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Shopping for a Router Sucks. Here’s What You Need to Know

Everyone wants reliable and fast internet, and a good router can help. The trick is to work out how the complicated mess of standards, confusing acronyms, and sci-fi-sounding features translate to better Wi-Fi in your home. Join us as we tear back the curtain to reveal the pertinent facts about Wi-Fi, routers, mesh systems, and other jargon. Hopefully, you'll be better equipped to buy a router by the end.

Updated April 2023: We added information on Ethernet, Wi-Fi 6E, and Wi-Fi 7, updated the latest broadband speeds, upgraded our minimum recommendations, and added an explanation of SSID.

Table of ContentsWho Is Your Internet Service Provider?What Kind of Router Do You Need?Alternatives to a New RouterWhat Speed Do You Need?Wi-Fi Standards ExplainedWi-Fi Bands and ChannelsCheck for PortsConsider Security StandardsCheck Out the AppQoS and Device PrioritizationCommon Terms ExplainedFinal Takeaways

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Who Is Your Internet Service Provider?

Internet service providers (ISPs) connect your home to the internet, and they usually send you a modem and router (sometimes in a single device). The modem connects your home to the broader internet, the router hooks up to the modem, and you connect all your gadgets—with wires or wirelessly—to the router to access that connectivity. ISPs often charge you a rental fee for this equipment, and their routers are usually basic in terms of performance and features. The good news is that ISPs are by law no longer allowed to force you to use their equipment or charge you to use your own hardware, though you may still have to return their stuff to avoid charges.

We're largely looking at using your own router in this guide and using your ISP's modem. By using your own, you can potentially save money in the long term, but you can also enjoy faster Wi-Fi, better coverage, easier configuration, and extra features like parental controls and guest Wi-Fi networks. We will run through your router options, but whatever system you decide to go with, check compatibility with your ISP before buying. You can also search your ISP’s forums to find posts where people discuss using different routers and modems. A little research before you shop can save you a big headache down the line.

What Kind of Router Do You Need?

There are various ways to make your Wi-Fi faster, and buying a new router is one of the most obvious. To help you decide on the type of router to go for, calculate the rough square footage of your home before you begin.

Single Router

The simplest solution for most people is to choose a single router or a router and modem combo. Bear in mind that this device will have to plug into your existing socket or modem via Ethernet cable, which restricts where you can place it. The Wi-Fi signal will be strongest near the router and will gradually drop off and slow down the further away you get. If you're able to, place your router centrally in your home and leave it out in the open.

Routers should always state square footage for coverage, but certain types of construction—thick walls, insulation, and other devices—can interfere with Wi-Fi signals, so don’t expect to enjoy full-speed Wi-Fi at longer distances. Powerful routers with wide coverage are often large devices with multiple external antennas, but they're usually very expensive.

Mesh Systems

If you have a large home and want solid coverage in your garden, or you have thick walls and specific dead spots with your current setup, then mesh Wi-Fi could be the answer. Mesh systems consist of a central hub, which connects just like a single router, as well as additional satellites or nodes you can place around the home.

Devices connect to the internet through the nearest node, so you can achieve wider Wi-Fi coverage and a more reliable connection in different areas by adding a node. Just bear in mind that each node will need a power outlet. Mesh systems are typically more expensive than single-router setups (though not always), but they enhance coverage and reliability, and they often boast additional features and control options. They also tend to be smaller than regular routers and are typically designed to blend in with your decor.

Most mesh systems are expandable, and some manufacturers allow you to link individual routers to create a mesh, so you can start with a single router and add more as required. Just make sure you understand which devices are compatible. For example, any Asus router that supports AiMesh can work as part of a mesh system, but TP-Link's OneMesh technology only allows you to add compatible Wi-Fi extenders—you can't link routers together.

Alternatives to a New Router

If your issue is more about coverage and you have a single problem room where you want to improve Wi-Fi, or a particular device that needs a faster connection, you might not need to buy a new router. Try one of these alternatives. They each have their own technical challenges and potential issues. Even when successfully deployed, they won’t come close to matching the convenience of a good mesh system, but they are all much cheaper.

