Upgrading to a quality router can result in more stable network speeds, longer signal reach, less latency and fewer lost packets, and a better online experience overall. But finding the right router can be difficult with all the information out there. So, here are some tips for finding the right router for you.
(Or, you can just jump to our recommendations below.)
Tip 1: Understand the difference between a modem and a router
Long story short: The modem is the go-between for you and your ISP, while the (wireless) router is the mediator between devices (such as a PC, phone, laptop, etc.) and the modem.
This distinction is important, because some ISPs might charge you a monthly fee on the router, which makes the option of getting a shiny new solution more compelling.
If, on the other hand, you have a bundled modem/router, the decision becomes less clear, but is still worth considering. If you feel your wireless experience could be better, or you just want the latest and greatest in Wi-Fi technologies (more on that below), you may still want to upgrade.
Tip 2: Understand what dictates your internet speed
Ultimately, your internet speed is dictated by your ISP (i.e. the service you pay for monthly). Your router does not determine your ultimate speed, so buying a shiny 3 Gb/s router will NOT mean 3 Gb/s download speeds unless your connection is 3 Gb/s or more. It’s just like any other bottle neck.
Transfers between devices on the same network should get a noticeable speed increase with a faster router though.
Tip 3: Know your Wi-Fi protocols
Look at the following table. Like almost every other computer technology out there, Wi-Fi has evolved to become exponentially faster and fancier over time.
Unless you’re running very, very old devices, it’s safe to say you’re at least on the 802.11n protocol. It takes both an “n-compliant” router and device to make the most of these theoretic max speeds, though most routers are backwards compatible back to the b standard (because let’s admit it, some of our family members are still using Palm Pilots).
But new standards don’t just come with speed increases. New standards, such as 802.11ac often come with implementations of cool new features (such as beamforming).
Tip 4: Know the features worth considering
Quality of Service (QoS). Quality of Service might sound like something you’d find hung at a Toyota repair shop, but this technology goes way beyond lip service, and is essential when sharing an internet connection with others and staying sane while gaming. It prioritizes data, per the application or device it’s transmitting in or out of. This way, your game and teleconference applications take a priority over less important activity.
QoS implementations vary between different routers. The cheaper ones only prioritize between devices and not applications, so make sure you do your homework and get the one of the QoS features you need.
USB ports. Some routers will come with a single USB port (along with the standard 4 Ethernet ports). This port, as you may have guessed, is not meant for your computer, but rather, an external hard drive for backups and data transfers over Wi-Fi. As with other features, do your research on the router. You do not want to buy a new disk, only to end up with an expensive router that gives you super slow file transfer speeds at home.
Software. Router software is important. Better UI makes for easier and more powerful configuration options through their web interface. Some routers, such as Google and partners’ line of OnHub routers, will even come with a nifty iOS or Android app that will let you get the most of your router (though the apps will tend to be more streamlined).
Another factor enthusiasts might want to consider is the ability to flash custom firmware. This is usually reserved for $100+ routers, but will result in enhanced network control and increased performance sometimes. So if you’re considering a router in that price range, make sure you research what custom firmware options are available.
(MU)MIMO. “Multi User, Multi Input, Multi Output” might sound silly, but sillier still is the fact that up until the n standard, every device you ever knew took turns talking to the router (usually in hundreds of a second, but never at the same time). MUMIMO allows for up to 4 simultaneous streams on the n standard and 8 on the newest revision of the ac standard.
But not only does MUMIMO have all those streams, it allows some devices to grab more than one of these signals simultaneously, effectively duplicating or triplicating the number traffic lanes. Of course, this depends on the number of antennas on the client device. Cool, right? Unfortunately, implementation in both routers and client devices has been somewhat sparse and messy, but the feature should become valuable in the future. For more information, check out this video.
Beamforming. This is as cool as it sounds. Instead of transmitting its signal in every direction, the router will use strange technological magic to point the signal at the devices it’s communicating with, resulting in better Wi-Fi coverage. This is technically part of the MIMO technology, but worth mentioning as a valuable feature on its own.
Tip 5: Check for (real) speed
I briefly talked about speed, but it’s worth mentioning again, mostly because of horrible marketing practices. When considering routers, you will usually deal with three speeds:
- Max theoretical speed: The max speed corresponding to your standard.
- Max router throughput: Usually written in a shorthand, such as “AC5400” – where AC is the standard and 5400 is the megabit throughput. This number is not to be trusted and is more useful only to compare between Wi-Fi implementations.
- Real router throughput: The number you find in benchmarks and reviews. This is the number you want to trust.
So why never trust the “max” router throughput? Look at the following fancy tri-band router:
Being standard-savvy as you are now, you’d be thinking that means it works on the AC standard, with a max throughput of…5300 ~ 5400 Mb/s? Scroll down a bit in the product description page, and you’ll find this
As you can see from the diagram, the 5.4 Gb/s claim is dubious math at best, though I do appreciate their explanation. Nowadays, companies will add up the combined speed of signals for dual and triple band routers. All you really need to know about dual and triple band routers is that they’ll cause less interference between your connected devices by using different spectrums.
