Speed vs range
Anyway, back to choosing a wireless router. Most of the boxes you’ll find in a PC superstore are smothered in marketing blurb, with the basic message that if you buy one of our more expensive models it will reach further. But as I’ve pointed out before in this column, that isn’t always true. Having tried out all manner of wireless routers, I’ve been hugely unimpressed with the draft-n kit that currently tops most manufacturers’ ranges, the exception being Belkin’s N1 series – not because they’re particularly fast or have great range, but because they look nice. They blend into any stylish home or office – unlike most wireless kit, you wouldn’t want to hide them on top of a cupboard – and the soon-to-be-released N1 Vision with its speed meter display is (to my eyes) such a radical departure from the normal grey box that it really deserves applause.
But despite Belkin’s beauty, the kit that I normally recommend for home or small-office use comes from rival Netgear. Those of you with elephantine memories may remember that I’ve been a bit critical of Netgear in the past, particularly its draft-n products. But that was the company’s domestic kit, whereas the router I’m going to recommend is part of its ProSafe business product line-up, and as a result you probably won’t find it in your local PC superstore. The ProSafe product line will perhaps come as a surprise if you’re only used to handling domestic broadband equipment: its casing is metal and there’s a lifetime warranty. It’s hardly the Rolls-Royce of networking kit – there’s nothing flashy or ostentatious about it – it’s more like the Toyota Landcruiser you see in those documentaries about exploring the extreme places of the planet: well made and just keeps on going.
Let’s get down to specifics: the wireless router I’m talking about is the Netgear DGFV338. As well as being built like a tank, you’ll notice a few other differences from typical domestic kit. First, it’s both an ADSL and a cable router (so there’s no need to choose a different product variant based on your broadband connection). What’s more, it can actually connect to both sorts at once and operate in failover mode, so that if one of your connections goes down the other will take over. Perhaps overkill for most domestic environments, but ideal for small offices.
Another difference you’ll notice is the size of the two antennae that screw into sockets on the back of the device. Where most domestic kit uses stubby little aerials, the DGFV338 has much bigger 5dBi antennae, which I’ve found to be far more effective than any draft-n-style tweaks when it comes to extending the range. There are places in my house where I simply can’t get a signal using most wireless routers I’ve tested, but using the Netgear ProSafe, Windows tells me the signal strength is excellent.
Another area where this device excels is in its management interface, which is very comprehensive and offers far more control than you’d normally find in a domestic wireless router. And to top it all off, the device seems to be rock solid: since I’ve been using one, I’ve had no lockups or crashes.
At this point, I suspect most of you will be thinking “sounds expensive”, well it is and it isn’t. I’ve just done a quick Google product search and found a DGFV338 on sale for just less than £100 exc VAT. That’s certainly more than the £40 or so you might pay for a bargain-basement wireless router, but it’s still cheaper than some vendors’ draft-n kit and it’s definitely much less than the price of business-class equipment from the likes of Cisco. I happen to think it’s something of a bargain, especially when you factor in that lifetime warranty.