Ethernet Cables

Before Wi-Fi was ubiquitous, we relied on Ethernet cables to connect computers and other devices to routers. Ethernet connections are much faster, more stable, and more secure than Wi-Fi (or any other option we suggest here). The drawback is that the device you want to connect needs to have an Ethernet port, and you have to run cable from your router to the device. If you need to run Ethernet cables to multiple spots, use an Ethernet switch. With a switch you can plug one cable in from your router and run several cables out to various devices. Anyone looking to get the best performance from a mesh system should also consider running Ethernet cables between the main router and nodes to create a wired backhaul that leaves the Wi-Fi bands free for your devices to connect to. 

Power Line Adapters

Sold in pairs, power line adapters pass an internet signal through your electrical wiring. You plug one into a power outlet near your router and connect it with an Ethernet cable, while the other power line adapter plugs into a power outlet in the room where you want faster internet. They can be a good solution if you have a console or smart TV in your living room at the back of the house, but your router is in the front hall, for example. Unfortunately, effectiveness depends heavily on your electrical wiring.

MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance)

If your home already has coaxial cables installed (perhaps for cable TV), you can use them to create a reliable wired network that offers high speeds and low latency compared to Wi-Fi. You can buy routers, network adapters, or Wi-Fi extenders that support the MoCA standard. Much like power line adapters, this can be a great way to pass an internet signal to a smart TV, game console, or desktop that doesn't get a strong Wi-Fi signal.

Wi-Fi Repeaters

You can use Wi-Fi repeaters to spread the Wi-Fi from a single router a bit further and potentially boost the signal in a dead spot. These devices are a good solution for some people, but they can be inefficient, prone to interference, and often create a secondary network with a different name from your regular Wi-Fi.

Access Points

If you don’t mind a challenge and have a spare old router lying around, you can look into configuring it as an access point or using it as a Wi-Fi extender. This can be particularly effective if you’re able to connect it to your main router via cabling, but configuration can prove tricky.

What Speed Do You Need?

There’s plenty to consider when you’re trying to decide how fast your router should be. The maximum speed of your internet is determined by your ISP. Internet speeds are stated in Mbps (megabits per second). The median global fixed broadband speed is 79 Mbps for downloads and 34 Mbps for uploads, according to Ookla’s Speedtest. Most ISPs will state up to a certain speed or give you a range—like 300 Mbps download and 30 Mbps upload—but what you actually get is often lower than the maximum (especially upload speeds), and it must be shared between all of your connected devices. 

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You can check what download and upload speed you are getting by running a speed test in your browser. Simply type “speed test” into Google to find some options. To get a rough idea of how Mbps translates into internet use, we can refer to the FCC’s broadband speed guide, which suggests you need 3 to 4 Mbps to stream a standard-definition video, 5 to 8 Mbps for HD, and 25 Mbps for a single 4K stream. Generally speaking, if there are multiple people in the household streaming 4K video with several gadgets connected, you'll want at least 200 Mbps, if not more. If you only have a few devices connected and are mostly just surfing the web, with some videos here and there, you'll be fine with 50 or 100 Mbps. 

If your internet connection maxes out at 100 Mbps, then any device in your home connecting to the internet will be capped at that speed, even if the router supports much higher speeds. It’s also important to note that router manufacturers print theoretical maximums and lab test results on the box. The stated speed is the combined maximum, rather than the speed you can expect to reach with a single connected device. You will always get a lower speed in real-life conditions.

Wi-Fi Standards Explained

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the body that sets Wi-Fi standards. There’s a long list of different Wi-Fi protocols that support different ranges and speeds. They always begin with IEEE 802.11, followed by a group of letters, for example: IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n.

Since the IEEE deals with lots of different standards, 802 simply relates to computer networks, and 11 is specifically Wi-Fi and WLAN (wireless local area network). The bit to pay attention to is the letters at the end. The “n” protocol is also known as Wi-Fi 4, “ac” is Wi-Fi 5, “ax” is marketed as Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E, and Wi-Fi 7 is “be.” We recommend ax (Wi-Fi 6) as a minimum, and it will afford you some future-proofing even if you can’t take advantage right now. Wi-Fi 6 and 6E aren't just about faster speeds; they also offer increased capacity, efficiency, performance, and security.

You should know that, if you get a Wi-Fi 6 or 6E router, your other hardware (like your laptop and smartphone) needs to support Wi-Fi 6 and 6E to truly reap the benefits. 

