It's that time of year again.
If you're in the market for networking devices to upgrade your home's media-streaming capabilities, Black Friday is a great opportunity to fulfill that desire. As with everything else, not all networking devices are created equal. In fact when it comes to wireless routers, it's actually a better deal to pay the full price for one that works than getting a lemon for cheap.
But we're talking about getting the one that works for cheap here. And while I can't advise you on how great of a deal you'll get in terms of price (this depends on many things, such as how long in advance you're willing to stay in line, etc.), I'll show you what to look for. Below is a list, in no particular order, of what I would look for myself among home networking devices. In fact, I own some of them. Most of these devices were released in 2011.
A wireless router is the main component of a home network that helps share the Internet connection and other network resources, such as files or printers. Generally this device comes with one WAN port to connect to an Internet source (such as a cable or DSL modem), four Ethernet ports to connect to wired clients (such as a desktop computer), and has built-in Wi-Fi access point(s) to connect to Wi-Fi clients (such as a laptop or an iPad).
Collectively, depending on what you need, what you should look for in a wireless router includes Gigabit Ethernet, dual-band (both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz), long wireless range, USB ports (if you want to use an USB printer or an external hard drive with it), ease of use, and so on. Not all routers support these features, and you don't always need all of them, either. For example, if what you care about is just sharing an Internet connection, then Gigabit Ethernet and USB ports are unnecessary features. Ease of use is a must for novice users, but for techies, it's actually fun to set up a complicated (or should I say sophisticated) device.
Note that this is my personal list; if a device is not mentioned here, it doesn't necessarily mean it's not worth your consideration.
1. Cisco Linksys E4200, also others in the new Linksys E series.
For wireless routers, Cisco did very well this year with the new and refreshed E series that includes the Linksys E4200, E3200, E2500, E1500, and the E1200. The E4200 is the top of the line model that offers true dual-band, 450Mbps speed on the 5Ghz band, and USB to support network storage. When first released, the router had a few bugs but with the latest firmware, it now makes an excellent powerhouse of a wireless router. It's also very reliable. The latest firmware also makes all routers in the series, except the E1200, support IPv6 and improves their performance as well as stability. Read the full review.
This is an accidentally top-notch router from Netgear. It's supposed to be the third-tier model after the WNDR4500 N900 and the WNDR4000 N750 but turned out to be the best router Netgear had to offer this year by providing great performance, true dual-band wireless, and Gigabit Ethernet. The router also has built-in support for a network storage feature, via its USB port, that also offers personal cloud capability. Read the full review of the N600 here.
Note that the WNDR4500 and WNDR4000 also make great routers for those who care about the new 450Mbps speed and don't mind its bulky size.
3. Asus RT-56u
This is another true dual-band router that offers the traditional 300Mbps on both bands. While lacking the new 450Mbps speed, this sleek and supercompact router actually offered the one of the best real-world throughput speeds in my testing. On top of that, it's a fun router to use if you like tweaking. The router also offers built-in support for network storage when coupled with an external hard drive. Read the full review.
The TEW-692GR is the first on the market to offer true dual-band with both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands, being able to handle the new and higher 450Mbps wireless speed. The router offers very good performance and is simple to use. It's a pure wireless router since it doesn't have an USB port for storage or printing serving. When first released, the router came with a very high price tag, which is now significantly lowered. It would make a great router if you get a deal on it. Read the full review.
The D-Link DHP-1320 is one of a kind. It's the first router that combines Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and power-line networking into one box. In other words, it has a built-in HomePlug AV power-line adapter and its power cable will turn the electrical wiring of a house into that of a computer network. All you need to do is plug the other power-line adapter into other power sockets around the house to get connected. Those who are looking to extend the home network via power-line networking will find this router a great all-in-one box. Read the full review.
Power-line networking devices
If you have a Wi-Fi router, you have probably experienced that sometimes the client, say, your laptop, can't get the signal. It's either because it's too far away from the router, or because you want to use it in the basement of your house where the Wi-Fi signal can't reach. For the former, you'll need to get a stronger router or a wireless extender or, well, move closer to the router. For the latter, however, you should resort to a pair of power-line adapters.
A power-line network requires at least two adapters, one connected to the router and the other at the far end of the house. For this reason, they tend to be sold in a kit of two adapters; after that, you can add more adapters to other power sockets to add more devices to the network. But if you have the D-Link DHP-1320 mentioned above, you only need to get the amount of adapters that matches the amount of clients you want to add to the network. Most adapters can support one networking device, while some can support multiple devices.
Currently there are two power-line standards: HomePlug AV, which caps at 200Mbps (with real-world sustained speeds of around 20Mbps to 60Mbps--more than fast enough for Internet sharing), and the newer Powerline AV 500, which caps at 500Mbps (with the real-world speeds of around 150Mbps; much faster than a traditional Ethernet connection). These two standards are interoperable, meaning their adapters will work with one another at the speed of the slower standard.
What you want to look for in power-line adapters is straightforward: speed and design.
The D-Link DHP-501AV is compact, good-looking and, supporting Powerline AV 500, it offers great performance, around 145Mbps in my testing. The adapter comes in a kit of two so it makes a good investment for those who want to start with power line. You can also buy single units to add more devices to the network. Read the full review.
The Netgear XAV5501 makes an excellent power-line solution by offering the best performance I've seen, some 160Mbps of real-world speed, and a pass-through socket. This means you can plug in another device to the power socket that the adapter occupies. On the downside, the adapter is very bulky. In fact, it would still be bulky if it were half its size. Read the full review.
The D-Link DHP-540 is the first Gigabit switch that also has built-in support for Powerline AV 500 standard. This means apart from a very fast switch that adds four more network ports to your router, it also becomes the first power-line adapter for your network when plugged directly into a router via a network cable. When used at the far corner, the device can extend the network up to four devices. This switch will work very well with an XAV5501 adapter to create a robust power-line network. Read the full review.
The Trendnet TPL-401E2K is the first Powerline AV adapter on the market, and while its real-world speed isn't the best, just around 70Mbps, it's still much faster than any HomePlug AV adapters. The Trendnet is also compact. Read the full review.
The WD Livewire is the only HomePlug AV in my selection, thanks to its great design. The kit offers a throughput speed of just around 40Mbps, which is very fast for a HomePlug AV device and enough for most Internet-based needs. Best of all, it can support up to four devices at the far end of the power-line connection. Read the full review.