Episode #40: World-Class Routers

The Right Reasons to Purchase the Right Gear

The Background

As my readers know, when it comes to my digital life, I tend to focus on matters of security and privacy. I purchase and investigate products and services, take notes, and learn what does (and doesn’t) work best for my technology needs. Then, I spend hours organizing my notes, prioritizing what’s important, and translating difficult technology-speak into plain English.

My goal is to always make sure that everyone who reads my newsletter or my Medium articles can easily understand the products, ideas, and approaches that I feel are important. However, what’s important isn’t always up to me. It’s also up to you!

So, today, let’s examine the subject which causes more of you to message me than any other: routers. All those who write to me about routers usually include some version of this question:

“Can you please recommend which router I should buy for my home or office? And then… can you explain why?”

Great question and glad you asked. Let’s start by understanding how data from the Internet flows into our homes and offices.

How in the #@$! Does The Internet Get To Our Devices?!

An image is worth 1000 words, so I assembled this one for you (in Keynote, FYI). Follow the flow of data by following each number in order:

#1) The Internet. To get the Internet (shown as a cloud) into our home or office, we pay an Internet Service Provider (or “ISP”) to provide us access.

#2) A Modem. Connecting to the Internet requires a modem, the device that our ISP allows (or “provisions”) to connect to their servers. Once connected, we gain access - through the ISP’s network - to the Internet. For those of us with one, stationary, desktop computer, a modem is all we might need to connect to the Internet. For everyone else, we need a way to connect other pieces of equipment to the Internet at the same time.

#3) An Ethernet Cable. These cables, usually thick and colorful, help connect devices which manage the flow of data. What other device would you need to connect your modem to? Glad you asked!

#4) A Router. A router is, very simply, a piece of hardware which takes our Internet connection and shares or routes it to every device on our networks. I know: technologists, are SUPER clever when it comes to coming up with names, right?

#5) Network Devices. Any device on our network — computers, smartphones, tablets, and smart home devices —is considered a network device. These devices gain access to the Internet from our router, either by plugging directly into it with an Ethernet cable or - as is usually the case - via Wi-Fi.

As you can now see, the router is the literal and figurative center of our home and office networks.

Because of that, it’s important to understand that most routers are not designed for ease-of-use, privacy, or security. However, there are a handful of routers which are easier to set-up and use and make your privacy, security, and parental controls top priorities.

The Choices

I own and use two of the items on this list.

One router protects me and my family at our home while the other protects me and my visitors at the office. I mention this because I’m not simply writing about these two products from having done research — although there’s nothing wrong with that — but as an owner and a user myself, the best recommendation of all.

The Synology RT2600ac - $199 retail

I first learned about Synology from a co-worker back in 2008, when I was a Systems Administrator at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. A co-worker of mine— let’s call him “Lance” — owned a product made by Synology called a “NAS” or Network Attached Storage. For those not familiar with the term, a NAS is simply one or more hard drives that you can share on a network. Lance’s NAS was an absurdly huge 16 TB in size. I say “absurdly” because this was 2007, back when the average hard drive in a new desktop computer was 250 GB.

Lance raved about both the device and the company - Synology - so I invested in a Synology four-drive NAS myself. I wanted a reliable home server and thought, “Hey, if it’s good enough for Lance, then it’s good enough for me…” Turns out, the recommendation was worth its weight in gold. Not only did my NAS work like a charm but the company’s tech support was pretty amazing.

Thirteen years later, my Synology products still have a central place on my network. And while the company remains best known for their NAS equipment, they should also be well known for the kick-ass routers that they make for your home or business office.

I’ve owned the Synology RT2600ac router for years and love it. It’s the centerpiece of our home network, keeping all of our home computers and smart devices safe and connected. It’s not a small device (at 11 inches wide and 6 inches deep) but it fits nicely on most shelves and you can always mount it on the wall if you prefer.

What’s the Good Word… and Why?

The RT2600ac has 2800 reviews on Amazon with a 4.5-out-of-5 stars rating and, not surprisingly, CNET, a well known tech website called the RT2600ac “the best router any savvy user can ask for.”

There are solid reasons for all of this praise.

The Wi-Fi reaches everywhere. With four easily-attachable antennas, Synology’s Wi-Fi reaches to every corner of our three-story, 2000 square foot town home, including the garage. It does so with ease. Prior to my purchasing our Synology, we used a Linksys router which didn’t reach our guest bedroom or our garage. The Synology is - by the way - in the same location as our previous router, so the reach comparison is accurate.

