BT Home Hub vs Sky Hub vs Virgin Super Hub
WIRELESS routers may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about switching broadband providers.
But ISPs put a lot of effort into trying to make us believe their particular "hub", "box" or "super-duper-hyper hub" is the one to beat.
The fastest, the most wireless, the most connected - all very grand claims but whether any of them stack up is another matter entirely.
Are they really that different from each other, or is it just marketing and spin? We've rounded up the wireless routers and hubs from the biggest broadband providers in Britain, to see if any of them can legitimately claim to be "the best".
Standard wireless router features
To avoid sounding like a broken record, it's worth mentioning the features common to all the wireless routers we look at here.
Hey, good looking!
Wireless router design has come a long way in the past few years.
Much like digital TV set top boxes, wireless hubs and routers have undergone a style makeover - from ugly grey hunks of plastic to sleek, usually black, glossy pieces of design that look good sitting in almost any room, with green LEDs gently blinking away.
Obviously we should be thinking about their performance over their looks, but both BT Home Hubs and the Virgin Media Super Hub take our fancy in the beauty stakes.
Smart wireless switching
This feature allows the router to ensure wireless traffic is on the least congested channel by constantly scanning all available wireless channels, and helping to avoid interference from cordless phones, microwaves or any other devices.
Some broadband providers make a huge song and dance about it: the Sky Hub has "Smart Signal switching technology", the EE Bright Box has "intelligent wireless", and the BT Home Hub has "smart wireless".
In reality most routers are capable of carrying out this task. TalkTalk and Virgin Media both call it something much less glam, like "auto-switching".
The advantage for Sky, EE and BT customers is that the option is either set by default or can be activated by pushing a button on the exterior of the router.
TalkTalk and Virgin Media both require users to adjust the setting via the wireless router's configuration page: not difficult, but much less convenient.
Wireless routers from the big four broadband providers
The Sky Hub, in common with most non-fibre wireless routers, offers 802.11n connectivity at a maximum speed of 144Mb. It also has 4 x 100Mb Ethernet ports - but unlike other lower-spec routers it features a built-in VDSL port, so customers taking fibre broadband don't need a separate modem.
Sky also try to differentiate their hub from other wireless routers by pointing out how it's possible to connect it to a Sky+ box to gain access to their On Demand services, such as catch-up TV and series box sets.
The reality is that users can connect any router, Sky Hub or not, to the box via Ethernet in order to access these services. That said, it's possible to create a wireless connection between your Sky+ box and hub by using the separate Sky "Connector", which costs around £22.
In line with most other new wireless routers the Sky Hub has low energy consumption, while a nice design touch means the power supply is tucked neatly inside the box.
BT Home Hub 4 and 5
BT offer two different hubs (the Hub 5 is pictured right) depending on the type of broadband we're signing up for.
Customers ordering standard broadband will receive Hub 4 - but that doesn't mean there's no room to upgrade as both it and the Hub 5, which is automatically sent to people signing up for Infinity, have inbuilt support for fibre broadband connections.
Both also feature dual band wireless, operating on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. The 5GHz frequency is much less congested than 2.4GHz wireless, meaning there's less interference from other devices, and can give us a faster connection. On Hub 5 it also uses the newer 802.11ac wireless protocol.
But 5GHz wireless does have its downsides. While faster, it has a much shorter range - and it's limited in the devices it works with. Most new devices can use dual band wireless as standard, but those with older equipment - particularly computers - may have to "upgrade" with a special dual band dongle.
Both Hubs can be configured to support up to 300Mb wireless using the 802.11n protocol; both have a USB slot for connecting a network drive or wireless print server.
Hub 4 has Gigabit support on one of its four Ethernet ports, while Hub5 has four Gigabit LAN ports.
Virgin Media Super Hub
As other providers upgrade their hubs, the Virgin Media Super Hub no longer seems as super whizzy as it once did. It's also limited by being suitable only for the fibre optic cable broadband provided by Virgin Media.
