Smart thermostats, smoke detectors, door locks and appliances have gone mainstream and are finding their way into more homes than ever. What sometimes gets lost in the list of cool things those smart devices can do is that they are connected. Without an Internet connection, most of them fizzle. Poor Wi-Fi means a poor user experience and for many people, their wireless router is the weak link in the smart equation. In this post, I’ll review the network and computer essentials for a smart home that lives up to the billing.
A Few Wireless Router Basics
Routers don’t get replaced very often. They’re out of sight and there’s a natural inclination to just leave them alone unless something is obviously wrong.
However, the Wi-Fi needs of the typical Canadian home have changed dramatically over the past few years and the latest crop of wireless routers are far better equipped to handle this new Wi-Fi landscape. Among the features:
- 802.11ac (gigabit) Wi-Fi for far greater speed and data throughput than 802.11n routers
- Beam-forming that directs the Wi-Fi signal to a connected device instead of broadcasting in all directions
- Dual band and Tri-band radios to better handle multiple connected devices simultaneously (each device connected within a band shares bandwidth, so more bands means less competition)
- Dual core CPUs to process the signals of multiple connected devices and intelligently prioritize and route traffic
- Advanced security including WPA2 encryption and firewall
Mediocre Wi-Fi performance sneaks up on you, but it’s easy to shrug off a slow loading web page or streaming video that needs to cache for a few minutes before playing. Smart home devices can be less tolerant while also making things worse by adding to the congestion of your Wi-Fi network.
A Simple Smart Home
Most of us don’t start off with a home that’s fully smart and connected. The typical path is to add a few smart devices, see how that works, and possibly grow from there.
If you start simple—maybe a Phillips Hue smart LED lighting system, a Nest Learning Thermostat a smart door lock or even a smart slow cooker—and your other network demands aren’t too extreme, the wireless router doesn’t need to be a beast of a rig. But it does need to provide a reliable Internet connection.
Dual band support, security capabilities and 802.11ac are the minimums I’d look for. Something like the D-Link AC1200 or the Linksys EA6350-CA Smart router.
Many smart devices don’t support (or need) gigabit Wi-Fi, but if you’re replacing your wireless router, you may as well future-proof it a bit. Plus most recent smartphones, tablets and laptops will benefit from the additional speed. Dual band support lets those lower bandwidth smart devices use the 2.4GHz band, keeping the faster 5GHz band less cluttered for higher demand devices like game consoles. And security is more important than ever when your smart device is connected to the Internet and uploading data that could include sensitive information.
More Advanced Smart Home Needs
When your collection of smart accessories grows or if it includes smart cameras (video and photo streaming uses a lot more data), I would consider a higher end wireless router.
I would also go this route if my home Wi-Fi network included bandwidth hogs like video streamers. And if your home currently has Wi-Fi dead zones, the more capable wireless routers (with their amplified radios and adjustable external antennas) are going to provide better overall Wi-Fi network coverage. A smart camera that’s installed in a Wi-Fi dead zone is going to be next to useless, unable to stream online for you to monitor remotely using your smartphone…
There are plenty of excellent choices for these higher demand smart home networks, but I would lean towards a tri-band option like the Linksys EA9200-AC, or Netgear Nighthawk X6. These routers provide advanced security, high speed, a powerful signal and having three simultaneous Wi-Fi bands means more devices can connect simultaneously without impacting performance.
What About My PC?
The good news is that PC performance doesn’t really enter into the equation when it comes to the smart home. Most devices use a PC only for configuration, monitoring and viewing stats—and that’s typically done using a web browser. Many of these devices offer smartphone and tablet apps as well.
So long as your smart device can connect to the Internet, you should be good.
As our homes get smarter and more connected, our Wi-Fi needs to get smarter too. For many of us, that means a long-delayed wireless router upgrade. Fortunately, today’s versions are easier to configure than ever and the performance pay-off is well worth the effort.