It’s powerful. The Synology router runs on a dual-core 1.7Ghz processor. If you can’t stand geek-talk, then just think of it this way: the chip that powers this router is good enough to power an entire computer. I can’t say that about my old Linksys. Having a chip that powerful inside allows the RT2600ac to do some pretty amazing stuff, like…

It runs its own operating system. Yup! Synology routers all run something called Synology Router Manager (or “SRM”) which is an entire Linux-based operating system. Sadly, routers from mainstream companies — Linksys, Netgear, D-Link, Asus, and others — use a kind of software known as “firmware”. Firmware isn’t powerful, user-friendly, or easy to upgrade. By comparison, just feast your eyes on what it looks like when I log into my RT2600ac:

It’s easy to use. SRM uses a pleasing and intuitive graphical user interface (also called a “GUI”) which allows anyone - even novices - to easily navigate and set up the router. Need to set up your Wi-Fi network? Just click the green Wi-Fi Connect button on your Synology’s desktop. When you log in to SRM, you’ve got applications, a desktop, folders, control panels and all of the usual, intuitive controls you’ve come to expect from any modern operating system. It makes me wonder why other routers don’t work like this. Have a look at this video I made to explain some of SRM’s basic functionality. Clicking the image below also opens the video.

It’s expandable. There are four Ethernet ports on the back of the 2600ac for connecting other computers or printers and two USB ports for connecting external hard drives. That allows your Synology router to also function as a NAS, something that Synology is famous for supporting. Need a centralized hard drive to use for your Time Machine back-ups? Attach an external hard drive, set up the Time Machine control panel and Synology has you covered.

It includes powerful software to block unsafe content from the web. Worried about your children accessing adult-themed websites? Prefer that adults in the home or office CAN view adult-themes websites but children or minors cannot? Synology has you covered. SRM includes software that rivals services from Net Nanny, Cyber Sitter, and OpenDNS which can be used to filter your home or office network. This includes features like:

  • Scheduling - “No Internet before 8am or after 8pm, kids!”

  • Time Quotas - “Junior, you get 2hrs of Internet access per day, so use it wisely!”

  • Web Filtering - Block or allow individual websites or entire categories of websites (gambling, weapons, porn, etc).

It’s also a “mesh” router. Mesh routers are groups of routers that are built to work together seamlessly. Synology recently released the MR2200ac, a device which pairs perfectly with the RT2600ac to get additional Wi-Fi coverage. Those of you in larger homes or offices - say, 3000+ square feet - can rest easy: simply purchase the Synology RT2600ac and the MR2200ac as a pair and you’re ready to have powerful Wi-Fi availability wherever you might need it.

It updates itself. I can’t stress enough how amazing this feature is. Like all devices, the Synology router requires regular updates. The problem: who has time to remember to check/download updates and apply them?!? Synology has come up with a fine solution for this: they’ve designed their routers to auto-update, even in the middle of the night, if you prefer! This way your RT2600ac will always run the latest, and safest software. When it’s done, you’ll get an email or alert notifying you that it’s been done. #Amazing

Did I mention you can set-up and manage your router via Synology’s iOS and Android apps? No? Well, I just did. #Bonus

Constructive Criticism

In fairness, the Synology RT2600ac is NOT the fastest router on the market. And as the newest “Wi-Fi 6” routers start to hit the market, this might sway some of you who want “the fastest”. Avoid that trap: unless you live in a home with six or more people who are always streaming video, you probably don’t need the fastest router. What you need is a faster internet connection. The vast majority of home and small office users will ADORE the Synology RT2600ac router.

Final Word

The biggest endorsement I can give to any product or service is this: it’s the device I use to manage and safeguard my home network. You should consider it as well.

Gryphon Guardian & Gryphon Tower - $99 & $209 retail

If you ever visit my studio, you’ll notice that it’s running on a Gryphon router. Gryphon is a relative newcomer to the router market, but they’ve designed their hardware and software to focus almost exclusively on ease-of-use, privacy & safety.

They’ve also got a very, very simple product line: two devices. 👍🏼 👌 ❤️

I love that. A small product line keeps your choices simple: you’re either going for the Gryphon Tower or the Gryphon Guardian. I have a small office, so the Guardian is what I use. If you’ve got a larger home or office, you’ll either want the Tower or a combination of the two, which can easily mesh together. Use the chart below - also on their website - to help make your choice.

For those wondering, the speeds of the Guardian router - the smaller and slower of the two routers - are more than enough for me to stream video and run or participate in Zoom meetings with no issues.

