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 over the 2.54GHz band only, and there's no support for the faster 802.11ac protocol.
Wired connections are only supported up to 100Mb - but as Sky's fastest widely available broadband only goes up to 76Mb, that's not a huge issue.
Sky tried to differentiate their older hub from other wireless routers by pointing out how it can be connected 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 their Sky set top box via Ethernet to access these services. That said, it's possible to create a wireless connection between a 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 broadband customers also taking Sky TV, and Sky Fibre Max customers.
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 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 send their customers one of two different hubs, the Home Hub 4 or the new Smart Hub, depending on the type of broadband we're signing up for.
Customers ordering standard broadband will receive Hub 4 (pictured to the right). Until summer last year, signing up for one of BT's Infinity deals would have meant getting a Home Hub 5 but it's been replaced by the Smart Hub, pictured below.
Both 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.
The Smart Hubis a big step up from this. As well as sporting four Gigabit LAN ports, it 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
So the Hub 3.0 (pictured to the right in its white incarnation, it's also available in black) is now 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.
Not so unusual these days is the fact that the box combines modem and router in one package - although when the original Super Hub launched that made it 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 during 2016 Virgin Media's parent company Liberty Global started rolling out support for internet phone services via their other European companies, 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:
|What's on offer?||When you join online for:||Need to know:|
|TV, broadband and phone bundles from £32 a month||12-month contract. £20 activation fee.|
|Broadband and phone from £32 a month||12 month contract. £20 activation fee.|
TalkTalk Super Router
TalkTalk now offer one of two "Super Routers" to all new customers, regardless of the package they're signing up for.
Customers are most likely to get an HG 633 router made by Huawei, a Chinese giant known for knocking out decent products for not much money. The HG 633 has 4 x 100Mb ports, 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.
Since January this year, some customers have started to receive the newer router, a D-Link DSL-3782. This also features 4 x 100Mb Ethernet LAN ports, and dual-band wireless using the 802.11ac protocol.
Oddly though, it only offers theoretical wi-fi transfer speeds of up to 1,200Mbwhen using both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, a little slower than the HG 633.
Long term TalkTalk customers seem to be perplexed by TalkTalk's approach to introducing new routers, as the predecessor to the HG 633, the 635, was generally considered to be faster - and it had four Gigabit Ethernet ports, offering a potentially much faster wired experience.
Whichever router customers get, they 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.
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.
The fibre router, Bright Box 2, replaces one of the 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.EE now make a bigger deal of the fact that it also offer beamforming technology, possibly as a result of rivals Vodafone flagging up this feature as one of the major selling points for their own broadband.
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 redesigned 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 now discontinued 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.