What do you want in a router? Silly Question? Let’s examine!
A router is recommended for every Internet user at home and in offices under your control. First and foremost, a router is that device that knows to say no to outsiders trying to get into your stuff. It is what is referred to as a hardware firewall, not a software solution. It is you first line of defense, the easiest way to protect computers from outsiders who would want to get into and your computers and find your private information. Outsiders on the Internet routinely scan for open “ports” (not the ones on the back of a router) in an attempt to gain entry. Routers are just dumb devices that routinely reject any attempt from the outside to get into and control your computers. They don’t know any better!
Routers are in no way a substitute for anti-malware software on Windows computers and now also necessary for Mac users.
Further, a wireless router, in addition to the above, allows wireless access to the Internet through your ISP (Internet service provider) account to you and authorized others sharing your network at home and in offices under your management. When away from the Wi-Fi you control, wireless routers and so-called wireless access points deliver Wi-Fi, free or paid to most mobile computer users and smartphone users at some time or other. Wherever you go that you log on to Wi-Fi outside of home or office, that’s someone else’s wireless service that you are using – McDonald’s, Starbuck’s, Barnes & Noble, malls, schools, offices and so on.
At home, I recommend a wireless router. If you have but one computer, a desktop, non-portable model, you can get away with a wired router, but the moment invited family or other guests visit, or the moment you get a Wi-Fi-capable smartphone, tablet, all laptops or other device, Wi-Fi is what you want at home in order to connect wirelessly to the Internet. Why not just go wireless at the start, or as an upgrade, even though there are reasons to simultaneously use wired access, to be explained later?
All of this brings me to the object of this article, the newest flagship wireless consumer router by Cisco, the Linksys EA4500 wireless dual band router.
Now, back to my initial question – What do you want in a router? I know, not a fair question. Who thinks of such things? Permit me to offer some suggestions, please!
• Easy set up
• Set-and-forget operation
These are likely the only two things that come to mind, because anything else is just too geeky. Right?
Get one with 802.11n technology. This is the most current standard, fully compatible with older 802.11g and b technology. HOWEVER, these older technologies are also slower.
How about dual band? This is of increasing consumer interest. There are two wireless bands – 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz. Some things operate on one or the other, but nothing operates on both bands. One reason to get dual band technology is to take advantage of the faster data transfer speed afforded by 5.0GHz. Some say to use the slower, 2.4GHz (and shorter distance) band for chat, email and browsing, and use the faster capabilities of 5.0GHz for streaming duties.
As a practical matter, most consumers will not notice a difference using 2.4GHz only. And not everything is wirelessly capable on the 5.0GHz band.
Ideally, hard wire where you can, and use wireless where you cannot. For example, here at Gadget Central, we have Ethernet from the router to the area where our beautiful Pioneer plasma TV is located. I use a wired 8-port switch at that location to connect to the TV, TiVo, Blu-ray player, Roku 2 XS, Logitech Revue with Google TV, WD TV and Seagate GoFlex TV, plus other things that come and go around here. In this way, I (and you) don’t use wireless bandwidth for these things, saving that wireless signal for use that is not capable of wired access.
If you don’t have Ethernet to your TV area, don’t despair. It can be done wirelessly, sort of. There are a number of devices that send signal nearby but outside of your router to another device at the TV area, then to a switch or using its built-in multiple ports for distribution to your TV and other devices there that need Internet. There are solutions that use wireless technology to send the signal and devices that send signal over your power lines in your home or apartment. Look to Netgear (buy it), Monster (buy it), TrendNet (buy it), and others. The switch to split signal to many devices is inexpensive at about $35 for the 8-port TrendNet device I use. It’s only $7 more than their 5-port device, so why not be future-proof with more ports? It’s not like the device will wear out? And it uses very little electricity. All devices are plug-and-play. Just plug them in and they work. Really.
What else should one look for? I found this router also features automatic firmware updating, a setting in the manual setup procedure – in the router’s home page via your browser under the Administration tab, then click Firmware Upgrade and select Upgrade Automatically. Some may disagree with allowing this as an auto upgrade, as there is always the possibility that something will go wrong, but I went for it and recommend this setting for most other users, except those who know what they are doing and insist on doing such things manually.
Gigabit Ethernet is another desirable feature for forward-thinking users. Routers like this typically have four wired ports in addition to their wireless capabilities. Speed of data flow is either 10/100 or up to 100Mbps (megabits per second) or 10/100/1000Mbps (1000Mbps = gigabit).
As with wireless capabilities, the numbers are theoretical, an upper limit, and not representative of real world performance. It is better to have faster capability. The higher the number, the better able is the device to transfer up to several simultaneous high speed streams, so users can potentially play online console games, stream multiple videos in the home as well as stream music from computer to computer, and even have good service from Internet-based telephony (VoIP). This is (mostly) internal bandwidth, the ability to do all of this between computers irrespective of being on the Internet. Let us say that the data, the videos, for example, are streaming from one computer to, say, the big screen TV or to a device connected to the TV. That’s all internal and not out on the Internet, not affecting your wireless bandwidth or your Internet at all.
And now, the damper.
It is easy to see, I hope, that on the one hand, users will benefit from a robust performer like this Linksys EA4500, and at the same time, how potential is not going to be realized with pokey Internet service you may not even know you have. So, even with the lowest of the low broadband speeds, some, not all users will still benefit from Gigabit speed between connected computers if lots of data is to flow quickly. A Gigabit router will not make anything faster over the Internet, however.