Insider secret: it’s probably not your hardware that’s slowing down your Internet access, but the speed of the service you’re paying for. If you’ve got a modem and router which are less than five years old, you’re good. If your connection speeds are still slow, then talk to your ISP. Confirm that you’re getting speeds upwards of 40+ Mbps for networks with only one individual and 100+Mbps for networks shared by a family of four.

What’s the Good Word… and Why?

The Gryphon products have (as of this writing) nearly 2300 positive reviews on Amazon and earned 4.5-out-of-5-stars ratings. Over on Tom’s Guide, the Gryphon gets high marks for its speed and parental controls. As an owner and user, I understand the praise, so let’s explore a bit deeper…

They’re easy to set up. Back in the day (two years ago), I’d have to go through a ridiculous process to set up the Linksys router in my office. If you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at this actual “help” page on the Linksys website. Oy. By comparison, setting up a new Gryphon router happens in seconds using their app on your smartphone. Launch the app, turn your router upside down, scan the code located there (called a “QR” code) and… you’re off and running:

It’s designed to easily manage individuals and groups. If you have different needs for different people in your home or office, Gryphon has you covered. Create a profile for each person or, if you prefer, your entire family. Based on the hardware each person uses, you can identify and add them into Gryphon’s system. Need to group different people? No problem: you can designate individuals, members of your family, or guests on your network. You can set what each person and family group can have view on the Interwebs. Nice!

Block unsafe content from the web. Above, you can see how I’ve set up my Gryphon. First, at left, I’ve created an account named “David” and tied that to my Macbook Pro and iPhone. To change the settings for any user, click the gear icon (circled in blue). At center, you can see my user settings: I’ve told the Gryphon to treat me me as a high school student. At right, you can see that this designation grants me access to social media but NOT to websites which feature violence, drugs, gambling or porn. In your home, create user accounts and levels of access that you feel are best for each individual.

Manage screen time and application control. Gryphon’s smartphone app allows you decide, not your children, to decide when they’ll have access to the Internet on any of their devices to the internet. This even includes one-touch pausing of the internet, a super convenient tool. Even better, once your kids DO have Internet access, perhaps you have preferences regarding social media. Let’s say, for example, that you want your kiddos to have access to Facebook and Discord, but not to Fortnite, Minecraft, or Reddit? Not a problem: Gryphon’s smartphone app provides application level control for about 25 different platforms. Just click the “Apps Control” button inside any user’s settings to gain access to this list.

Paid Features

It’s worth noting that, for an additional fee, Gryphon provides some pretty worthy additional features in the form of yearly subscriptions which you can purchase here.

  • Gryphon Homebound: $50/year for up to five mobile devices. This fabulous service routes data from your devices back through your home network. Why do that? Simple: if your child switches from Wi-Fi to cellular or to someone else’s Wi-Fi network, they’ll still have the same level of online protection running on their device. Worth noting, Gryphon defines a mobile device as a smartphone or tablet and NOT a laptop. So that sucks.

  • Gryphon Advanced Internet Protection: $79 per year or $149 for three years. Want to block all ads on your devices? Want to have a device on your network that scans all of your network connected devices and test for malware? Want to be able to detect when there’s been an intrusion on one of your devices? Now you can have all of that. Gryphon’s Advanced Internet Protection wraps all of these services together. They claim to have blocked “over 5.4 million malware threats” which is a large number, yes. But they don’t provide information to support that claim.

Constructive Criticism

The Gryphon routers are not expandable. That means there aren’t any USB or Ethernet ports. Therefore, if you have a network where you’ll need to physically connect a printer, hard drive, or other computers to your router, then a Gryphon isn’t for you.

It takes time to learn. The parental control software can take time to learn. Yes, it works well, but there’s a learning curve, so users should expect devote at least some time (figure an hour) to getting the general hang of things.

It’s expensive. While the Synology RT2600ac and the Gryphon tower are priced about equally at $200, you’ll get far more power and expandability with the Synology. With the Gryphon, you’ll need to pay yearly fees for additional services. Not so on the Synology.

Final Word

I own and use the Gryphon Guardian to protect and manage my studio. For $99, I think it’s a fabulous, inexpensive and tiny device. It’s easy to set up and use, it offers flexible and powerful tools to manage users on your home or business network and it even offers additional services for a reasonable fee. While the interface might take a little getting used to, it’s well worth it to be able to run your network from the palm of your hand.

