Your router might just be the most under-appreciated but essential part of your home or office. Without it, you couldn’t stream Netflix, HBO Now, or Skype conference calls to your smartphone, tablet or laptop without cumbersome Ethernet cords or weird workarounds. When it’s doing its job well, you never give it much thought. But when it isn’t, well, you notice.
Thankfully, routers have come a long way since the early days of broadband, and the market is now saturated with different models serving different needs. Whether you’re a PC gamer looking for the best, customizable wireless connection possible, or simply want easy, whole home/office coverage, chances are we know a router that will get the job done. Welcome to our list of the best wireless routers you can buy.
Why you should buy it: This system combines two technologies: the complexity of a single router, and the coverage of a multi-unit system.
Who it’s for: It’s for anyone looking for full coverage in the home or office, and want a solution from a long-time brand they know and trust.
How much will it cost: $300
Why we picked the Netgear Orbi RBK40 system:
There are actually three flavors of the Netgear Orbi system, but we chose the middle tier version due to its performance versus price ratio. It’s an awesome setup, and the real-world connection speeds – not the ones advertised by Netgear – are impressive as you move throughout the house.
What makes the Orbi system unique is that it’s not a standalone device that connects to your service provider’s modem. It consists of at least two units — one that physically connects to the modem and serves as the main hub/router, and one that you can place anywhere else in the home or office to serve as an access point.
The beauty of this setup is that the two Orbi devices communicate with each other through a dedicated, high-speed connection. That means the data passed between the two units isn’t mixed in with all the data passing between your wireless devices and the overall Orbi system. This produces a faster, cleaner flow of data to and from the service provider’s modem.
Having a two-piece networking product is essential because you won’t see major performance drops as you move about the home or office. With the typical stand-alone router, the further you move away, the slower data moves between you and the router, similar to the way your favorite radio station fades as you drive away from the city. With a two-piece kit like the Orbi, your device automatically hops from one unit to the other as you move about for consistent performance, similar to how smartphones move from tower to tower nationwide.
But the Netgear Orbi kit isn’t like most whole-home solutions. You don’t use Bluetooth or a mobile app to set it up. The main unit’s backend is everything you’d expect from a standard router, providing plenty of settings for tweaking the network to suit your needs. You can also purchase additional satellite units to expand coverage horizontally or vertically. We love this kit, and highly suggest any of the three versions offered by Netgear.
The best high-performance router
Why you should buy it: This router packs insane hardware for insane performance, and its even suited up with support for the new Wireless AD connectivity.
Who it’s for: This wireless router was obviously designed for PC gamers and enthusiasts, but it’s also ideal for customers who want to be set networking-wise for another five years.
How much will it cost: $450
Why we picked the Netgear Nighthawk X10:
Yes, the Netgear Nighthawk X10 is expensive. We get it. But look at what’s under the hood powering all that connectivity: a four-core processor clocked at 1.7GHz that’s fit for a desktop PC, an architecture supporting more than 20 connected devices, and high-end antennas to pierce through walls and provide steady performance no matter where you are in the home or office.
For starters, routers communicate to wireless devices in streams. The more each can support, the wider you open the data faucet, hence faster speeds. This router provides the maximum four streams, so if your wireless device includes four incoming/outgoing antennas (aka 4×4), then it will see 800Mbps on the 2.4GHz band (4x 200Mbps), and 1,733Mbps on the 5GHz band (4x 433Mbps). Check the wireless aspect of your device to see its internal antenna setup (it’s typically 2 x 2), and then you can calculate the speed it will support.
And because this router supports the new Wireless AD standard, which is a huge step up from Wireless AC, you’ll see a third 60GHz connection on compatible devices. This provides speeds of up to 4,600Mbps, which translates into 1,150Mbps per stream. That’s insane, but devices supporting Wireless AD are just emerging on the mainstream market. Thus, if you purchase this router now, you will be set when smartphones arrive in the near future supporting this standard. Unfortunately, Wireless AD adapters for laptops and desktops are hard to find.
