With remote work now the norm for many, it’s never been more important to ensure that your home network is up to speed. The most important part of this setup is your Wi-Fi (or wireless) router, which sends information from the internet to all of your devices. Experts said you should upgrade your router at least every five years, not only to increase your speed and reliability but also to make sure your device is receiving the latest feature and security updates. If you’re still using the dusty Wi-Fi router you bought when you first got broadband internet — or the basic unit your internet provider rents to you — it might be time to move on.
We spoke to experts to break down how Wi-Fi routers work and whether you should buy your own router. They outlined how to choose the best router for your needs — including whether it’s worthwhile to lay out the extra cash to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 or the even faster 6E. We also offer some options to improve your existing wireless signal using mesh Wi-Fi system and range extenders, which could keep you from having to buy a new router at all.
What is a Wi-Fi router?
Back in the day, computers needed to be wired to one another in order to communicate. But in 1999, Wi-Fi was introduced, giving people a new way to connect their devices without cables.
Through your internet service provider (typically referred to as your ISP), a cable or DSL line finds its way into your home and connects to a modem — a small device that decodes the incoming internet signal into something your computer (and other devices) can read.
That signal then goes to a router — which connects to your modem through a wire — that ensures any email (or pictures of cats) you click on display on the right device in your home. You can even find modem/router combo units that unite both of these functions into one device.
Wi-Fi routers primarily do the same thing as a traditional router, but instead of relying only on wires, they convert data into radio signals that are then picked up by your connected devices. The devices on your home network comprise your WLAN, or wireless local area network.
The best Wi-Fi routers in 2022
It can get wildly confusing to pick from all the wireless routers on the market today. After speaking with experts, we used their advice to round up some solid options to consider — from the most budget-friendly to the exceedingly feature-heavy — to give you maximum speed and coverage throughout your home.
Best affordable wireless router: TP-Link
You’d be surprised what less than $100 will get you these days. TP Link offers some of the best bang for your buck with the Archer AX21. Best for small- to medium-sized homes, this router will upgrade your network to Wi-Fi 6 and has remarkably fast wireless AC performance, offering top speeds of 1,200Mbps on 5GHz band and 574Mbps on 2.4GHz band. It’s also supported by Alexa and is a snap to set up, even for non-experts, the brand says. TP says it has reduced network congestion and can handle up to six devices at the same time.
Best high-end Wi-Fi routers for top performance: Netgear and TP
Netgear Nighthawk AX12 (AX11000) Tri-Band Wi-Fi 6 Router
Experts told us this is one of the fastest routers you can buy thanks to its combination of Wi-Fi 6 and tri-band antennas. This 12-stream router covers up to 2,500 square feet and up to 50 devices can use it at the same time to stream movies and games or download/transfer files at speeds up to 10.8Gbps, the brand says. It’s an investment, but serious power users with a houseful of wireless devices that need the fastest speeds possible should consider it.
TP Link Archer AX11000 Next-Gen Tri-Band Gaming Router
The AX11000 is definitely a bit pricey, but if you’re a gamer and want ultra-fast speed, this Wi-Fi router is a great option. One of the fastest wireless routers on the market, it delivers speeds over 10Gbps for extreme gaming support, the brand says. In addition to lifetime malware protection and solid parental controls, this router is laden with features, including a gaming accelerator, which detects and optimizes gaming streams. In 2019, the AX11000 received the Best of CES and Best CES Innovation awards.
Best mid-range wireless routers: ASUS
Asus ROG Strix GS-AX5400
This dual-band Wi-Fi 6 router is a top performer, delivering speeds up to 5,400Mbps, according to the brand. It also offers lifetime free internet security and is compatible with the Asus AiMesh feature, which enables you to connect to certain Asus routers to create a whole-home Wi-Fi mesh system. The wireless router has a dedicated gaming port that prioritizes any wired device connected to it.
Asus RT-AX88U (AX6000) Dual-Band Wi-Fi 6 Router
If you need a new router now and you’re willing to pay a bit extra for more bandwidth, the Asus RT-AX88U combines the new improvements in Wi-Fi 6 with everything that makes the brand’s other routers great: a user-friendly interface , lots of features and a speed up to 6,000Mbps, according to the brand. It also comes with lifetime network security and is Asus AiMesh compatible, Asus says.
Best mesh Wi-Fi system for larger homes: Eero
Amazon Eero Pro 6 Mesh Wi-Fi System
There are a host of things that can impact your Wi-Fi speed, but if you live in a larger home, it’s likely your Wi-Fi just isn’t reaching far enough to the corners of the house. In those cases, a single router might not cut it, even if it’s high-end — instead, a mesh Wi-Fi system like Amazon’s Eero Pro might do the trick. Instead of a single router, you get multiple units equipped with Wi-Fi 6 that intelligently communicate with each other to blanket the whole house in a seamless signal.
Should I buy my own Wi-Fi router?
When you sign up for internet service, your ISP usually offers you a modem and a Wi-Fi router for a small monthly rental fee, somewhere around $8 to $12 a month. But you also have the option to buy one on your own, and there is a financial benefit to this: According to Whitson Gordon, tech expert and senior marketing manager of gaming content at Asus, the router will usually pay for itself after about a year of service, and it will probably be a much better model with more features. “With a better router, you can make the most of your Wi-Fi in your house rather than relying on a baseline configuration meant to work for everyone’s house,” he said. However, he noted that you won’t get the free tech support with your own router that you would get with a rental.
How to choose the best router
According to Gordon, there’s a lot of complicated technobabble behind the numbers on a Wi-Fi box, and there aren’t many reasons to overburden yourself with it — it’s mostly a benchmark that allows you to determine a router’s overall capabilities, he said. Below, we broke down the things you should pay attention to.
A Wi-Fi router’s speed is measured in megabits per second (Mbps) or gigabits per second (Gbps) — 1Gbps equals 1,000Mbps. That metric denotes how fast the router can move incoming data — like an internet signal — from one computer (like your modem) to another (like your smartphone or TV). The FCC considers internet to be “high speed” as long as it has a minimum of 25Mbps download speed and 3Mbps upload speed — most modern Wi-Fi routers far exceed this.
When you shop for a router, you’ll usually see a speed (either in Mbps or Gbps) advertised on the spec sheet. An AC router (aka a Wi-Fi 5 router), for example, might boast up to 5,300Mbps of blazing-fast speed, Gordon said. This number represents total combined speed available to the devices feeding off of that router — most routers won’t ever reach their theoretical maximum speeds. Still, Gordon said looking at the frequency of each band is “getting way far down into the weeds” — as long as the overall speed is strong, you should be good.
For the past few years, the fastest Wi-Fi routers on the market used a standard called “802.11ac,” or “Wireless AC.” The new standard now has a simpler name: Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 6 sends data back and forth at speeds that are about 40% faster than Wi-Fi 5 models, Abhay Bhorkar, Netgear’s director of product development, said in a recent blog post.
Gordon said dual-band routers are very common. These use two different frequencies — 2.4GHz and 5GHz — to provide a better signal to your devices. Having both frequencies allows you to get the best connection no matter where you are in the house, he explained. More modern routers sport the tri-band label, and they use three different frequencies — 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 5GHz— to allow more devices to communicate with the router at one time. Gordon said this eliminates congestion when the whole family’s using the web at the same time. Wi-Fi 6 also sports a tri-band label, but with 2.4GHz, 5GHz and 6GHz frequencies, making it even faster.
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