Choosing a Wireless Router
A Wi-Fi router makes it possible to connect wirelessly to the internet from anywhere in your home or office, letting you and your family stream movies, play games, and do everything else you do online. Although most internet service providers offer wireless routers as part of their packages, most experts agree that it makes more sense to buy your own. This is especially true if you want to avoid being saddled with outdated equipment, if you want more control over your network settings and speeds, or if you’ve got a larger home plagued by dead spots. While rental rates for routers generally range from $5 to $10 a month, in the past few years, the cost to buy a wireless router has dropped considerably. For less than $50, you can get a good Wi-Fi router that can handle even the most data-hungry tasks and support multiple devices without lagging or stuttering. Whole-house and high-speed wireless networks cost more, usually upward of $200, but many users insist they’re worth the initial investment.
Types of Wireless RoutersWireless routers use radio frequencies to broadcast an internet signal through your house that laptops, phones, and other wireless devices can connect to. The quality of that connection depends on what frequency your router is using and how many radio bands it can broadcast on. The more bands, the less likely that your wireless devices will have to compete for a signal, which can cause videos and games to freeze or stutter while streaming.
- Single-band routers are the cheapest and connect to the 2.4 GHz frequency band, which is the same one used by microwaves, cordless phones, and Bluetooth devices, among others.
- Dual-band routers connect to both the 2.4 GHz radio band and the 5 GHz band, which is used by cellphones, tablets, and PCs. The 2.4 GHz band tends to get crowded, and these routers allow switching between bands to optimize performance. Dual-band routers are good for streaming and web surfing.
- Tri-band routers have three radios: one connects to the 2.4 GHz band while the other two connect to the 5 GHz band. The three bands give users more bandwidth to support heavy activity like online gaming, video streaming, and downloading by multiple users simultaneously.
- Wi-Fi mesh networks are relatively new. These networks use a series of nodes — essentially, mini router devices — that are placed in multiple locations to communicate with each other to expand Wi-Fi coverage. They are a good solution for multi-story homes or spaces that have a lot of dead spots due to obstructions such as concrete walls or odd layouts.
Wireless StandardsAll routers are rated to support a specific wireless standard or standards. This refers to a set of operating specifications designated by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. The standard most new routers use is 802.11ac. Past standards are denoted by different letters: a, b, g, and n. There are still wireless-N routers available that are reliable and very cheap. The upcoming 802.11ax standard (to be officially introduced sometime in early 2019) promises to revolutionize the world of wireless routers, reducing congestion and allowing much faster uploading.
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Wireless Router Reviews: What We Considered
We consulted a variety of sources in our research, including wireless router reviews by experts on sites including PCMag, CNET, PC Verge, and Trusted Reviews, all of which conduct hands-on tests in making their assessments. We also noted feedback by consumers on retail sites such as Amazon, Best Buy, and Newegg.
SpeedRouters using the 802.11ac standard have an advertised maximum speed of 600 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band and 1.3 Gbps on the 5 GHz band. Real-world speeds are quite a bit slower in expert testing, however; typically around 100 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band and 550 Mbps on the 5 GHz band. But those speeds are perfectly sufficient for basic home networking, including video streaming, experts say.
Setup and ManagementIn most cases, setting up a wireless router is a no-hassle affair that can be done online (it helps to have a laptop or phone handy, experts say). Some routers also include a Wi-Fi Protected Setup button that lets users quickly and easily connect a WPS-compatible device, such as a printer, to the network. Some routers also have apps for monitoring router security and network traffic remotely, which can be handy if you’re managing an office network or the Wi-Fi at your vacation home.
Range and ReliabilityA wireless router's range typically falls between 150 and 300 feet on the 2.4 GHz band, but that can be diminished by the number of walls, floors, and ceilings the signal must pass through. Range is typically reduced by about a third on the 5 GHz band. Also, the signal weakens as you get farther away from the router, significantly reducing the speed of the connection. Most routers can maintain a strong signal within 40 or 50 feet, and dropped connections should be a rarity. But the more devices using the Wi-Fi signal, the slower the overall data speed. Movies and games may stutter or stall and web connections may frequently drop out.
Wi-Fi mesh network systems are a good alternative for large homes and spaces that have a lot of dead spots, as well as heavy users. Mesh systems consist of a base unit and nodes that can be placed around the home to expand coverage. They’re still relatively new and can cost double the price of the best dual-band 802.11ac routers.
General network congestion also affects a router’s reliability. Dual- and tri-band routers aim to combat network congestion by using multiple frequencies. Some, usually more expensive, routers are capable of band steering: specifically, directing devices that can use the 5 GHz band in that direction and away from already crowded 2.4 GHz connections.
Some dual- and tri-band routers also use multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology. MU-MIMO enables devices to connect simultaneously, rather than sequentially, without sacrificing bandwidth. Another technology called beamforming, available in some AC routers, focuses the Wi-Fi signal directly toward connected devices rather than simply broadcasting a signal in all directions. Both of these technologies result in more consistent connection speeds across all Wi-Fi-enabled devices on the network.