Adding to all this tech talk is the use of MU-MIMO technology, or Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output. In the past, routers could only converse with connected devices one at a time, like Santa Claus whittling down a line of eager children. Yet with MU-MIMO, routers can now talk to devices simultaneously.
Outside the connectivity, there’s plenty to love with the Nighthawk X10. It provides new channels, so you’re not sharing the same invisible space with your neighbors, two USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-A ports, and six gigabit Ethernet ports, two of which are linked together (1x in, 1x out) to speed up your wired connection. The router even includes a 10 gigabit fiber Ethernet port for lightning-fast connections to media servers and storage devices.
The best easy-to-use router
Why you should buy it: It has a built-in touch screen for easy network management, and it doesn’t break the bank. How cool is that?
Who it’s for: This router targets customers in the home or office who want an affordable solution that’s easy to setup and manage.
How much will it cost: $133
Why we picked the TP-Link Touch P5:
If simplicity and easy management is what you’re looking for, the TP-Link’s Touch P5 is the router for you. Originally sold for $200, this router packs a built-in 4.3-inch touch screen with a colorful resolution of 480 x 272, to provide easy on-device controls without the need for a connected PC or wireless device for management. With this screen, you can configure app-style settings with just a touch such as parental controls, wireless settings, device access management, and loads more.
On the connectivity front, the Touch P5 provides three incoming and three outgoing streams. That translates to up to 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band (3x 200Mbps), and up to 1,300Mbps on the 5GHz band (3x 433Mbps). That said, if your smartphone only has a 2×2 wireless component, then the maximum you’ll see is 400Mbps on the 2.4GHz connection, and 867Mbps on the 5GHz connection.
Under the hood, the router relies on a two-core processor clocked at 1GHz to handle all the connection requests. The architecture is also designed to function in three different modes — router, Repeater, and Access Point. It’s supported by four gigabit Ethernet ports on the back, which play a part in the Access Point Mode.
As for other Touch P5 bells and whistles, the router includes a USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-A port, and a USB 2.0 Type-A port for sharing storage and printers. TP-Link promises coverage of up to 10,000 square feet, although expect that number to be lower given the design of your home or office, and if neighboring networks are invading your space. You’ll likely see that 10,000 square feet of coverage claim on the moon.
The best cheap router
Why you should buy it: You get a lot of bang for your buck, and it’s even manageable through a mobile app.
Who it’s for: The Archer C7 is designed for the home or office that needs lots of performance for very little money.
How much will it cost: $80
Why we picked the TP-Link Archer C7:
If you don’t want to spend more than $100 on a router for the home or office, then the Archer C7 is your ticket to connectivity heaven. There aren’t any gimmicks like a built-in touchscreen or linked ethernet ports. Instead, the Archer C7 focuses on packing performance per dollar, so you can simply connect it to the modem, endure the easy setup process, and be on your way.
TP-Link’s router provides three incoming and three outgoing streams. In connection numbers, that means you’ll see speeds of up to 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz connection (3x 150Mbps), and up to 1,300Mbps on the 5GHz connection (3x 433Mbps). As with the other routers we listed above, you’ll need to check the wireless hardware specifications for your connected device to see if its supports a 3×3 connection. Modern smartphones typically only handle 2×2 connections.
Of course, in the real world, you’ll never see those numbers on a wireless connection. Your download and upload speeds are also capped by the limits imposed by your internet subscription. But there’s plenty here in the Archer C7 for streaming Netflix to your devices, backed by three external antennas that promise great range throughout the home or office.
Baked into the Archer C7 are four gigabit Ethernet ports, and two USB 2.0 Type-A ports, for sharing content and printers across the network. The device can be managed through the web-based backend, or through TP-Link’s Tether app for Android and iOS-based devices. With this app, you can schedule the next firmware update, establish guest access, manage the connected devices, and more.
The best whole home router kit
Why you should buy it: This networking kit sheds the single-unit design to blanket your home or office in a web of connectivity through three units.
Who it’s for: Eero is designed for customers who want full, reliable coverage and don’t mind shelling out the extra bucks.
