Upgrading your router can improve wireless speeds and coverage in your network. Buying your own wireless router can also end up saving you some money in the long run if you’re paying a monthly fee for one provided by your internet provider.
Even if you have a router supplied for “free,” it’s probably not the fastest or most capable one available — and your wireless coverage may suffer.
You don’t have to spend a lot to get a good router. Routers selling for around $100 or less can help improve wireless speeds in a small home, assuming it’s one where few devices are connected at the same time. Routers available for around $200 or more can generally handle more devices, larger areas and heavier usage, including 4K streaming and intense gaming by multiple members of a household.
Whether budget-friendly or high-end, most routers let you prioritize speed to your most important connected devices and include some level of parental control and malware protection. Also, their network settings can be tweaked as needed — which isn’t necessarily the case for routers provided by internet service providers, which sometimes restrict access to certain settings.
Some models can even be linked to compatible routers from the same brand to create a mesh network. A mesh Wi-Fi system improves coverage in a large home by taking signals from the main router and relaying it. Such a system is similar to using Wi-Fi extenders, but it eliminates the need for devices to reconnect to different networks as you move around your home.
Modem vs. router: What’s the difference?
Modems and routers are not the same thing. A modem is the device that connects you directly to the internet. It decodes incoming internet signals and passes them onto the router, which then redistributes them wirelessly to your laptop, smartphone and other devices logged on to your network.
Keep in mind that your connection will only be as fast as the plan you’re paying for. So, if your plan offers a maximum of 500 megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth (the maximum amount of data that can be transferred at a specific time), your connection won’t be reaching gigabit (Gbps) speeds, no matter how fast your router is.
If you’re experiencing slow connectivity or lagging, use an online calculator to check whether your maximum bandwidth is enough for your typical usage. Two people watching Netflix on 4K on separate devices, for instance, will easily bog down a 50Mbps connection.
It’s good to remember that wireless signals are sensitive to interference from other connected devices, and can be weakened by the number and density of walls between you and the router. Most of the time, the only way to get speeds close to what your ISP advertises is by connecting devices directly to the router Ethernet ports.
Speeds are also bogged down by devices with older Wi-Fi technology. In other words, if you own a laptop from 2012, don’t expect it to magically run at top speed, even with one of the latest routers in the market.
Wireless router buying guide
Here are some factors to keep in mind when shopping for the best router for your home:
• Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5. The relatively new Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) routers can provide the fastest wireless connection possible — in theory. In reality, although they do offer significant improvements in speed over Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) routers, most devices being sold right now aren’t Wi-Fi 6-ready yet. (The exception being some newer smartphones in iPhone’s 11 and 12 lineup, and some Samsung Galaxy models and laptops such as the Microsoft Surface Laptop Go.) You can still use Wi-Fi 5 devices with these newer routers, but they won’t be able to tap into some of the benefits.
On the other hand, Wi-Fi 5 routers — although not quite as fast — are still plenty powerful, easily reaching speeds close to 1Gbps when paired with the appropriate internet plan.
So, if you’re not sure whether to buy a Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 5 router, take into account that both are excellent options, and can reach very fast speeds as long as your internet plan allows for it. Choosing a Wi-Fi 6 router would, however, guarantee that your home network is ready to handle newer, faster devices down the road.
• Dual band vs. tri-band. Dual-band routers use two frequency bands (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and are more than capable of handling home networks with multiple connected devices, including smartphones, laptops and TVs.
Tri-band routers feature an additional 5GHz band. These are useful in smart homes, for example, so you can dedicate one of the router’s bands just to smart devices, leaving the rest of your network free for your day-to-day usage.
• Advertised speeds. While comparing routers, you’ll notice their names include figures such as “AC1750” or “AX5700.” The letters “AC” or “AX” refer to which wireless standard the router uses — “AC” for Wi-Fi 5 and “AX” for Wi-Fi 6 — while the number is meant to let consumers know the top speeds a router can reach. This number can be misleading, though.
For example, a dual-band router advertised as an “AX5700” is said to reach speeds of up to 5,700Mbps, or 5.7Gbps. However, the “5700” actually represents a sum of the top speeds the router can reach on each of its bands — in this case, up to 4,804Mbps on the 5GHz band and 861Mbps on the 2.4GHz band.
Since devices can only connect to one band at a time, the router’s maximum speeds would be either 4,804Mbps or 861Mbps. Even so, these speeds are only theoretically possible in ideal conditions. In the real world, wireless signals are impacted not only by your internet plan’s allocated bandwidth, but by interference from other devices (even your neighbors’), and thick walls.
• Quality of Service (QoS). A routers QoS settings can be accessed through the device’s mobile app or web console, and let users decide which devices they’d like the router to prioritize. For example, you could prioritize your work laptop so even if multiple people are using the same connection simultaneously, your laptop’s connection will remain stable.
Even budget routers under $100 have some QoS settings, but they won’t be as feature-rich as ones offered by pricier models. The settings on more affordable routers typically let you assign bandwidth limits so some devices don’t use up too much and slow down the connection to other devices. More advanced routers can prioritize certain types of connections like gaming, video streaming, file downloads or video calls.
• Malware and parental controls. It’s quite common for routers nowadays to include some sort of online protection software. However, the features vary widely.
While budget routers can typically restrict access to malicious sites and block some viruses, many routers that cost $200 or more will usually provide more extensive options. For example, some may provide a full suite of malware protection (often comparable to dedicated anti-virus software), along with the ability to track your children’s internet usage and control it directly from your smartphone.
