Finding the Right Router
With the gaggle of connected home products, smart TVs, smartphones, and other mobile devices ruling our lives, it’s more important than ever to outfit your home or business with a wireless router that can handle the increased demand for Wi-Fi connectivity. When choosing a new router, you should consider the size of your coverage area and the number of clients, as well as the types of devices that will connect to the router. Not everybody needs the kind of performance that you get with the latest and greatest models, and there’s no reason to pay for features that you will likely never use. But if you have several family members vying for bandwidth for things like streaming Netflix video and playing PC games online, a new router can make a world of difference and help keep the peace. We guide you through choosing a router that will handle your current and future wireless networking needs, and offer our top picks to get you started.
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Nowadays, any router worth its salt will offer at least two radio bands, a 2.4GHz band and a 5GHz band. The 2.4GHz band operates at a lower frequency than the 5GHz band and offers better range because it is more adept at penetrating walls and other structures. However, is doesn’t offer the fat pipe and high speed access that you get with the 5GHz band.
Additionally, the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi band has to compete with other devices in the home that use the same frequency, such as microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, and wireless phones. That said, it is perfectly adequate for tasks like Web surfing and connecting to social media services like Facebook and Twitter. If one or more of your devices will be streaming video from a service such as Netflix, or connecting to an online gaming service such as Xbox Live, the less crowded 5GHz band offers significantly more throughput with minimal signal interference. Most dual-band routers allow you to assign a band to specific applications and clients, thereby easing the load on both bands.
If you have a busy network with numerous clients vying for bandwidth, a tri-band router is the way to go. They use three radios—one that operates at 2.4GHz and two that operate at 5GHz, for load balancing. For example, you can dedicate one of the 5GHz bands to handle tasks like video streaming and torrent downloading and reserve the other 5GHz band for online gaming, leaving the 2.4GHz band free for applications that don’t require lots of bandwidth. If you have a house full of gamers, we have a specific best routers list for you.
Wireless Ethernet networks use 802.11 protocols to send and receive data. The most widely used Wi-Fi protocol, 802.11ac, allows for maximum (theoretical) data rates of up to 5,400Mbps and operates on both the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz bands. It utilizes Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) technology, which uses several antennas to send and receive up to eight spatial streams, resulting in enhanced performance. It also supports beamforming, a technology that sends Wi-Fi signals directly to a client rather than broadcasting in all directions, and automatic band-steering, which lets the router select the most efficient radio band based on network traffic, band availability, and range.
The 802.11ac protocol also offers downstream Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO) technology, which is designed to provide bandwidth to multiple devices simultaneously rather than sequentially. That means up to four clients can have their own data streams instead of waiting in turn to receive data from the router. In order for MU-MIMO to work, the router and the client devices must contain MU-MIMO Wi-Fi circuitry. MU-MIMO routers are widely available but client devices have been slow to catch on and are still relatively uncommon.
You’ll see 802.11ac routers with labels like AC1200, AC1750, AC3200, and so on. This designates the theoretical maximum speed of the router. For example, a router that can achieve a maximum link rate of 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1,300Mbps on the 5GHz band is considered an AC1750 router. A tri-band AC3200 router gives you 600Mbps over the 2.4GHz band and 1,300Mbps over each of the two 5GHz bands, and an AC5400 router is capable of speeds of up to 1Gbps on the 2.4GHz band and 2.1Gbps on each of the two 5GHz bands. It’s important to note that routers rarely, if ever, reach these “maximum speeds” in real-world applications, but if you’re looking for performance, consider one of the high-speed routers (but be prepared to pay a premium).
The latest Wi-Fi protocol, 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6 or High Efficiency (HE) Wireless, is an evolution of 802.11ac technology that promises increased throughput speeds (up to 4.8Gbps), less network congestion, greater client capacity, and better range performance courtesy of several new and improved wireless technologies including Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) and Target Wake Time (TWT). OFDMA improves overall throughput by breaking Wi-Fi channels into sub-channels, allowing up to 30 users to share a channel at the same time. Target Wake Time (TWT) is designed to reduce power consumption by allowing devices to determine when and how often they will wake up to begin sending and receiving data. TWT tech is expected to extend the battery life of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets as well as battery-powered smart home devices such as security cameras and video doorbells.