How much will it cost: $361
Why we picked the Eero Home Wi-Fi System:
Hands down, the Eero kit is an extremely reliable networking solution that provides fast, full coverage throughout your home or office. It’s based on the budding “mesh” networking technology that creates a web of connectivity between access points, generating an invisible blanket throughout the home or office. In contrast, the typical stand-alone router broadcasts from a central point, which degrades the further you move away from the device.
The original first-generation Eero kit consists of three identical, hockey-puck like devices. One serves as the main hub that connects to your modem, while the others can be placed anywhere. These units connect wirelessly to the hub unit, and to each other. All the while, your device will only see one connection, so when you move throughout the home or office, your device will automatically move from one Eero unit to the other without any manual input. Eero also chooses the best connection, too.
The latest Eero kit includes one hockey puck-style unit serving as the hub, and two PC mice-like “beacons” that are slimmer than the hub, and plug directly into an electrical outlet. These beacons even sport a built-in night light to fend off the monsters lurking in the dark.
Setting up the kit is a brainless project, and doesn’t involve digging through detailed settings in a browser-based interface. All maintenance is performed on a friendly mobile app. With the app, you can test your internet connection, manage a guest network, block unwanted devices, and more.
The Eero kit includes a dedicated 5GHz connection between all units. That leaves a second 5GHz connection providing speeds of up to 867Mbps for your devices, and a 2.4GHz connection providing speeds of up to 400Mbps. The hub includes two gigabit ethernet ports (one for devices, one for the modem), but the beacon units do not. If you want a kit like the first-generation Eero setup where all units have Ethernet ports, then you’ll need to go “Pro” for a heftier $500. Ouch.
Deciphering router numbers
When you’re shopping for a new router, you’re going to see a lot of different numbers thrown around. The one that you’ll see the most follows the letters “AC,” such as AC1750 or AC1900. Router manufacturers love to combine speeds into one big number, which is misleading given that you’ll never, ever see that specific promoted speed.
As of late, most network routers provide two connections on two different frequencies — 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Unlike computer CPUs and monitors, these numbers don’t define a specific rate or speed. Instead, they represent a specific radio frequency – the spectrum of the radio band on which your router is transmitting information.
Most wireless devices on the market typically rely on the 2.4GHz band, which means that frequency is crowded like Times Square on New Years Eve. If your router can only broadcast on 2.4GHz, you might experience low performance due to congestion in the local area. If your neighbors have a wireless network, their traffic is mixed in as well, slowing data movement even more.
That’s where 5GHz comes in. Modern “dual-band” routers are capable of broadcasting on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The 5GHz spectrum is a lot less congested, as it’s not used by as many devices, so your connected device will see faster upload and download speeds than the 2.4GHz connection.
The drawback is that the 5GHz spectrum has difficulty penetrating obstructions, whereas 2.4GHz has no problem shooting through walls and furniture. In other words, you get better range at slower speeds on the 2.4GHz band, and a lower range pumping faster speeds on 5GHz.
With that out of the way, we circle back to the big “AC” number. Manufacturers will take the maximum speed of both connections (2.4GHz and 5GHz), and add them together to get an impressive “holy cow that’s fast” speed. You simply won’t hit that number, but you can use it to figure out the maximum speeds of each band.
For instance, an AC1750 router provides speeds of up to 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz band, and speeds of up to 1,300Mbps on the 5GHz band. Devices supporting those speeds must include three incoming and three outgoing antennas on the inside, as routers send and receive data using up to four individual streams, depending on the manufacturer. In this case, the router is broadcasting three streams on the 2.4GHz band at 150Mbps each, and three streams on the 5GHz band at 433Mbps each.
But as we’ve shown in our list, routers compatible with the Wireless AD standard are now hitting the mainstream market. They include a third 60GHz connection, promising even faster speeds than what we see with Wireless AC. But the technology is inching into the mainstream market at a snail’s pace, and likely won’t replace Wireless AC as the new wireless default for another year or so.
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