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Home Networking - Part 1 - Routers


  • Wednesday, Feb 26, 2020
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So, you’ve read through Part 1  and Part 2  of my guide to UK broadband and are happy with both your provider and the price you are paying. Now it’s time to think about the networking equipment you setup to make the most of your connection, starting with the nucleus - the router.

 


 

ISP Routers

 

The BT Smart Hub 2

Most internet service providers will provide you with a router when you signup with them, either for free, or just for the price of postage. This is usually an adequate “all-in-one” option for most people living in a moderately sized property - it will mostly just be plug and play. Placed centrally in your property, it should also provide most moderately sized flats or small houses with adequate WiFi as well. You really accede control of configuration to the provider - the options will be limited, and the provider will be able to remotely monitor and troubleshoot your connection using their provided router. Exceptions here are:

  • Virgin Media - Virgin currently provide a Superhub 3 to new customers when they sign up. Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan of this router - whilst the Superhub 1 wasn’t a great success, and the Superhub 2/2ac models are perfectly fine, the Superhub 3 is simply not up to the task - this is compounded by the fact that it uses the Intel Puma 6 chipset for its modem, a chip so riddled with issues there is even a class action lawsuit  against it. These issues plague the device even when you use it in “Modem Only” mode with your own router, as the problem is with the modem chip itself, and you can’t use your own modem. Even so, I’d still recommend putting Virgin’s Superhubs into “Modem Only Mode”  (even in spite of the latency issues) and using your own router. The configuration pages on the Superhub 3 are slow and buggy, and it’s generally not up to it.

    Sadly, Virgin appear not to have learnt their lesson and appear to be set on using the Intel Puma 7 for the upcoming Superhub 4  - it remains to be seen if it improves the issues the Superhub 3 has. Sadly, you have to use whatever Virgin give you when you signup, even if only in “Modem Only” mode.

  • Zen - Zen currently provide the excellent FRITZ!Box 7530  for free to all new customers. This is a genuinely well reviewed  product worth £130 RRP, and offers a wealth of features not normally available on free ISP-provided units.

 


 

Buy Your Own

 

Some of the options for buying your own router

The other option is to buy your own router and use this instead. If you are a power user and fairly confident, this can be a good option. Bear in mind that if you do this, your ISP will be unable to easily provide support for your connection - it’s best to take the router they provide for free, and keep it, even if you use your own. This way, you can plug it back in temporarily if they want to troubleshoot your connection.

You might need to do this if you have a larger household, and there are lots of devices connected all the time - the free ISP provided routers can struggle under heavy loads and reboot frequently.

As you can see from the image above, there are a staggering array of options, most of them hugely overkill for most people - at the end of the day, as we found out in my guide to broadband , most people only have a maximum connection speed of 60-70Mbps download, 10-20Mbps upload. Even a moderately priced £50-70 router is going to be able to deliver these speeds, both over a wired connection, and wireless (WiFi is a whole separate consideration, which I’ll be looking at in Part 2  of this guide).

Where you might want to spend a bit more is if you have lots of users, and/or have a much higher speed connection, like the higher speeds on offer from Virgin Media, or from the true FTTH providers I mentioned in my guide . You also might want more power if you use your internal network to transfer files between devices, especially wirelessly.

Bear in mind, if you have a Virgin Media connection, you’ll need to put the Superhub into “Modem Only Mode”  to use your own router. If you have an Openreach connection, you’ll need to either buy a router that has a modem built in, or try to get an old white Huawei 3B Openreach modem on eBay for around £20 (BT no longer provide them). The consumer Home Hubs and Smart Hubs BT provide do not have a “Modem Only Mode”, but their “Business Hubs” do, so that is another option.

Before I go into more detail in Part 2  of this guide, just a word in general - despite what manufacturers may claim, it’s not worth spending hundreds of pounds on one single router and hoping it will miraculously make your WiFi signal stronger and travel further - WiFi is limited by regulations to only transmit at a certain maximum strength. You are far better off getting a router that can handle your pure connection speed, and then supplementing this with multiple devices that create a large WiFi network (more on that in Part 3 ).

In general, if you get your own router, you’ll want to make sure it fulfils these basic things:

  • It has gigabit ethernet ports - some cheaper or older routers only have what are known as 10/100 ethernet ports. What this means is that the maximum speed wired devices can reach is 100Mbps - this is adequate if you only have a standard Openreach connection and aren’t transferring large files locally. But really, gigabit is better, as it provides speeds of up to 1000Mbps - you’ll notice a huge improvement on local file transfers, and it will give plenty of room to expand should you be lucky enough to get a faster connection in future.

  • It has dual band WiFi - that is, both the older 2.4Ghz “n” spectrum and newer 5Ghz “ac” spectrum available - I’ll cover this more in Part 2 .

A good recommendation I have for people on standard Openreach or slower connections is the TP-Link Archer C7  or TP-Link Archer A7 . Get whichever is cheaper, as they are essentially the same product inside, and retail at anywhere from £50-70. It’s an older model, and you’ll need something better for the faster Virgin Media or FTTH providers, but otherwise it’s a reliable router with a simple interface that offers stability and some advanced features like Guest Wi-Fi and VPN.

There is also the FRITZ!Box 7530 , which has an intergrated modem, but it is a much pricier option (and more powerful as a result).

Of course there are hundreds on the market. A good resource for looking at reviews of routers (as well as WiFi Systems, which I’ll cover in Part 3 ) is the SmallNetBuilder  website and forums. They have a Router Ranker , which lists their most well reviewed routers. However, new ones hit the market all the time, so it’s worth checking for the latest reviews  for any that aren’t on the ranker.  


 

Bring Your Own

 

OpenWrt Logo

One final option (and definitely for the more advanced user) is to take an existing router and reflash it with custom, open source firmware such as OpenWrt . The Archer models I mentioned above can be flashed, and you can also buy a BT Home Hub 5 (which has an integrated modem), preflashed with OpenWrt, from eBay at around £20. The advantage of this is that it offers the advanced features (and more besides) of the third party routers you can buy, but at a fraction of the cost. However, for support you are totally on your own (or reliant on Hither Green IT ). One reason you might want to do this is to be able to apply something called “Smart Queue Management (SQM)”  to your connection to improve performance for VOIP calls or online gaming (there will be a separate blog article on this coming up, so keep an eye out!)

You can also buy professional grade routers from companies like Ubiquiti  or Mikrotik , or build your own and run something like pfSense . But these options are really for the advanced user comfortable with in-depth configuration.

For most people, it would be better to either use the ISP provided router, or buy one with some advanced features that are fairly easy to configure, such as the Archer C7/A7.

So, you’ve chosen one of the three options above, but you’ve hit one of the most common problems I get at Hither Green IT - your WiFi either doesn’t go far enough or is too slow (or both!) This is a whole other consideration when it comes to home networking, one which I will cover in Part 2  and Part 3 !




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