Additionally, 802.11ax takes advantage of previously unused radio frequencies to provide faster 2.4GHz performance, and it uses refined uplink and downlink bandwidth management to provide enhanced QoS (Quality of Service). It also offers uplink and downlink MU-MIMO streaming (802.11ac only supports downlink MU-MIMO). Although there are a handful of 802.11ax routers available now, client devices aren’t expected to hit the market until later this year. As with the 802.11ac protocol, 802.11ax is backward compatible and will work with devices that use 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi radios. For more on the benefits of the 802.11ax protocol, check out our primer What Is Wi-Fi 6? and speed tests.
Wireless routers come with a variety of features, and as is the case with just about everything, the more features you get, the more you can expect to pay. Look for a router with at least four 10/100/1000 (gigabit) Ethernet ports, which allow you to connect to wired devices such as desktop PCs, network-attached storage (NAS) drives, and home-automation hubs. If you require faster throughput for large file transfers, look for a router that supports link aggregation. Simply put, link aggregation uses two gigabit Ethernet LAN ports to provide increased throughput (up to 2Gbps). It also provides a fail-safe if one LAN connection goes down and can be utilized to load balance your network traffic. Having at least one USB port makes it easy to plug in a printer or a USB drive and share it across the network, but with two ports you can do both. Additionally, try to choose a router that offers removable antennas. Some router manufacturers offer replacement high-gain antennas that will help boost performance, and there are a number of third-party antennas available. Just make sure your router supports whatever antennas you buy or you’ll probably wind up with decreased performance.
See How We Test Wireless Routers
If you want to manage how your Wi-Fi network is being used, make sure your next router has parental controls, Quality of Service (QoS) options, and a guest-network feature. Parental controls allow you to limit network access for certain users to specific times and days and is ideal for parents who want to keep tabs on their child’s online gaming and social networking activities. Some routers offer basic parental controls such as access scheduling and website blocking options, while others provide more robust controls that give you the ability to pause the internet and select age-appropriate presets that will automatically block access to social media platforms and sites that contain things like adult content, , shopping, blogs, games, and more.
A guest network lets you offer Wi-Fi connectivity to guests without leaving your entire network vulnerable. In a nutshell, you’re creating a separate network for guests with a Service Set Identifier (SSID) and password that are different from your main network credentials. This lets your guests connect to the Internet, but doesn’t give them access to your files, printers, and other connected devices.
With QoS settings, you can decide which applications and clients get network priority. For example, if one device is streaming Netflix video, and another device is downloading files or running a print job, you can give priority to the streaming device to avoid choppy, out-of-sync video. The same goes for online gaming; assigning a high QoS priority to a gaming console such as the Microsoft XBox One S or the Sony PS4 Pro will help eliminate lag time and improve overall gameplay.
Almost all routers offer several forms of security. A router with Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) lets you add compatible devices with the push of a button. Just press the WPS button on the router then press the WPS button on the client device to add it to your network. For a more secure connection, you can use Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA or WPA2), which requires entering a network password for each device. Routers with WPA-Enterprise security offer a higher level of security than WPA/WPA2, but require a Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service (RADIUS) server to authenticate each client.
The technology currently used to assign IP addresses, known as Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), will eventually be replaced by its successor, IPv6. IPv4 is a 32-bit addressing scheme that before long will run out of addresses due to the number of devices connecting to the internet. IPv6 is a 128-bit scheme that will offer an (almost) infinite number of IP addresses. Most current routers have built-in support for IPv6 addressing, but it’s a good idea to verify this if you want to be ready for the transition when IPv4 finally hits the wall.
Like anything else, router pricing is based on performance and features. An entry-level AC1750 802.11ac router will cost anywhere from $60 to $100, but if you want an AC2400 router with MU-MIMO streaming capabilities, expect the price to land in the $100 to $200 range. A tri-band AC5400 gaming router with all the bells and whistles could cost as much as $500, while the new 802.11ax routers are in the $300 to $500 price range depending on data rates and features.
How to Extend Your Wireless Signal
If you live in a large or multiple-story home, you may have Wi-Fi “dead zones.” These are areas of your home where your main router isn’t able to reach with a wireless signal. An easy way to solve this, without the hassle of running long cords around your home, is a wireless range extender, which will pick up your router’s Wi-Fi signal, amplify it, and rebroadcast it. They come in both desktop and plug-in variations, and are relatively easy to install.
