This actually started out as an article answering “What’s the best router?”,
followed by some specifics relating to the questioner’s situation.
What dawned on me is that we throw the word “router” around quite a lot, but
in fact, there are several kinds of routers that are used in several different
situations. They differ based on how you connect to the internet, what your ISP
actually provides, and how you connect your computers.
So rather than try and answer the unanswerable (what’s best?), let’s instead
take a look at the different kinds of routers that you’re likely to encounter
and when you might use each.
The most common kind of consumer grade router takes a network connection on one side, presumed to connect somehow to the internet, and provides four or more wired connections to which you would attach your computers.
The most common configuration looks something like this:
The internet is delivered through a modem provided by your ISP, which is connected to a router that allows that single internet connection to be shared among multiple computers.
This type of router provides only wired, ethernet connections.
Because the configuration above is so common, many ISPs actually provide a single device that combines a modem and a router:
In this case, the cable, fiber, or DSL line is connected directly to the modem/router which then converts the incoming signal to ethernet and provides the router functionality to share that connection among multiple machines.
So far, all that we’ve discussed is wired routers – routers that only use ethernet connections requiring a cable to connect to your computers.
Wireless capability, or more specifically WiFi can be added to such a wired network just by adding a wireless access point (WAP):
Note that a wireless access point is not a router. It’s simply a device connected to one of the wired router’s connections so that the network can be extended wirelessly. The functions of a router are still provided by the wired router on the network.
Because this scenario occurs often, it’s extremely common to find routers and access points combined into a single device, often called simply a “wireless router”:
And, as you might expect, ISPs sometimes provide a single device that combines the function of a modem, a router, and a wireless access point:
All of the previous scenarios are based on having a wired internet connection to your home; typically either DSL, cable, or some kind of fiber-optic connection.
Mobile wireless uses the cellular or mobile telephone network as an alternative way to provide that connectivity:
Instead of paying a monthly fee to your wired ISP, you’d pay additional fees to your mobile carrier.
Many mobile devices and even a few laptops already include the cellular modem required to connect to a mobile data network, although these often will work only with a specific carrier.
In this scenario, there’s no real router involved – the device is connected directly to the internet using the cellular modem.
Mobile wifi hotspot
In recent years, the concept of a mobile wifi hotspot has evolved. These are devices that turn that device into a portable wifi hotspot connected to a cellular network.
Conceptually, a mobile hotspot does nothing more than take a mobile data connection on one side and make it available as a wifi hotspot on the other.
Mobile hotspots typically come in two forms. Originally, a mobile hotspot was a dedicated device – sometimes referred to as a “MiFi”. These are typically smaller than a pack of playing cards and available from several mobile carriers.
Of late, many smartphones now include the option to run an application that turns the device into a mobile wifi hotspot. Which phones support this will vary based on your mobile carrier.
A mobile wifi hotspot is a router.
More correctly, it’s a combined modem (to access the mobile network), access point (to allow wifi-enabled devices to connect), and router (to manage sharing of the connection among multiple devices).
So, what do you need?
It starts with what your ISP has given you.
If all that they’ve given you is a modem, then you’ll definitely want to add some kind of router. If you expect to use wireless, getting a combined wireless router makes a lot of sense.
If what your ISP has given you is itself already a router, then you may be done. If there’s no wireless support and you don’t need wireless, just connect up your computers and go. If you do need wireless, then the easiest thing to do is to get a wireless access point (not router) and connect that to the router.
And of course, if the ISP gives you a combined modem/router/access point, then you’re pretty much done – almost all of your connection options are covered.
If you travel and you take your computer(s) with you, a mobile wifi hotspot can be a very valuable way to access the internet from wherever you might have mobile coverage. Just keep an eye on the data plans and rates when you sign up and as you use it.
In some infrequent cases, using a mobile wifi hotspot as your primary internet connection can be appropriate, but typically, folks are disappointed by the speed and it may even be against the carrier’s terms of service. Be sure to check.
So, what’s best?
As I said earlier, this is really unanswerable. “Best” depends on many things, including your ISP, your needs, your location, and in some cases, your budget.
That being said, I’m a fan of Cisco’s consumer-grade equipment (formerly known as LinkSys) and brands like Netgear and D-Link are typically good. (I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t other good brands out there – these are simply ones that I’ve worked with personally.)
When it comes to mobile hotspots, you’re probably most constrained by your choice of mobile carrier. I’ve been very happy with Verizon Wireless and often use my Android-based smartphone as a mobile hotspot. I also have a pay-as-you-go Virgin Mobile MiFi as a kind of backup because internet connectivity is particularly important to me.