Wi-Fi Bands and Channels

Different Wi-Fi protocols support different frequencies or bands. You'll mostly see routers that support 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) and 5 GHz. When a router or device is dual-band, that means it supports both. Tri-band routers broadcast three signals, which currently usually means two on the 5-GHz band and one on 2.4 GHz, though we are seeing more and more routers that include the 6-GHz band. Wi-Fi 6 and earlier routers are limited to 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands; only Wi-Fi 6E routers offer the 6-GHz band today, but Wi-Fi 7 is fast approaching.

Each of these bands is a chunk of frequency. The 2.4-GHz band comprises 11 channels that are each 20 megahertz (MHz) wide. The 5-GHz band has 45 channels, but they aren't limited to 20 MHz; they can also be bonded together to create 40-MHz or 80-MHz channels, which allows them to transmit more data. The 6-GHz band supports 60 channels, and they can be as wide as 160 MHz.

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The main difference is that 2.4 GHz has a longer range, but 5 GHz offers faster speeds and greater bandwidth. While 6 GHz has the same theoretical top speed as 5 GHz, the former offers much wider bandwidth. It's like jumping from a single-track road (2.4 GHz) to a three-lane highway (5 GHz) to a six-lane superhighway (6 GHz). Each of the protocols is backward compatible.

While the newly opened 6 GHz band promises advantages for devices that support it, we have tested several Wi-Fi 6E systems and found that the range is very limited. If you are in the same room as the router, you can get blistering speeds, but the signal drops off with obstacles like walls and ceilings, and the router passes you onto the 5 GHz band. To really reap the benefits of 6 GHz, it may be best to wait for Wi-Fi 7, which promises better range and a host of other upgrades.

Any router you choose nowadays is likely to be at least dual-band, but you may want to check how the bands are handled. It was common to have the bands appear separately, so when searching for Wi-Fi on your device, you might see two options, like Wi-Fi 2.4 GHz and Wi-Fi 5 GHz.

Modern routers such as Eero's mesh routers and Google's Nest Wifi Pro (7/10, WIRED recommends) engage in band steering, where they automatically pick the band and you only see a single Wi-Fi network. This is simpler and will work well for most people, but it can cause issues when setting up smart home devices that can only connect to one band, as they often also require the device setting them up (usually your smartphone) to be on the same band. If you have lots of smart home gadgets that can only connect to 2.4 GHz, you can usually find a workaround (Eero provides a solution in the Troubleshooting section of its app). 

Check for Ports

Some devices require a wired connection to your router. Even when it's not needed, an Ethernet cable is always going to offer more stable connections that are much faster than Wi-Fi. If you can, you should try to use a wired connection for devices like PCs, TVs, and consoles so you can leverage the fastest speeds out of your router. Either way, you'll need a free Ethernet port, so make sure you check that your router or mesh system has enough of them. 

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Several mesh systems, such as Nest or Eero, only have a couple of Ethernet ports on the main router and nodes. If your chosen router doesn't have enough ports, you can get a network switch. These devices are relatively cheap and give you a few extra Ethernet ports. For example, this TP-Link network switch gives you four ports and costs less than $20. If you want to plug in storage, such as a NAS drive for sharing files, make sure your router has a USB port.

Consider Security Standards

It's vital to secure your Wi-Fi router because all traffic in and out of your house goes through it, and every device connects to it. Early security standards like WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) are dated. The minimum standard to look for in a router today is WPA2, which was developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2004. It offers reasonably strong encryption but is not without vulnerabilities, which is why it was followed by WPA3 in 2018. 

WPA3 boasts several features designed to address the weaknesses in WPA2. For example, opportunistic wireless encryption (OWE) provides a separate decryption key for every device that connects to the router, so even if another device on the network is monitoring traffic (known as sniffing) it can't decrypt that data. WPA3 also makes it much tougher for hackers to crack passwords, as they can no longer use offline dictionary attacks, where they rapidly guess lots of possible passwords. 

Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E devices certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance must support WPA3, but it's not exclusive to the new standard. You can find Wi-Fi 5 routers with WPA3 support, and some manufacturers are rolling it out onto older devices via firmware updates. It is also backward compatible. Most routers will offer a hybrid mode labeled WPA2/WPA3 to avoid issues as devices transition to the new standard. 

