Wireless routers that conform to the latest IEEE Wi-Fi standard (802.11n) range from $30 to $180. Since their common denominator is adherence to the wireless n specification, why is the most expensive one six times the price of the least expensive?
Most budget-oriented wireless routers built to the n Wi-Fi specifications have reduced component costs in a few ways. Except for the Apple Airport Express, all of the basic home wireless routers that we reviewed do not implement the 5GHz Wi-Fi radio band enabled by 802.11n. They provide the 2.4GHz frequency instead, a frequency that the previous 802.11g Wi-Fi specification also supports. Products built to 802.11n specifications are backward compatible to wireless g. Wireless n uses the 2.4GHz frequency more efficiently than wireless g by exploiting channel width within the frequency and allowing one channel to overlap with another. The n specification supports a single stream on 20MHz of the 2.4GHz band or a dual stream on 20MHz and 40MHz. Wireless g clients can use the 20MHz channel but not the 40MHz channel, which is reserved for n clients only.
The less-expensive routers for the home implement single-stream wireless n, which caps the theoretical data rate at 150Mbps. The better home products, such as the Linksys E1000, the Cisco Valet and the Apple Airport Express support dual streams, with a theoretical data rate of 300Mbps. Greater speeds will be available in the future as vendors implement more channels within the frequency.
Single-stream versus dual-stream wireless n explains some of the pricing differences in products designed for modest home users. But why is there such a price difference between home wireless n routers and high-end n routers? High-end routers implement dual streams on the 2.4GHz, but most of them go a step further to add the 5GHz Wi-Fi radio band to enable two networks. The best products operate on both bands simultaneously. An additional radio band requires more components, which increases the cost of goods.
Choice of network ports also contributes to the price differential. Wi-Fi routers for the home typically use Fast Ethernet ports for the connection to the internet and to attach computers and other devices to the local area network enabled by the router. High-end routers suitable for extreme gamers or small professional offices use Gigabit Ethernet ports instead of the slower and less-costly Fast Ethernet ports.
Another hardware component that contributes to the wide range of wireless n router pricing is the USB port. Except for the Apple Airport Express, none of the home products that we looked at offer a USB port. High-end products, on the other hand, usually offer one or two USB ports to support printers, scanners and network-attached storage devices.
If your neighbor s garage-door opener is interfering with your 2.4GHz Wi-Fi radio band, perhaps you need to get a router that adds the 5GHz band, which is much less prone to interference. If you want to stream high-definition video to multiple client devices distributed throughout a large house, an entry-level product with Fast Ethernet ports will not be as satisfying as a Gigabit Ethernet-equipped router.
Ponder these concepts to demystify the process of selecting a wireless router. If you are leaning toward full-featured, high-performance wireless n routers, we compare them at our premium wireless routers review site. If you have less-demanding requirements, but want to step up to the wireless n specification, examine side-by-side comparisons of wireless routers for homes on a budget.