speed: up to 867Mbps
TP-Link AC1750 (Archer C7)802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Wireless ADSL2+ modem routers
Belkin AC1200802.11ac speed: up to 867Mbps
Belkin AC1800802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
D-Link DSL-2875AL802.11ac speed: up to 433Mbps
D-Link DSL-2880AL802.11ac speed: up to 900Mbps
D-Link DSL-2890AL802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Netgear AC1200 (D6200)802.11ac speed: up to 867Mbps
Netgear AC1600 (D6300)802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 (R7000)802.11ac speed: up to 1300Mbps
802.11ac USB adapters
" Asus USB-AC53" Asus PCE-AC66" Belkin AC Wi-Fi USB (F9L1109au)" D-Link DWA-171" D-Link DWA-182" Linksys WUSB6300" Netgear AC1200 (A6200)" Netgear AC600 (A6100)
You can also find 802.11ac in many new laptops. Look for laptops that feature Intel's Wireless-AC 7260 wireless adapter. These run at up to 867Mbps and can provide file transfers over 40 megabytes per second in some cases. In general we have found laptop with in-built 802.11ac Wi-Fi to perform better than USB adapters. If you have a PC, then you will have to use a USB adapter to give it an 802.11ac capability.