Best wireless routers
1. Best overall: Asus RT-AX86U Wi-Fi 6 Gaming Router
The Asus RT-AX86U delivers solid all-around performance that’s perfect for gamers, non-stop movie streamers and just about anyone who needs a speedy, stable wireless connection across their home.
This Wi-Fi 6 dual-band router can reach speeds of around 800Mbps or more at close range, if you have at least a 1Gbps internet plan. But whatever your plan’s maximum bandwidth, the RT-AX86U is built to deliver the fastest possible connection consistently.
Like with most routers, you can prioritize certain devices such as a work laptop, so your Zoom meetings never fail even if other people are using the same connection. The RT-AX86U goes one step further — letting you prioritize by network traffic type, such as gaming, video streaming or file transfers. The RT-AX86U can also help boost online gaming performance not only by choosing to prioritize your gaming console or smartphone, but also by selecting the specific game you’re playing.
In addition, the RT-AX86U features what’s called AiProtection, a built-in online protection software from Trend Micro, a cybersecurity company. The router will automatically fend off malware, block access to malicious sites and even detect if a newly connected device has any potential threats that could infect the rest of your devices.
AiProtection also includes parental controls that you can use to monitor internet activity, filter content and block internet access during certain hours of the day.
2. Editor’s pick: TP-Link Archer AX50 Smart Wi-Fi 6 Router
While high-end routers give you access to a full set of network settings even the tech-savvy would appreciate, not everyone wants advanced complicated features. For around $130 (roughly $100 less than the Asus RT-AX86U), the TP-Link AX50 offers everything most people need, including solid speed and a few bells and whistles found on more expensive models.
The AX50 can be set up in a matter of minutes through TP-Link’s mobile app. You can also use the app to set up quality of service (QoS) settings and prioritize your internet connection for gaming, streaming, general web surfing or chatting. (More advanced settings — such as DHCP or Firewall — can be accessed through the router’s web console.)
The AX50 includes anti-malware protection and easy-to-manage parental controls, which are preset to filter social networking sites, chat rooms and adult content based on a user’s age.
On the downside, the AX50 lacks OneMesh support, which lets you link compatible TP-Link routers to create a mesh Wi-Fi system. (A mesh Wi-FI network consists of a main router and multiple satellite nodes that relay signals to improve coverage in large, multi-level homes.)
However, the AX50 still boasts impressive range, and as a Wi-Fi 6 router, when paired with a solid internet connection, you can expect it to deliver top speeds even with multiple devices connected at the same time.
3. Best for low prices: TP-Link Archer A7 Smart Wi-Fi Router
A Wi-Fi 6 router costing $300 or more won’t make your internet connection magically faster, especially if you don’t own Wi-Fi 6-enabled devices. Wi-Fi 5 devices, which probably make up the majority of what you own, will operate exactly as the same with a newer Wi-Fi 6 router as they would with a good Wi-Fi 5 router.
That’s why Wi-Fi 5 routers like the TP-Link Archer A7 are still useful in home settings and can most definitely help you make the most out of your internet plan.
For only about $60, the Archer A7 can deliver up to 1,300Mbps on its 5GHz band and 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz, theoretically. As always, this depends on your internet plan, but the A7 should cover work meetings, high-definition video streaming or online gaming adequately in most homes.
The Archer A7 is a no-frills router ideal for those who rarely if ever feel the need to tweak network settings. However, it does include parental controls and quality of service options to prioritize data-intensive usage like watching Netflix. It’s also Alexa-compatible so you can use voice commands to turn on the guest Wi-Fi or get a notification when a new device connects to the network.
4. Best for low prices Wi-Fi 6 router: TP-Link Archer AX10 Smart Wi-Fi 6 Router
Our Editor’s Pick, the Archer AX50, is quite affordable, often selling for around $130. But if you’d like to experience Wi-Fi 6 at an even more affordable price, the Archer AX10 is a solid option.
Sometimes on sale for around $70, the AX10 features the same connection benefits as high-end Wi-Fi 6 routers. It fully supports MU-MIMO (“multi-user, multiple input, multiple output”) and OFDMA (orthogonal frequency-division multiple access), letting the router communicate with several devices simultaneously, without slowing down any of them.
It also supports “beamforming,” which focuses wireless signals directly at connected devices instead of broadcasting them across all your home, to improve range and speed.
In terms of settings, the AX10 offers some parental controls and network prioritization (quality of service), but they’re fairly simple compared to the AX50. That’s expected at this price, but considering the AX10’s decent range and speed, it’s a great Wi-Fi 6 option, especially for those who don’t have a fiber optic internet plan.
5. Best router for gamers: Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000 Wi-Fi 6 Gaming Router
Retailing for over $400, the Asus Rapture GT-AX11000 is definitely not your ordinary router. In fact, it’s built with serious online gamers in mind.
In addition to its impressive range and speeds, the GT-AX11000 has some extra features designed for fast-paced gaming sessions. Its Game Acceleration hub includes Game Boost and GameFirst V, which continuously monitor network traffic and prioritize all your gaming devices. Other features like the Gamers Private Network improve your connection to servers and reduce lag while online gaming.
Some of its settings are pretty advanced and do require some networking knowledge. The router’s web interface isn’t that easy to manage either. So, if you only play online games occasionally but still want outstanding performance, you’re better off with our Best Overall pick, the Asus RT-AX86U.
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