BT Home Hub vs Sky Hub vs Virgin Super Hub
WIRELESS routers may not be the first thing that springs to mind when we 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 broadband providers
Sky Hub and Sky Q Hub
The basic Sky Hub is starting to show its age. It offers 802.11n connectivity at a maximum speed of 144Mb, but only over the 2.54GHz band, and there's no support for the faster 802.11ac protocol. However, unlike other lower-spec routers it features a built-in VDSL port, so customers taking fibre broadband don't need a separate modem.
Sky 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.
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.
There's no need for that with the Sky Q Hub - which is now available to all Sky broadband customers, although those not taking Sky's next generation TV service, also called Sky Q, will have to pay £20 to get one.
It's sleeker than its predecessor, and it supports dual-band 802.11ac and MIMO ("multiple in multiple out") connections as well as Powerline technology.
When this is made available (expected to be some time later in 2016), it'll be able to use a home's electrical wiring to send signals between devices - in this case with any Sky Q Mini TV boxes in the house. This should boost their performance not only streaming from the main Sky Q box, but as wi-fi hotspots boosting the signal around the home.
That's just as well, as the Sky Q hub has only two Ethernet ports - although they both support connections of up to one Gigabit.
Check availability and see prices for Sky's deals here, or take a look at some of their current offers below:
BT Home Hubs and Smart Hub
BT now offer three different hubs, the Home Hub 4 and 5, and the new Smart Hub, depending on the type of broadband we're signing up for.
Customers ordering standard broadband will receive Hub 4. Until recently, signing up for one of BT's Infinity deals would have meant getting a Hub 5 (pictured on the right), but new customers are now being sent the newer Smart Hub, pictured below.
The Hub 5 is still available to buy through the BT Shop and on the high street, so we've kept it in this guide for now.
All three feature dual band wireless, operating on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Hub 4 supports the 802.11b/g/n protocols on both bands; Hub 5 adds support for the 802.11ac standard, and BT say the Smart Hub is ready for "next generation ac" protocols.
While Hub 4 is reserved for standard broadband customers, it can support fibre broadband connections: it has Gigabit support on one of its four Ethernet ports and can be configured to support up to 300Mb wireless using the 802.11n protocol.
Hub 5 and the Smart Hub each improve on this, with four Gigabit LAN ports. Hub 5 boasts five internal antennae and supports up to 1,300Mb wireless; the Smart Hub has seven internal antennae and can apparently support wireless connections of up to 1733Mb.
One thing the Smart Hub is lacking is an Ethernet WAN port - not an issue for most people, but those with true fibre (with the fibre optic cable coming all the way into the home) will need to sacrifice one of the LAN ports.
Check availability and see prices for BT's deals here, or take a look at some of their current offers below:
Virgin Media Hub 3.0
As other providers have upgraded their hubs, Virgin Media have quietly tinkered with their Super Hub, making sure that new customers get the newest version.
At the time of this update, the white Hub 3.0 (pictured to the right) is taking over from the Super Hub 2AC; that in turn took the place of the Super Hub 2. It's possible - but unlikely - that there may be people reading this who have one of the first Super Hubs.
The original Super Hub was the first router to sport Gigabit connections across all four of its Ethernet ports, ensuring maximum speed and performance across multiple wired devices.
Also not so unusual these days is the fact that the box combines modem and router in one package - although when it launched it was a little more special as it did away with the traditional mess that cable connections inevitably brought.
What is still unusual is that all of Virgin's hubs come with spanners to tighten the broadband cable - a real bonus for those looking to enhance their tool kit at no extra cost.
Hub 3.0 is actually very similar to its predecessor, the Super Hub 2AC (on the right), offering dual band wi-fi on the 802.11ac standard, with wireless connectivity up to 1,300Mb. It has five internal antennae - two for 2.54GHz wi-fi and three for 5GHz.
Virgin claim that even without wired connections, households should be able to use up to 20 devices at once, at good speed.
In addition to the four Gigabit Ethernet ports, however, are two new VoIP ports.
At present they serve no function, but Virgin Media's parent company Liberty Global are starting to roll out support for internet phone services via their other European companies throughout 2016, and it's possible Virgin will join in at some point.
Check availability and see prices for Virgin Media's deals here, or take a look at some of their current offers below:
TalkTalk Super Router
TalkTalk now offer their Super Router to all new customers, regardless of the package they're signing up for.
Previously people taking the Essentials TV package would have been given the "Plus" router, made by Huawei, a Chinese giant known for knocking out decent products for not much money.
However, there have been changes to the "Super" router since TalkTalk first started to offer it to everyone. The original model, the HG 635, had four Gigabit Ethernet ports; the latest version, the HG 633, can only offer 4 x 100Mb ports.
It does, however, offer a stronger wi-fi signal than the previous Super router, which is thought to be more important to most users than getting the fastest possible wired connection.
As with BT and Virgin, it offers dual-band wireless and supports 300Mb wireless using both 802.11n and ac protocols and can theoretically offer wi-fi transfer speeds of up to 1,300Mb.
Interestingly, now that TalkTalk send out this hub to everyone - not just to those taking their top TV package or one of their fibre deals - they're one of the few big providers to offer faster wireless connectivity to standard broadband customers - useful in case we're tempted to upgrade.
The router also offers 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.
Check availability and see prices for TalkTalk's deals here, or take a look at some of their current offers below:
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 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" - 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.
Check availability and see prices for EE's deals here, or take a look at some of their current offers below:
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 straightforward initial set up.
Virgin's Hub 3.0 shows a lot of potential for future expansion, but at present it's simply a white version of the Super Hub 2AC.
The Sky Q Hub is truly sleek but its lack of ports may play against it in homes without extra Sky Q Mini boxes.
So while it may not look as neat as the Home Hub 5, BT's Smart Hub seems to have the edge when it comes to features - for now, anyway.
Then again, if we're after for something sleek to slide in next to the HDTV, all three of the above are small but stylishly formed boxes that also happen to be packed with the features required in any fully connected home.
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