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If you're still using the same wireless router sent when you signed up for internet service, you might not be getting as much out of your internet connection as you could be.
The sign of a good wireless router is that you can all but forget it's there. If your internet connection drops out, you're not getting the speeds you expected, or you constantly have to reset your router to get a signal, it's probably time to consider an upgrade.
Buying a wireless router can seem a bit daunting, especially if you're a first-timer or know little about technology. With hundreds of options on the market, how do you select the best one?
At BestReviews, our aim is to aid you in selecting the perfect items for your household. To take the hassle out of shopping, we craft fair and thorough reviews – but first we test products in our labs, consult experts, analyze mountains of data, and sift through reviews from existing customers.
The guide below will help you choose the right wireless router to fit your individual needs and requirements.
We don't want to leave anyone confused, so we'll start with the basics. If you're already comfortable with what a wireless router is and how it works, fell free to skip ahead to the next section.
In layman's terms, a wireless router is what allows your computer, smartphone, tablet, and other devices to connect to the internet. It plugs into a power outlet and a phone line, and emits wireless signals in the form of radio waves on a specific frequency band.
Any wireless-capable devices send radio waves back to the router, producing two-way communication with the internet wirelessly.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
TP-LINK Wireless N300
Although it's fair to say that the TP-LINK is an entry-level wireless router, it offers a number of useful benefits. Security is the common WPA/WPA2 type that has been around for a while, but is still effective. There are numerous scare stories about how "hackable" these devices are, but such stories are quite exaggerated, and the chance of it happening is extremely remote. The TP-LINK includes four LAN ports for Ethernet devices but no USB ports. It also has IP QoS (Quality of Service), a system that allows owners to apply specific amounts of bandwidth to specific applications. This can prevent shortages. For instance, you can reserve network bandwidth for your movie streaming application. However, the protection comes at the expense of other users or applications.
Although tri-band routers do exist, most of today's top wireless routers are single or dual-band models.
Single-band wireless routers work in the 2.4 GHz frequency range (as can some other devices, like Bluetooth), so signal might be affected by other traffic. Dual-band wireless routers have both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies; the latter is quicker and usually gets less interference.
As for the 802.11 protocol, all wireless routers use it, but the precise specification has changed over time. Older models running 802.11b or 802.11g can only work in the 2.4 GHz range and have data transfer rates of either 11 Mbps or 54 Mbps.
More recent is 802.11n, which operates on 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies, up to a maximum of 600 Mbps. This is currently the most common protocol, but it is being overtaken by 802.11ac (which offers more speed and wider bandwidth, thus providing for more users and devices at the same time.)
That said, seldom do any of these devices run at the theoretical maximum. The speed supplied by your ISP may be considerably slower than what your wireless router is able to handle.
Many wireless routers include parental controls to help kids stay safe while surfing the web.
The connection speed a wireless router can handle is measured in megabits per second (Mbps) or, with the fastest models, gigabits per second (Gbps) – note that one gigabit equals 1,000 megabits.
Some newer models have a wireless speed in excess of 1 Gbps, whereas older routers generally have speeds between 300 and 600 Mbps. Confusingly, however, these are only theoretical maximums, and your internet connection will never actually approach these speeds.
Don't expect your internet connection speed to improve just because you have a new router. It still can't go faster than the download speed provided by your ISP.
We touched on network standards above, but let's discuss them further. The network standard refers to the capabilities of a wireless router. Since technology is ever-improving, it's important to have these standards, so we can set reasonable expectations of router performance.
The latest network standard is 802.11ac, which has a theoretical maximum speed of 1.3Gbps. However, you'll still find some wireless routers from the 802.11n network standard, with a theoretical maximum speed of 600 Mbps.
If you're a heavy user – often playing online games, streaming or downloading files – you should opt for the ac, but light users can save some cash by going for an older model with the 802.11n network standard.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
ASUS Wireless Dual Band
Most of the additional features included with the ASUS wireless router are those you would expect. Built-in USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports provide the usual benefits. ASUS calls its parental controls "robust" and its network security (using Trend Micro's AirProtection) "triple strength." Allied with this is an improvement on the TRENDnet's guest network – this allows you to define up to six different guests who can each have partial access. QoS is an adaptive system that is defined by a number of presets. That might sound restrictive, but most owners find the hardwire and wireless options available to be more than adequate. Last, but certainly not least, is ASUS AiCloud2. You can use this feature to sync and share files across any compatible device.
Serious gaming requires high speeds and a stable internet connection. Wireless routers with built-in gaming acceleration send data packets via a network of route-optimized servers to avoid lag and reduce buffering time.
More or less all wireless routers on the market today have WPA2 encryption, meaning they're password protected, so that anyone with a wireless-capable device can't just login to your network and use your WiFi. However, some wireless routers have more hardcore, multi-stage protection that can block malicious sites and prevent already infected devices from releasing personal information.
If you're concerned about internet security or keep a lot of sensitive data on your devices, consider a wireless router with multi-stage protection.
The average wireless router covers about 2,500 square feet. If your home is larger than that, extend the range with additional access points or a WiFi extender.
If you want to connect computers or other devices directly to the router using an ethernet cable, make sure your chosen model has sufficient LAN ports.
Some wireless routers allow you to change the settings via a dedicated app – perfect if you want to be able to control every aspect of your wireless connection.
If your router has two external antennae, you'll get the best signal if one is pointed vertically and the other horizontally.
Consider a home mesh system, instead of a conventional wireless router, if you have a very large home.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
NETGEAR Nighthawk AC1900
The NETGEAR Nighthawk wireless router takes QoS out of the user's hands completely and assigns its own set of parameters, in which video and music take priority. Quite a few owners like this approach! The NETGEAR includes the usual proliferation of LAN ports along with USB 2.0 and 3.0. Most owners find that this router offers more than they need. Security and parental controls are all industry standard, and you can create a guest network. The features that stand out on the the NETGEAR Nighthawk router are the provision of useful backup software for Windows or Mac (via Time Machine) and the NETGEAR Genie app that allows you to monitor and control various functions remotely from a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
The cost of a wireless router depends on the features and network standard.
If you want a cheap router and you're not too concerned about speed, an 802.11n wireless router should cost between $20 and $50.
A basic 802.11ac router that will provide fast wireless connection and not much else will cost $40 to $80.
Expect to pay $80 to $150 for a mid-range 802.11ac wireless router, with a few added extras like apps for remote access or Alexa compatibility.
The price of a high-end 802.11ac wireless router is roughly $150 to $350. These models should have a range of extra features, like a boosted signal range, multi-stage protection, game acceleration, and more.
Q. Do I need a tri-band wireless router?
A. Tri-band wireless routers are rare, mainly because they're overkill for most folks. The main benefit of tri-band routers is that they can handle a large number of connected devices at once. Even a large family will find a dual-band router more than sufficient, but tri-band models would be useful for offices or dorms.
Q. Is it important that my wireless router is the fastest possible?
A. It's natural to want the best product out there, but realistically, the average home user is never going to need a router that can handle speeds of 1.3 Gbps. However, if you're an avid online gamer or you regularly stream movies, the faster the better.
Q. How can I boost my WiFi signal?
A. If you find your WiFi signal lacking, try these solutions:
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At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.