Full disclosure: Gryphon hired me in late 2019/early 2020 to write copy for their company on the topic of Digital Parenting which you can read for free here. That’s when I discovered their product line, tried it, and realized it was a huge upgrade from the Linksys router I’d been using. Although I earn affiliate fees if you click on the links I’ve provided and decide to buy one of their devices, please know: they weren’t aware of my writing this review, nor am I getting paid by them to mention their product line here. I retain all editorial control over everything I write, always.

Other Interesting Alternatives

Firewalla Red, Blue, & Gold - $109, $179, & $418

Firewalla devices are NOT routers. As their name indicates, they’re what’s known as “firewalls”, devices which stop intrusions from malicious hackers and other kinds of malicious software, also known as “malware”. Firewalla calls their devices “Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems”. That’s a lot of fancy marketing jargon, so let me make things more “normal” sounding: adding a Firewalla device to your network gives you some pretty powerful tools to help detect and prevent malicious hardware or software on your network.

The company launched their product line in 2017 with a cute and TINY red device. When I say “tiny”, I mean it: the device is 1.77” x 1.77” x 1.18” (4.5 x 4.5 x 3cm). But despite that tiny size, the Firewalla packs a very hard punch for its weight class and is ridiculously to set up and use, as this video shows:

I don’t have or use a firewall device myself. However, that’s because I’ve set up my routers (the Synology RT2600ac and the Gryphon Guardian) to do some of that work for me. While Firewalla provides security features not available on those other devices, if you’re not an advanced user, you might find setting up and using the device more than you want, understand or need.

For those of you that do like and absolutely want deeper info and control over every device on your network, Firewalla devices are pretty amazing. Everything runs via a smartphone application and really does allow you to drill down to investigate, alter, or even block unwanted users, data, or devices from hurting your home or business network:

If it were me, I’d get the Firewalla Blue (priced currently at $170) to take advantage of specs and features like:

  1. 1 GB of RAM and 500Mb of processing speed, to ensure that your home network of computers, smartphones, tablets, and assorted smart devices (locks, thermostats, speakers, etc) can all be monitored simultaneously no matter how much data they suck down.

  2. Site-to-site VPN, which enables you to securely connect back to your home network, even over a public Wi-Fi.

  3. Geo-blocking, which enables you to block all incoming data from up to three countries. I’d pick North Korea, Russia, and China, but hey, that’s me.

FortressOne by Fortress.AI - $99

This tiny device is juuuuust about ready to hit the market, so I can’t wait to see if the company is able to compete with FIrewalla, Gryphon, or Synology. The price is right and the teaser “trailer” is pretty sweet as well:

Just like the Firewalla devices, the FortressOne is designed to be a firewall, not a router. And the specs are even better than the Firewalla Blue: the FortressOne comes with 1GB of RAM, up to 16GB of ultraflash storage, two gigabit ethernet ports (so it’s fast), and is powered by an quad-core ARM processor, although Fortress.AI doesn’t provide the specs for that chip. That’s a lot of processing power for just $99. However…

Any services will require a monthly subscription.

The FortressPlus service is $5/mo or $55/year and includes features like: ad & tracker blocking, advanced firewall functions, content filtering (think porn, gambling, weapons, etc), and more.

The FortressUltimate service is $12/mo or $125/year and also includes deeper privacy and security controls, some of which are governedby aritificial intelligence (or “AI”), more powerful parental controls and more.

Full disclosure: I was hired to consult for and even write some copy for this company. I did so willingly and believe in their product. I also am not getting paid in any way to mention them here.

If I’m 100% honest, I’m not sure - when comparing the FortressOne to other similar products - how it will be received by consumers. I can purchase the Firewalla for $170 with no monthly subscriptions and still have many of the best features and protections from that a small firewall device can offer. By comparison, Fortress.AI’s product is cheaper… at first. Then, they want to charge me monthly/yearly to have many of the same features that I’d get with the Firewalla, Gryphon, or Synology devices.

Does that discount the FortressOne? No. But when it finally does hit the market, get reviewed, and put through its paces, it’ll be fascinating to see how consumers choose to spend their money.

And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thanks again for subscribing and reading. As a reminder, if you enjoy independent, technology journalism, then please: use this link to share our publication with your friends, family, and colleagues…

As always… surf safe.

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Transparency Statement

Some of the links in my newsletter episodes pay me a small commission if you decide to purchase a product that I’ve recommended. This is called being an “affiliate” seller. While the money I earn from these commissions isn’t much, I have an obligation to be transparent with my readers.

Every product and service I recommend are those I’ve personally purchased, tested, or use myself. Other recommendations may include products that I’ve spent scores of hours researching before feeling safe in making a recommendation. I am never paid in advance to sell software or hardware to you and I retain full editorial control over everything I write.