What else is there to look for in a router (all of which I know is included in this one)? Guest access comes to mind. We have guests frequently. I don’t want to provide our passphrase to but a select few to join the network. Guest access allows a different SSID to be shown for guest access with a completely different passphrase. How handy! We post an easily seen sheet for visitors who want Internet access with the SSID (the network name to choose when they look for available Wi-Fi) and the unique password to join it. No more worries!
Range is another consideration. The EA4500 pushes out signal better than any predecessors I’ve had here. I get signal way out into the driveway sitting in my car, and even out to a car parked in front at the curb, and covering the entire back yard. Usually, I’d look for the best range extender I could find automatically after moving into a new house and setting up wifi, expecting a weak signal off the bat. There are no weak spots anywhere indoors as there have been with previous routers.
In addition to the simple setup provided by the included software CD that runs Cisco Connect on your Mac or Windows PC, users may customize settings easily. If left on auto setup, a network SSID is chosen, as well as a randomly selected passphrase, along with the type of encryption, defaulting to the strongest for most users, WPA2/WPA Mixed Mode. It’s all done for the user, with settings stored for future use. All that is needed is for the user to follow what really are simple instructions, step by step, with illustrations, and bing bang boom, the work is done and the router connected in a very few minutes in most cases. Tech support by phone during installation is 24/7 should assistance be needed.
Among other available useful settings is parental control where access can be blocked during certain times to limit the hours children can surf online. In addition, there are filters that can be employed to block sites not child-approved by parents.
I like to choose my own SSID and passphrase, easily done with this unit and most others. Allowing the software to do its things, this is the easiest, most trouble free setup available for consumers who’d rather not have any complexity to deal with. The same is true, I believe, for all the current Linksys models.
Available summer 2012, according to Cisco, for this and other EA-Series Smart Wi-Fi routers is Cisco Connect Cloud, which is of interest to me. Cisco’s details of the service: “Cisco Connect Cloud gives you secure access to your home network from a browser or mobile device. You can instantly tap into your home network to check the connection status of your devices, give a guest access to the Internet, or block your child from accessing social networking sites when they should be doing homework.
You can even prioritize what devices on your network get the most bandwidth to eliminate lag times and buffering. Plus, over time, continue to get new apps and capabilities that will enrich your connected lifestyle.”
So, in addition to accessing settings from any browser within the network, users will be able to connect to the router from anywhere and do as indicated. One item will be of interest to VoIP phone users. The audio quality of Internet-based telephony is dependent on both up and down speed. Your end hears quality based upon download speed, not usually a problem. Quality heard on the other end of the call is dependent upon YOUR upload speed. As most services feature significantly slower upstream speeds, this can effect the quality of calls, especially if your speed, that which you pay for AND the actual speed at any given moment, is slow. This can occur if your network users are sending photos or other large files out to another site or individual. A feature in router setup through the browser AND with the upcoming mobile capabilities of Cisco Connect Cloud enables users to adjust THIS setting, prioritizing bandwidth to VoIP over other uses. This capability is possibly VERY handy, at least once while discovering the best settings for this purpose, even though far from base. FYI, this is part of QoS settings, or Quality of Service under the Applications & Gaming tab through the router’s browser interface.
Another feature on this and some other routers, both from Cisco (Linksys) and others, is a USB port for the purpose of attaching one or more hard drives that may be used/shared among those connected to this router. This is just a bit geeky, but let’s say you wanted to put all family music, videos and photos, plus shared documents on that drive and share among authorized users, inside and on the outside. Or, how about using a drive for backup over the network? That’s the purpose of the USB port.
This and select other Linksys routers are also “app enabled” by free Cisco Connect Express mobile app download from the Apple App Store for iPhone and iPod touch, as well as for Android phones, both over home Wi-Fi. Cool app! I put it in my iPhone. Now I can see what devices are connected, see many of the settings and change them, set up and modify guest access, and more.
One thing I DO NOT RECOMMEND is using the Wi-Fi Protected Setup through the app OR directly on the router by pushing a button for this purpose. Why? More geekiness, I am afraid, but the general consensus is to set up security parameters through Cisco Connect software OR manually, to select WPA2/WPA Mixed Mode (or simply WPA2) and enter the passphrase of your choice.
To review, get a router with wireless “n,” 4-port Gigabit Ethernet, long range, quick and easy setup, easy modification of auto setup values for geeks to explore, guest access, automatic firmware updating, (optional USB for storage) proven reliability and great tech support (which Linksys has!).
These are the basics. I am well satisfied with this router in all regards. Setup was a no-brainer, as was customization. Performance has been, as expected, flawless and range is better than anything yet experienced in a consumer router. Sure, it is not inexpensive as compared with many, if not most others, but what is the value to YOU of ease of setup and performance? No other router of which I am aware has all these useful features and benefits in one package. And since there is high reliability, it should last for years to come, making this a good value overall. The best price found is about $179 online today from reliable Amazon, with free shipping, but this is sure to drop. It is the same price TODAY directly from Cisco, so check for your best price!
If your needs are less, I am confident that other easy-to-set-up Linksys routers less expensive than this may be recommended, right down to the E2500 TODAY selling on the Cisco Website for $80 plus a $10 rebate on top of that, though the rebate expires May 4, 2012. HOWEVER, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Be future-thinking and buy what is likely to meet needs into the foreseeable future. Too often I find that consumers under-buy and regret later their being stingy (IF better can be afforded).
Another fine job, Cisco!