With the proliferation of connected home products, smartphones, smart TVs, and other mobile computing devices, 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. Granted, 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 video and playing Grand Theft Auto V 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.
Single- or Dual-Band?
Not all routers are created equal. Some models can only communicate over a single radio band, while others can use two. Single-band routers operate on the 2.4GHz frequency band and are typically the least expensive models out there, but they have to compete with other devices in the home that are on the same radio band, such as microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, and wireless phones. That said, they are perfectly adequate for things 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, consider a dual-band router. These have two radios; one connects to the 2.4GHz band, and the other connects to the 5GHz band. The 5GHz band is typically less crowded than the 2.4GHz band and offers more throughput, with minimal signal interference, making it ideal for video streaming and gaming duty. Dual-band routers allow you to assign a band to specific applications and clients, thereby easing the load on both bands.
Then there are tri-band routers. These have three radios—one that operates at 2.4GHz and two that operate at 5GHz. These models are a good fit for multi-device households that experience heavy network traffic via lots of video streaming, torrent downloading, file transfers, and online gaming.
Wireless Ethernet networks use 802.11 protocols to send and receive data. Devices that use the older 802.11b and 802.11g standards are limited to data transfer rates of 11Mbps and 54Mbps, respectively, and they only operate on the 2.4GHz band. The most widely used Wi-Fi protocol, 802.11n, allows for maximum data rates of up to 600Mbps and operates on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. It utilizes Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) technology, which uses several antennas to send and receive up to four spatial streams, resulting in enhanced performance. Most of today's laptops, smartphones, and connected home devices use 802.11n Wi-Fi, so an 802.11n router is a good fit for households that have a handful of these devices sharing Internet access. However, if you're using your network to share large files and have several smart TVs, gaming consoles, mobile devices, and media streaming devices connecting wirelessly, a more powerful router that offers the latest Wi-Fi technology may be in order.
The newest class of Wi-Fi routers use 802.11ac technology, which brings several improvements over previous protocols, including wider channel bandwidth (up to 160Hz compared with 40Hz), more MIMO spatial streams (up to eight), and beamforming, a technology that sends Wi-Fi signals directly to a client rather than broadcasting in all directions.
The 802.11ac protocol also offers downstream Multi User-Multiple Input Multiple Output (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 stream 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. As of this writing, there are only a handful of MU-MIMO routers on the market, and MU-MIMO clients are limited to a couple of laptop models. More MU-MIMO-enabled devices, including smartphones and smart TVs, should start hitting the market later this year.
You'll see 802.11ac routers with labels like AC1200, AC1750, AC 3200, 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 5 GHz band is considered an AC1750 router. A tri-band AC3200 router gives you 600Mbps over the 2.4 GHz band and 1,300 Mbps over 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).
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. 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 two ports let you do both. Additionally, try to choose a router that offers removable antennas. If you need to extend your wireless range you may be able to do so with a set of third party high-performance, high-gain antennas, which are typically cheaper than a range extender solution.
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.
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 is 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 XBox One or the PlayStation 4 will help eliminate lag time and improve overall game play.
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. Simply 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, Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6). IPv4 is a 32-bit addressing scheme that will eventually 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 does hit the wall.
Like anything else, router pricing is based on performance and features. A basic, single-band 802.11n router can run anywhere from $25 to $100, give or take a few bucks. You can snag a dual-band AC1200 model for as little as $130, but will have to pay upwards of $250 for a dual-band AC2400 router with MIMO streaming capabilities. An AC3200 tri-band model with all the bells and whistles will run you somewhere around $300. Early AC2600 MU-MIMO routers are hitting the market at around $300, but these prices will surely drop as more router manufacturers get in on the action.
Fast throughput speeds, good range, easy set up and manageability, a solid feature set, and, of course, fair pricing are what make a top router. The 10 models that follow strike the best balance among all our criteria. And once you've found the right router, check out our tips for setting up your router, getting the most from it, boosting your Wi-Fi signal, and testing your connection speed.