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Cheap Wireless Routers Buying Guide

Our favorite cheap wireless routers hail from Linksys (the E1200, starting at $44) and D-Link (the DIR-605L Cloud Router, starting at $40) for their stability and user-friendliness; additionally, the D-Link DIR-605L can be controlled remotely. We also like the Rosewill RNX-N300RT (starting at $28), which is inexpensive and generally reliable.

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Two other cheap wireless routers -- the EnGenius ESR300H (starting at $30) and Edimax BR-6428n (starting at $30) -- sink to the bottom of our list due to subpar performance.

Cheap wireless routers are basic devices without lots of extra features. A typical model sends wireless signals across the 2.4GHz band, while many pricier models can also broadcast signals simultaneously on the 5GHz band (these are known as dual-band routers). The 5GHz band is preferable because other electronic devices, such as cordless phones and wireless baby monitors, also emit signals in the 2.4GHz range that can interfere with a router's performance. That said, you won't find simultaneous dual-band routers in the budget segment. The cheap wireless routers we favor support the wireless-n standard, which can send data at a theoretical maximum rate of 300Mbps (megabits per second). Of course, in the real world that speed (a.k.a. throughput) is much slower, usually between 40Mbps and 100Mbps.

The range of a budget router isn't that long but should be sufficient for small home networks. Most cheap wireless routers can maintain a solid signal connection of at least 150 feet and sometimes up to 300 feet. The physical environment can significantly affect a router's range, however; walls and floors, among other things, can obstruct the signal.

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Any cheap wireless router you buy should have at least four Ethernet ports on the back for connecting network devices via an Ethernet cable. Most budget models feature 10/100 ports, which means they can send data at 10Mbps and up to 100Mbps. More expensive routers have ports that can transfer data through a wired connection at a maximum of 1000Mbps (i.e., a gigabit connection), which is listed in the specifications as 10/100/1000. The only router we researched with a gigabit Ethernet port is the Netgear WNDR3700, which starts at $90, putting it far beyond our budget-price ceiling.

Security is vital with a router (who wants neighbors piggybacking off your signal or hacking into your files?) and all the routers we researched offer solid protection. They each support the WPA/WPA2 security protocols and contain a built-in firewall to protect your network from outside intrusions.

We found that the performance of the best cheap wireless routers is adequate for most home networks. Power users may want a pricier device that can deliver faster speeds or include extra features, such as gigabit Ethernet ports and a USB port for connecting an external hard drive or thumb drive, which lets you back up data from several PCs through the network. Higher-end monitors may also operate at a theoretical maximum speed of 600Mbps by using both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, essentially doubling the 300Mbps of each. If you download or stream a lot of video or play intensive online games, you may prefer a faster and costlier router. Cheap wireless routers can handle those tasks but the video streams may need to buffer occasionally.

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When shopping for a wireless router, consider how much speed you need and which, if any, extra features you'd like. Most home networks don't need blazingly fast performance. If you plan to use your network primarily for web surfing, email, and connecting an ebook reader or iPad, a slower and cheaper router will work just fine. Models with dual-band capability and gigabit and USB ports are nice extras, but not worth the investment if you don't use them often.

by Michael Sweet (Google+ Profile)

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