In this case, this router will have two streams with throughput of up to 2166 Mb/s (on the 5GHz range) and one 1000 Mb/s (on 2.4 GHz). Do the math and you’ll get: 2,166+2,166+1000 = 5.33 Gb/s.
That doesn’t make this router bad, but it does set up some unfounded expectations.
Keep in mind that, as with any other piece of hardware, the speeds are important, but they rarely tell the whole story. Do your research, as you would for any CPU or GPU, and you will find a plethora of great choices.
Our Router Picks
In case you don’t want to do all the research, or are looking for a baseline, here are our picks:
Super Budget Router: TP-Link TL-WR841N (N300) – $25
At an average price of $25, there’s a lot of value for the money in this singled band router. It’s pretty much the cheap and sure choice if you just got a modem and want a frugal-but-functional wireless solution.
- Basic MIMO functionality, so you can get the most of your router range and speed (best for small apartments)
- Device-based QoS, which will allow you to prioritize connections among a few devices
- IPv6 compatibility makes it relatively future proof
- It’s cheap in all aspects, including its software and hardware, which is old and will probably become outdated before IPv6 hits
- No USB ports, single band, slowest Ethernet ports, super plain UI… It’s a bare bones router for a bare bones price
Best ‘Basic’ Router: TP-Link Archer C50 (AC1200) – $50
At the time of writing this article, the TP-Link Archer C50 is going for $50. For the price of two TL-WR841N, this router is pretty much a steal thanks to its added features and improved range.
- Provides a performance boost over our budget pick, thanks to its AC technology and dual band antennas
- USB 2.0 port, for some very modest storage capabilities
- Way better web interface
- Capability to create guest networks, for added security
- Ethernet is faster, though still way slower than our more expensive recommendations
- USB 2.0 is pretty slow
- Is the lowest spectrum of AC protocol routers, but still plenty for most users
Solid Gaming Router: Asus RT-ACRH13 (AC1300) – $70
Remember what I said about max router throughput speeds being bull? At $70, the RT-ACRH13 is well worth the money, even if it’s just 100 Mhz above the Archer C50 in the 2.4 Ghz frequency. If you’re regularly into online gaming, we’d recommend no less than this router.
- Way better coverage than other routers for this price
- USB 3.0 port for way faster transfer speeds to a compatible storage device
- Real MU-MIMO (for compatible devices)
- Client- and packet-based QoS
- Tons of software features, including cloud access to the connected storage device, which you can download to even while other devices are turned off through Download Master
- Gigabit Ethernet ports. These are great if you can’t afford to waste a single packet. Just make sure you buy a CAT6 Ethernet cable to get the most out of them.
- Light-up indicators can be hard to see in strong light?
- Honestly, it’s hard to find much to complain about at this price point
Great Routers for Gamers: A 3-way tie
This is probably the segment of routers with the most competition. At the time of writing this article, I couldn’t bring myself to pick one of the following routers over the others. All three are just great, though your preference may vary, so here they are:
ASUS RT-AC66U_B1 – $120
Netgear R6400 – $110
TP-Link Archer C9 – $110
The common features for devices in this tier are:
- Dual core processors, for better handling of multiple devices (these work great in office environments)
- 450~600 + 1300 Mb/s (AC1750 or AC1900) transfer speeds on dual band technology
- Gigabit Ethernet ports
- Packet-based QoS
- Multiple USB ports
- Support apps for Android and iOS (mostly for remote management)
- Custom firmware support
Price might be a deciding factor in this tier. If you can get any of these devices for less than the price I state here, you’re getting a great deal for your money.
By the same standard, the RT-AC66U_B1 has a premium that might be hard to justify by anything other than branding when compared with the R6400 and Archer C9. If you’re already willing to spend $130 on a router, you might want to check out Synology’s RT1900AC or the Asus RT-AC87U router for about $30 more.
Enthusiast-Grade Router: Synology RT2600AC – $250
The RT2600AC might come as a surprise to many readers who expected something more along the lines of the Linksys EA9500. Alas, our choice for the tier around the $250 mark is not one from the tri-band router trifecta, as this technology is still in the fringe, and is overkill for most but the most content hungry streamers (>4K video) with compatible devices. On the other hand, the RT2600AC both assimilates from its competition and innovates in the router space. Here are some of the things this beast brings to the table.
- Is a quad stream modem, giving top speeds of 800 + 1,733 Mb/s (2 x 400 + 2 x 866). Is compatible with more hardware than tri-band routers.
- Has dual-WAN support. Can literally plug in to two different modems (by using one LAN port as secondary WAN) and provide a failover or spread traffic between both connections.
- Dedicated packages can be downloaded to augment its functionality as a router
- Is hard to justify for anyone but enthusiasts or prosumers at its price point. Especially when it has an older, cheaper sibling in the form of the RT1900AC for $160.
- Synology is new as a brand in the world of routers. This could translate into quirks in these early models.
Keep in mind we’ve picked these routers with our readers and gaming-oriented consumers in mind. This is why we have not included solutions like Google’s OnHub, whose ASUS variant at $130 is great for people who want to set-and-forget their network. But its features are lackluster when compared to any of the routers we’ve described for the same price point.
If you’d still like to know more about the OnHub or any new routers and technologies, make sure to drop a comment down below.
Thanks for reading.