No security standard is perfect, so you should make sure your router has automatic updates turned on and always install the latest security updates on any devices you own. If your router offers remote access, Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), or Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), we advise disabling those features in the settings. Another feature to look for is a guest network, so you can hook guests up with Wi-Fi without giving them access to the rest of your network and all your connected devices.

Check Out the App 

While older routers tend to have basic settings you can only access by entering the IP address into your browser and logging in, many new routers and mesh systems offer apps you can access on your phone. It's worth taking a look at the interface to make sure it has all the features you want. We suggest reading our reviews and user reviews to get a feel for how well it works and to identify any potential problems. 

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The latest mesh systems boast accessible apps that show all connected devices at a glance. You may find the option to pause the internet and create schedules and the ability to organize devices into profiles. Many also include parental controls so you can block different types of potentially sensitive content and block or whitelist specific websites. Some companies charge extra for these perks, so keep an eye out. For example, you need an Eero Plus subscription ($10 per month or $100 for the year) to unlock parental controls on your Eero mesh system. 

Consider the additional security features on offer. Many routers come bundled with built-in protection that will monitor your network in real-time to detect malware, viruses, and other intrusions and block them from gaining access to your devices. Some can automatically block malicious websites, ransomware, adware, and phishing attempts and even scan devices on your network to flag potential security issues. But these security features often require a subscription. For example, Netgear Armor, powered by Bitdefender, offers comprehensive security and costs $100 for a year. 

Device Prioritization

Quality of service (QoS) is an underappreciated feature worth looking into, particularly if you have a busy household with several people using the internet. Imagine a video call for work gets choppy or disconnects because your kid starts streaming Netflix. Perhaps the movie you're watching starts to buffer when your roommate begins downloading a game update.

With QoS, you can prioritize devices and sometimes services or activities. You might dictate that your work PC is the priority device, for example, ensuring it has the most bandwidth to reduce the risk of stuttering calls. Some routers enable you to prioritize activities like gaming to minimize latency and ensure the smoothest possible experience. 

Common Terms, Explained

There's a lot of jargon you'll run into when shopping for a router. Here's a quick explanation of some of those technical terms.

SSID

The service set identifier is the name of your Wi-Fi network. By default, it might be the manufacturer's name and some numbers or the Wi-Fi band, but you can always rename your network in the app or web interface for your router.

MU-MIMO

This pops up as a plus on many routers and other Wi-Fi-connected devices, but what does it mean? MU-MIMO stands for multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output. Routers sort incoming requests from devices into a single file queue, but MU-MIMO enables them to split the available bandwidth into equal chunks. Now, instead of one long queue, you can have two, three, or four short queues and should get served faster. The maximum number of queues or users that can be served simultaneously in Wi-Fi 5 is four but increases to eight with Wi-Fi 6.

Beam-Forming

Each antenna in your router emits a Wi-Fi signal in all directions. Beam-forming is a way of focusing the Wi-Fi signal in one particular direction to improve the connection with a device. This can boost speeds, efficiency, and signal quality while simultaneously reducing errors and interference.

OFDMA

An exciting technology in Wi-Fi 6 that will serve multiple users with different bandwidth requirements simultaneously, OFDMA stands for orthogonal frequency-division multiple access. If you imagine individual Wi-Fi requests as packages on a truck, your router is currently sending out deliveries to a single point and then returning to do the next one. OFDMA lets it load up the truck with packages for multiple users, which is much more efficient.

Backhaul

This refers to the link between your main router and any nodes or access points you may have. For best performance, the link will be wired using Ethernet cables, but you can also have wireless backhaul that uses Wi-Fi. With mesh systems, for example, a tri-band system with one 2.4-GHz band and two 5-GHz bands might reserve one of its 5-GHz bands to send data from a node to the router and vice versa, which would be dedicated wireless backhaul.

Final Takeaways

Your maximum internet connection speed is determined by your ISP, but routers that offer faster speeds still bring benefits for connections between devices on your home network.

Always check compatibility for any router, modem, or combination you are considering with your ISP.

Mesh systems can ensure greater coverage and more reliable performance than single routers, but they aren't always better. Much depends on the size and construction of your home and your router placement.

The minimum specs we recommend are Wi-Fi 6 (IEEE 802.11 ax) support and WPA2 security, but consider Wi-Fi 6E and WPA3 security or hang on for Wi-Fi 7 (IEEE 802.11 be) if you can afford it.

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