They do have limitations, though: The rebroadcasted signal is typically half the strength of what you get from your main router, and most of these create a separate network that makes seamless roaming through your home difficult. However, some router manufacturers are now making extenders that will share the same network SSID and password as your existing router. There’s a catch, however: The router usually has to be made by the same manufacturer as the extender and must support seamless roaming capabilities.
Wi-Fi Mesh Network Systems
If a range extender doesn’t do the trick, consider overhauling your network with a Wi-Fi mesh system. This technology offers an easy way to fill wireless dead zones in your home without the need for additional wiring, range extenders, or access points. They utilize extension nodes, or satellites, to extend your Wi-Fi signal across a larger area than most routers are capable of. Systems such as Google Wifi and the Linksys Velop employ mesh technology, where the satellites communicate with each other to provide coverage throughout your home, while others, like the Netgear Orbi High-Performance AC3000 Tri-Band Wi-Fi System (RBK50), use a dedicated Wi-Fi band to communicate with its satellite. Depending on the number of nodes in the system you choose, you can spread a consistent internet connection across as much as 4,000 to 6,000 square feet of space.
Satellites in a Wi-Fi mesh system are all part of the same network and provide seamless connectivity as you roam throughout the house, and they do not usually require any configuration or management beyond a few taps on a free associated mobile app. A number of the solutions in this category support high-end features like guest networking, device prioritization, parental controls, and MU-MIMO, but because Wi-Fi mesh systems are designed to be simple, in most cases you won’t be able to access the same kind of in-depth settings you can on routers. For that reason, power users and compulsive tinkerers might not love Wi-Fi mesh systems, but for everyone else who finds network setup intimidating, these are among the friendliest and most innovative options you can find today.
Once you’ve found the right router, read our tips for setting up your router and boosting your Wi-Fi signal.
Pros: Speedy throughput performance. Lots of gamer-friendly features. Eight LAN ports. Works with Alexa voice commands and IFTTT applets. Slick user interface.
Cons: Expensive. Huge footprint. Middling file-transfer speeds.
Bottom Line: One of the fastest routers we’ve tested, the Asus ROG Rapture GT-AC5300 offers lots of gamer-friendly features, copious I/O ports, and a slick management console that lets you optimize your network for lag-free gaming.
Pros: Speedy 60GHz throughput. Excellent 5GHz performance. Very fast file-transfer speeds. Supports Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO), 802.11ad, and 160MHz networking technologies. Feature-packed.
Cons: Very expensive. So-so MU-MIMO throughput in testing. Lacks detailed Quality of Service (QoS) settings.
Bottom Line: The 802.11ad, MU-MIMO-equipped Netgear Nighthawk X10 R9000 delivers blazing 5GHz throughput and even faster 60GHz speeds, and despite the high price, is an excellent way to future-proof your wireless network.
Pros: Affordable. Speedy throughput performance. Easy to install. Four LAN ports. Robust parental controls and malware protection.
Cons: Middling file transfer performance. Non-removable antennas.
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.
Pros: Speedy throughput performance. Strong security tools. Robust parental controls. Alexa voice control. Easy to install.
Cons: Middling file-transfer performance. Bulky design.
Bottom Line: The D-Link DIR-2680 is a speedy dual-band router that uses embedded McAfee security tools to protect your network and everything connected to it.
Pros: Very affordable. Good throughput performance in testing. Dual-band Wi-Fi. Lots of management settings.
Cons: No USB ports. Non-removable antennas.
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.
Pros: Nice price. Blazing 5GHz throughput in testing. Easy to install and manage.
Cons: Middling file-transfer speeds. Non-removable antennas.
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.
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.
Pros: Very fast throughput in testing. Multi-User Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) data streaming. Lots of management settings. Dual USB 3.0 ports.
Cons: User interface needs work. File-transfer write speeds could be faster.
Bottom Line: The Trendnet TEW-827DRU router delivers outstanding single-user and MU-MUMO throughput, is a breeze to install, and offers plenty of management settings.
Pros: Speedy performance. Easy to install. Uses the latest 802.11ax technology. Eight LAN ports. Robust QoS settings. Built-in malware protection.
Cons: Expensive. AX clients are scarce.
Bottom Line: The Asus RT-AX88U is a speedy Wi-Fi 6 router loaded with robust features and powerful software.
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.