If you need Internet access while you're away from your home or the office, you should carry a travel router in your bag. Free Wi-Fi hotspots are nearly always insecure, leaving your PC vulnerable to attack. Fee-based broadband services at hotels often are limited to supporting wired devices, so you won't be able to connect your smartphone or tablet. If the service is wireless, the provider will charge a fee for each device you connect to the network.
Use a travel router to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot or a facility's broadband connection, and it will create a private, secure, wireless network with a robust firewall. You'll be able to use that service with your laptop, smartphone, or tablet, and you'll be able to share that connection with friends, family, and colleagues traveling with you — paying just one fee for everyone. Many travel routers are outfitted with USB ports that support portable hard drives, so you can share files or stream media over your network, too.
Have a smartphone plan that allows you to create your own private, secure Wi-Fi hotspot? Don't feel too smug. It probably has a data cap, and your carrier will slap you with huge fees should you go over. In most situations, you're better off paying a known fee for unlimited access, especially if you're sharing that bandwidth with other people.
Allow me to explain what travel routers do, go over the features you should look for when shopping for one, and present hands-on reviews of six new models.
Features to look for in a travel router
From a functional perspective, a travel router is really no different than the router you have at home. It can share a single broadband Internet connection with a number of computers, tablets, smartphones, and other devices, and it can create a secure network where those devices can communicate and share files with each other.
You should be aware, however, that if you're connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot — and most of the public ones are — data traveling outside your private network to and from the Internet remains vulnerable to eavesdropping.
Some routers are more capable than others, and some have more features than others. Here are brief explanations of the specifications you'll encounter when you go shopping for one.
802.11 standard Don't buy any router that doesn't support the 802.11n standard at a minimum. Some routers support the newer and much faster 802.11ac standard (up to 433Mbps per spatial stream, compared to 150Mbps per stream for 802.11n). Your clients must also support 802.11ac to take full advantage, but any Wi-Fi adapter based on any older 802.11 standard (802.11b/g/n on the 2.4GHz frequency band or 802.11a on the 5GHz band) will work with it. And in my experience, 802.11n client adapters usually perform better with 802.11ac routers than they do with 802.11n models, thanks to more powerful radios and technologies such as implicit beamforming.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.