But it still packs a punch in the specification stakes.
It was the first router to sport Gigabit connections across all four of its Ethernet ports, ensuring maximum speed and performance across multiple wired devices. In fact, Virgin claim that even without wired connections, households should be able to use up to 20 devices at once, at good speed.
The Super Hub also supports 300Mb wireless connectivity via the 802.11n standard, as well as dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless.
The box combines a cable modem and wireless router in one package, doing away with the traditional mess that cable connections inevitably brought, and it comes with a spanner to tighten the broadband cable - a real bonus for those looking to enhance their tool kit at no extra cost.
TalkTalk Plus and Super Routers
TalkTalk offer two routers: the "Plus" for people signing up for their Essentials TV package, and the "Super" for those taking Simply Broadband, Plus TV or one of TalkTalk's fibre packages.
They're both made by Chinese giant, Huawei, known for knocking out decent products for not much money.
The Plus router offers 4 x 100Mb ethernet ports, one of which supports fibre broadband, along with full 300Mb wireless n connectivity.
The Super router is better. It has four Gigabit ports, and as with BT and Virgin, it offers dual-band wireless and supports 300Mb wireless using both 802.11n and ac protocols. TalkTalk claim it uses the fastest Wi-fi technology in the UK at up to 1.3Gb.
Interestingly, this is the hub TalkTalk now send out not just to those taking their top Plus TV package or one of their fibre deals, but also to people taking the ADSL version of Simply Broadband - making them one of the few big providers to offer faster wireless connectivity to standard broadband customers.
They also say that both routers offer Youview compatibility, which seems sensible - but that's a similar claim to that made by Sky about their hub allowing access to Sky On Demand.
Almost any router connected to a Youview box, or Sky+ box on an internet connection fast enough to sustain the service will provide compatibility, so these aren't exactly unique features.
EE Bright Box 1 and 2
EE offer two different routers depending on whether customers are taking standard or fibre broadband, the Bright Box and Bright Box 2 (the Bright Box 2 is pictured right).
The Bright Box, for standard broadband customers, has 4 x 100Mb Ethernet ports and supports wireless n connectivity up to 300Mb using the 802.11n standard - but only over the 2.4GHz frequency. It does, however, feature a USB port for connecting other devices to the home network.
The fibre router, Bright Box 2, replaces one of those standard ethernet ports with a Gigabit connection and offers dual-band wireless, using the 802.11ac protocol on the 5GHz frequency to give faster speeds, while maintaining range with the 2.4GHz wireless.
In fact, EE claim the wi-fi signal it broadcasts is three times faster "than before" - presumably in reference to the Bright Box 1. They also say the signal it broadcasts is twice as strong as that from the standard Bright Box, which they've tested at up to 250m.
There's a hint of a technicality about EE's claim that the Bright Box 2 is the first plug and play fibre router in the UK, meaning we don't need an engineer to set it up.
Sky also boast about their hub's plug and play capability - but that's technically an ADSL router that can handle fibre connections, while the Bright Box 2 is designed specifically for fibre - and Sky weren't awarded Best Buy 2014 by Which? for ease of setup and use.
As with the other fibre routers we've looked at here, it has a VDSL2 modem built in so there's no need for a second box.
|What's on offer?||When you join online for:|
|Unlimited broadband just £1 for the first 12 months (then £9.95/mth)||EE Home Broadband|
|Money off fibre broadband for the first 18 months||EE Fibre Broadband|
So which wireless router/hub is the best?
All the routers here offer some type of auto channel selection in an attempt to improve wireless signals, most offer Gigabit Ethernet on at least one port and all are configured for a very straightforward initial set up.
That said, BT and Virgin Media have the edge in both features and looks: if we're after for something sleek to slide in next to the HDTV, the Virgin Media Super Hub and BT Home Hub provide small but stylishly formed boxes packed with the features required in any fully connected home.
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