Wireless routers explained

Like most people who know a thing or two about computers, I often get asked to help out friends and family when something’s not working. As long as their questions aren’t about printers I don’t really mind. It can be a real eye-opener to see how even the most basic settings sometimes puzzle users. Especially when it comes to networks.

Most people have no clue as to how the most important box in their network setup works. I thought I’d try to clarify. It’s really not that complex, and it might help you troubleshoot issues should they arise.

A “wireless router” is actually three devices rolled into one

With dail-up internet now all but extinct, almost everyone I know has a router of some sort in their house. Usually, it’s a box that connects to their modem, has a couple of LAN ports, and one or more antennas for wifi. There boxes are usually called “wireless routers”, but they actually perform three distinct functions.

… sometimes even four!

I’m not 100% sure this is the same the world over, but here in The Netherlands, cable modems are usually very simple devices. The TV cable goes in, and internet comes out the single LAN port. If you need to connect more than a single computer to them, you need a router. In most cases, a wireless router is the best solution.

With ADSL, there are many wireless routers that incorporate a modem, adding a fourth function to the three I’m about to list. For the sake of simplicity however, I’ll stick to “modem-less” wireless routers in this post, and save “wireless ADSL modem routers” for later.

Part 1: The router

Let’s say you run a company with four employees. Each has an office with a door that leads into a reception area. None of the doors have a name on them, and there’s nobody stationed in the lobby. This means that as long employee A goes out to a customer, all goes well. However, should anyone walk in through the front door, he or she would have no idea which door to go through.

A router is essentially a clever receptionist. It redirects incoming traffic to whichever computer requested it, and knows where everything else needs to go. It knows employee C handles a certain type of client, and B is in charge of another type. When you connect more than one computer to a single internet connection, you’ll need a router. Otherwise the lobby would just fill up with people who are lost.

Part 2: The network switch

The switch is a much simpler device. All it does is split a single network connection into four, or eight, or even more. To get the four rooms setup used in the analogy above, your router needs to be paired with a 4-port switch. Every router I’ve ever worked with had a built-in switch, but in theory it could be a separate, external box.

If transfering files between computers on your network is a priority, look for a router that has a “gigabit” switch. The older 100 mbit standard is probably fine for using the internet, but gigabit connects your computers at ten times the speed. Provided they too have gigabit network ports, that is.

Part 3: The wireless access point

In essense, a wireless access point (or simply “access point” or “AP”) does the same thing as a switch. It’s a “splitter” that allows multiple computers to connect to the network. The main difference is that it does so wirelessly. It send and receives data and handles security. In the early days of wireless networking, access points were usually separate devices. You’d connect them to a wired router.

Most new routers have a “wireless-n” (802.11n) access point. I’d highly recommend this over the older “g” standard. Look for “dual band” if you need to get the absolute best possible speeds. Although “n” is backwards compatible, you’ll only get these speeds if the connected computers all support “n”.

Okay, so?

If you’re absolutely fine with not knowing how your wireless router works, yet you kept reading all the way down to here, then I apologize for wasting your time. However, the next time your laptop loses it’s wifi connection, knowing which three tasks it fulfills may help you troubleshoot. And with a little luck, you won’t have to call your “computer guy” (or gal).

1 Comment

  1. A simple yet informative breakdown there. I think more people should take an interest in how devices like this work, especially my parents. Would save me a few headaches.

    Comment by DeanoWindass — April 13, 2012 @ 8:30 pm