How to Choose the Right Wireless Router
With so many more people working from home due to COVID-19, the strain on the average home network has never been greater. While there are several possible solutions to overburdened Wi-Fi networks, from range extenders to mesh network systems, the most common option is buying a new router. But with the coronavirus stretching wallets in addition to Wi-Fi bandwidth, people taking this path are likely looking for a bargain.
Higher-end wireless routers that utilize the latest Wi-Fi technologies to deliver blazing data rates and advanced features often cost upwards of $300. But let’s face it, not everybody needs the latest and greatest in a router, nor can everybody afford it. If you live in a small home or apartment and have only a handful of devices connecting to your network, you can save a bundle with a budget-class router and still enjoy solid throughput performance and even some of today’s more advanced features. Read on to find out what to look for (and what to expect) from a sub-$100 desktop router.
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6
These days, you’ll find that most budget routers use Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) technology, although there are still a few Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) routers hanging around so it’s worth checking. However, the latter are single-band routers that operate on the 2.4GHz spectrum and offer very limited throughput speeds. That’s not necessarily the kiss of death, but it does mean they probably won’t pair well with today’s PCs, mobile devices, and smart home devices, most of which are looking for at least a Wi-Fi 5 connection. They’re also ill-equipped for multimedia tasks such as video streaming and online gaming.
Wi-Fi 5 routers, on the other hand, are dual-band devices that let you connect using both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. They have several other improvements, too, especially MU-MIMO technology, which transmits data simultaneously (rather than sequentially) to compatible client devices. Another cool feature to look for is beamforming, which sends wireless signals directly to clients rather than over a broad spectrum. If you see automatic band-steering on your router’s spec sheet, that means the router can select the most efficient radio band based on the current network traffic, band availability, and signal strength.
If you’re wondering which band you’re most likely to use, then know that the 2.4GHz radio band is best suited for long-range transmissions but is subject to interference from other household devices such as microwave ovens and cordless phones. The 5GHz band provides significantly more bandwidth than the 2.4GHz band and is ideal for video streaming, online gaming, and large file downloads, but has limited range.
If you’re looking to future-proof your home network, you can still do that without spending a fortune as there are a few Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) routers available for under $100. Wi-Fi 6 is the latest in wireless technology and offers much-improved throughput speeds, up to 4.8 gigabits per second (Gbps). It also uses other new technologies, including Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) and Target Wake Time (TWT) to relieve network congestion and reduce client power consumption.
Additionally, Wi-Fi 6 takes advantage of previously unused radio frequencies to provide faster 2.4GHz performance, offers WPA3 security which protects against weak passwords, and uses 256-bit encryption to help keep your network safer from hackers. Finally, it provides upstream and downstream MU-MIMO streaming (802.11ac only supports downlink MU-MIMO), and it’s backward compatible with previous Wi-Fi protocols.
Speed on a Budget
The most expensive Wi-Fi 5 routers offer “combined” speeds of up to 5,400 megabits per second (Mbps). That just means the total maximum throughput of both bands, not the actual speed of the router. For this reason, they’re labeled as AC5400 routers, but many of these models will cost close to $300 or more.
For under $100 you can expect to find AC750 Wi-Fi 5 routers, which provide speeds of up to 300Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and up to 450Mbps on the 5GHz band. You can even find sub-$100 AC2200 routers, which deliver speeds up to 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and up to 1,733Mbps on the 5GHz band.
Finally, the current crop of AX1500 Wi-Fi 6 routers can handle data rates of up to 300Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and up to 1,200Mbps on the 5GHz band. It’s important to note that these speed ratings are theoretical and refer to maximum achievable speeds. Actual throughput will likely be significantly lower, but never fear, we thoroughly test all our contenders so you can see some real-world numbers.
