The 4 Wi-Fi Router Specs You Need to Know

Posted by Alex Qi on Jul 16, 2019 3:43:36 PM
Alex Qi
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AC numbers, Bands, Throughput – making sense of the jargon describing the capabilities of modern Wi-Fi routers feels like the 2019 version of reading ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Even with store employees and website reviews, it’s still hard to feel confident that you’ve bought the right product, and buyers remorse comes in the form of inadequate Wi-Fi coverage or feeling like you overpaid for a system that does more than you need. This isn’t rocket science; it’s just advanced network technology, which should be way more comfortable. Right?

You shouldn’t need an Engineering degree to figure out how to get better Wi-Fi, so today we’ll explain the four most essential Wi-Fi specs: what they mean and what you should look for in your next router, including:

 

What’s the Frequency? Understanding 2.4GHz vs 5GHz


The Quick and Easy Explanation:

Frequencies on your Wi-Fi router (e.g., 2.4GHz and 5GHz) are like distinct data highways that can each support the needs of connected devices. 2.4GHz has a more extended range but is less powerful, while 5GHz is more powerful over shorter distances. A “dual-band” router supporting both frequencies can support more devices and can switch devices from one frequency to another if either of them gets too full.


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Frequency (measured in Hz) is one of the most common units of physics and means the number of times something happens per second. In the context of Wi-Fi, it refers to the specific radio frequencies that are used to transmit data. Think of different frequencies as highways and the data as cars.

Wi-Fi is active on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio frequencies. While almost all Wi-Fi devices will use the 2.4GHz spectrum, some newer devices will also operate on 5GHz. Knowing the difference between these frequencies will help you plan out your space better to get the most out of your network.

The main advantage of 5GHz is transmission speed, often reaching multiples of what 2.4GHz can achieve. The other main advantage is that many devices only use the 2.4GHz band, so there is less saturation on 5GHz. Returning to our highway analogy, less congestion means more stable connections and ultimately a better Wi-Fi experience.

Although 5GHz has some strong advantages, the 2.4GHz band can travel longer distances, due to its longer wavelengths more easily bouncing around walls and into those tight corners. In the end, what 2.4GHz lacks in power, it more than makes up for in its increased range.

What this means: In most instances, the 2.4GHz channel is enough to accomplish most Wi-Fi related tasks, such as streaming movies, and downloading files across multiple devices. However, in spaces with many connections all competing for space (e.g., office, game room, living room), a 5GHz connection will offer a significant boost in the performance of those devices. With Mesh Wi-Fi becoming commonplace, placing nodes (like Mercku’s Bee) in areas of high device-density will ensure a smoother Wi-Fi connection and maximize the benefits of both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency characteristics.

 

Turn up the AC! Understanding AC numbers

When shopping for Wi-Fi, you will often see an AC1200, AC1900, etc. What does AC stand for? (Hint - it’s not “Air Conditioning.”)


The Quick and Easy Explanation:

The AC number on your router refers to the total combined bandwidth (or theoretical maximum speed) of all supported frequencies (e.g., 2.4GHz and 5 GHz). Practically, a device can’t be connected to both frequencies at the same time to add their speeds together. “Throughput” refers to the actual measured rate of data transfer and is the more useful number for assessing the performance of a router, and thus the AC number is a fairly meaningless marketing term that you can probably ignore!


AC isn’t an acronym for anything! There have been several generations of Wi-Fi protocols over the years as the technology advanced that were named with lettered notations. The current, most widely adopted standard is 802.11ac, although there are still many routers on the 802.11n standard.

The AC number is derived from the current 802.11ac generation of Wi-Fi products and refers to the maximum combined theoretical bandwidth. To fully understand this number, we need to first differentiate between bandwidth and throughput. Bandwidth is the theoretical maximum speed, while throughput is the actual speed. The theoretical speed limit is unreachable, so throughput is the more accurate measurement of how well a router is performing. For example, the theoretical speed on a 2x2 5GHz frequency band is 867 Mbps, but in reality, Mercku’s throughput is tested to be 720 Mbps, (one of the fastest in the industry)!

Let’s now go back to AC numbers, which represents the combined theoretical limit all the bandwidths. To calculate AC numbers, add up the total bandwidth on both the 2.4GHz bands and 5GHz bands. So, a router that has a theoretical limit of 300 Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 867 Mbps on the 5GHz band is an AC1200 (300+867≈1200) router.

What this means: AC numbers represent the combined theoretical limit for speeds, but not the actual throughput routers can achieve. Furthermore, a device can only connect to either the 2.4GHz or the 5GHz frequency, but not both at the same time, thus unable to leverage the theoretical speed stated by the AC number. When buying routers, one should always take the AC numbers with a grain of salt, and if possible, do due diligence online to find the throughput speeds for each router. Thus, the AC number is just a guideline and often mismarketed to consumers, as they do not represent actual Wi-Fi speed.

Experience Better Wi-Fi

 

Banding Together – What does Dual-band vs Tri-band Wi-Fi mean?


The Quick and Easy Explanation:

Dual-band routers support the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies as we described above. Tri-band routers add one more 5GHz frequency that is used for data transfers between the different nodes of your mesh router system to alleviate congestion on the 5GHz frequency.


Dual-band Wi-Fi gives you access to both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Tri-band routers not only encompasses both frequencies covered by the dual-band version, but it also adds the third frequency, also at 5GHz, for internal mesh communications. If you have too many devices operating at the 5GHz frequency, then a tri-band Wi-Fi solution will relieve that congestion by having all connections between mesh nodes performed on a separate channel.

What this means: there are limitations to the 5GHz frequency band, such as range and ability to bounce around obstacles – making it great for short distances or open spaces. For the usual Netflix-streaming, email-sending, live-TV streaming consumer, a dual-band router is more than enough. Furthermore, many smart home devices using Wi-Fi only operate on the 2.4GHz frequency, meaning that having an extra 5GHz band is only useful for those who have too many networking products in a small area, and moving mesh communications to the 2nd 5GHz band will alleviate congestion for 5GHz connected devices.

Safe House – How Secure is your Home Wi-Fi?


The Quick and Easy Explanation:

WPA2 is the current security encryption standard for Wi-Fi routers and should be the minimum you look for when choosing a router. This can protect you from most attempts to access your network but won’t be enough to block determined professional hackers or backdoors caused by careless online behavior. Stay vigilant!


When it comes to security, the most common protocol for Wi-Fi routers on the market today is the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), and the current generation, WPA2 is standard on all current Wi-Fi routers and is mandatory for all routers commercialized today. Last year, in 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced WPA3, a third generation of security that in a few years, will become the new standard.

What this means: when it comes to security, WPA2 is enough to deter hackers and has strong encryption capabilities. However, there is often potential holes that allow attackers to tap into the Wi-Fi network to access information. Potential attacks, such as KRACK (Key Reinstallation AttaCK) was discovered and subsequently patched. Security is a constantly evolving system. Lastly, some routers offer additional protection, such as a VPN-passthrough and VPN client, allowing all web traffic on devices to be further encrypted. Mercku provides a VPN-passthrough for added security on all connected network devices.

There it is. The simple guide to common Wi-Fi terms so you can understand what you’re buying. If you want to make your decision even more manageable, check out the Mercku Hive - our award-winning Wi-Fi system that delivers superior performance in all of the areas we covered.

Experience Better Wi-Fi

 

 

Topics: Wi-Fi, Customer Experience