Compromising on Key Features
So far, it sounds as if you can find pretty much anything you want in a sub-$100 router. Unfortunately, that’s likely not the case. In order to meet a lower price point, a lot of routers eschew many of the features that you’ll find on more expensive models. On the hardware end, you won’t find any sub-$100 routers that are equipped with more than four LAN ports, nor will you find features like speedy multi-gig (2.5Gb) LAN ports. The ability to perform link aggregation won’t be there; nor will USB ports. Those are useful for connecting directly to peripherals like external hard drives (a quick way to build your own network attached storage or NAS device). Budget routers also typically use non-removable external antennas, which means they can’t be replaced with more powerful high-gain antennas to help boost performance and extend the router’s signal range.
Budget routers are managed using a web console or a mobile app, much like the more expensive versions, but they’ll likely lack some of the advanced settings. That’ll likely include support for bandwidth allocation or QoS (Quality of Service), dedicated online gaming presets, VPN connectivity, and sometimes support for DD-WRT, a Linux-based firmware upgrade that replaces the manufacturer’s firmware and provides enhanced settings which allow you to customize the router for maximum performance.
Additionally, budget-class routers rarely offer the robust parental controls with age-related presets that filter out things like social media, , shopping, and violent or adult content that you’ll find on many mid-range and high-end routers. You can, however, still use basic access scheduling and URL filtering features to help you control when your kids go online and which sites they can visit. Or you can purchase a parental control program that suits your family’s needs.
Indeed, third-party software is a good way to up the capabilities of your budget router, because unlike many mesh systems and midrange to high-end routers, budget routers usually ship with only basic software capabilities. You likely won’t find one that’s bundled things like name-brand security software that can protect your network and client devices from phishing, viruses, adware, and other malware, or real parental control solutions that can make it much harder for your kids to find the dangerous corners of the web. To find a likely pairing candidate for your router choice, check out our Malware Protection and Removal roundup to see what works best for you.
Whichever router you wind up choosing, remember that once you’ve found it, be sure to read our tips for setting up your router and boosting your Wi-Fi signal.
Where To Buy
Asus RT-AC66U B1 Dual-Band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router
Speedy throughput performance.
Easy to install.
Four LAN ports.
Robust parental controls and malware protection.
Cons: Middling file transfer performance.
Bottom Line: The Asus RT-AC66U B1 is a budget-friendly dual-band router that is easy to install, feature-packed, and delivers solid throughput performance.
D-Link AC1200 Wi-Fi Router (DIR-842)
Pros: Very affordable.
Good throughput performance in testing.
Lots of management settings.
Cons: No USB ports.
Bottom Line: The D-Link DIR-842 is a $60 dual-band router that delivers solid throughput, has four wired LAN ports, plenty of management settings, and is a breeze to install.
Linksys EA6350 AC1200+ Dual-Band Smart Wi-Fi Wireless Router
Pros: Nice price.
Blazing 5GHz throughput in testing.
Easy to install and manage.
Cons: Middling file-transfer speeds.
Bottom Line: The Linksys EA6350 is a dual-band router that offers blazing 5GHz throughput speeds, four Gigabit LAN ports, and a fast USB port.
And it rings up for less than $90, making it our top pick for budget Wi-Fi routers.
TP-Link Archer C7 AC1750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (V2)
Pros: Affordable price.
Very fast throughput performance.
Easy to install.
Lots of management settings.
Cons: Clunky user interface.
Middling file-transfer speeds.
Only USB 2.0 ports.
Bottom Line: The TP-Link Archer C7 AC1750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (V2) delivers the fastest throughput speeds we’ve seen from a sub-$100 router.
It’s also a breeze to install and offers plenty of settings.
Jetstream AC3000 Tri-Band Wi-Fi Gaming Router
Pros: Easy to install.
Solid close-range throughput performance.
Cons: Middling long-range throughput performance.
Lacks device prioritization and parental control settings.
Bottom Line: The Jetstream AC3000, sold exclusively through Walmart, is a tri-band router designed to balance gaming and video-streaming networking loads.
Bottom Line: Latest software reviews, specification match up, price comparisons, editor and user ratings from PCMag.com. Previously known as PC Magazine.
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