Wi-Fi routers perform the critical duty of wirelessly transferring data between your home or office devices. More people are working from home than ever, and using a continuously increasing number of smart home devices. A reliable, fast Wi-Fi router has thus never been more important.
If you’re struggling with poor network speeds at home or in the office, the best network monitoring tools can help you diagnose the issue. If your current wireless router isn’t up to the job anymore, use the steps below to decide which wireless router to choose.
How to buy the best wireless router: Preparation
Choosing the best wireless router for your needs first requires a little understanding of routers and modems.
A wireless router has the job of directing the traffic between all the connected devices in your home or office. This is different from a modem, which connects to the internet via DSL, ISDN, or fiber. Many internet service providers (ISPs) supply an all-in-one modem/router combo.
To diagnose whether internet speed issues are down to your ISP or your wireless router, test your connection speed with an online tool like Speedtest. Perform a test from a computer directly connected to the modem by ethernet cable, and then another from a device connected wirelessly to your router.
If the speed you get when wirelessly connected via your router is much slower than the speed you get when connected directly to the modem, your wireless router may need an upgrade.
Step 1: Decide on the type of device you want
As discussed above, you need both a modem and a router to share internet connectivity across your home or office.
You can buy a standalone wireless router and connect it by ethernet cable to the modem supplied by your ISP. Alternatively, you can buy a modem/router combo device, but these are a bit more expensive.
Another option is a mesh system, which has multiple nodes you position around your home or office. The central hub acts as a standalone router, while the satellite nodes dotted around your building provide blanket wireless coverage. Mesh systems are a pricier option than standalone wireless routers, though.
Step 2: Calculate how much speed you need
The speed of your internet connection mostly comes down to your ISP. Check the maximum speed your internet service offers you (the current US average is around 144Mbps). You should choose a wireless router that can transfer at least this speed, so you get the maximum speeds your ISP will allow.
Step 2: Choose a Wi-Fi standard
The top speed of a Wi-Fi router is mainly determined by the Wi-Fi protocols it can handle. Wi-Fi protocols are referred to by their IEEE Standard name (e.g., 802.11ax) or generation name (e.g., Wi-Fi 6).
These days, we recommend choosing a router that can support at least Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). Wi-Fi 5 has a transfer rate of up to 5,400Mbps in perfect conditions.
A newer option is Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), which can transfer up to a theoretical 9,600Mbps. Not many devices support Wi-Fi 6 at this time, so the main benefit here is future-proofing. There’s also a slight variant called Wi-Fi 6E, which we’ll discuss more next.
Step 3: Consider Wi-Fi bands
Good wireless routers these days are dual-band, meaning they support both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands.
Bands are different radio frequency levels that wireless signals can be transmitted over. The 2.4Ghz band has a longer range than 5Ghz and penetrates walls better, but 5Ghz offers faster speeds over short, unobstructed distances.
Some routers offer tri-band functionality. This means they have two radios operating on the 5Ghz band and one on the 2.4Ghz band, further improving stability and speeds.
A new band, 6GHz, was added to the mix by the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2020. New routers with support for W-Fi 6E can take advantage of this new spectrum to get speeds of over 10,000Mbps. However, the price of these routers is still extremely high.
Step 4: Think about security standards
Early wireless networks were plagued with security flaws, making it trivial for a malicious actor to crack the Wi-Fi password and join your network without your consent. Wireless routers that only support WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) or WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) shouldn’t be used today.
The minimum level of security you should look for today is WPA2. It has very strong encryption, but it still has a few potential attack vectors.
WPA3 is the most up-to-date security standard that fixes all the weaknesses of WPA2. When possible, we recommend choosing a wireless router with WPA3 support.
Step 5: Check the ports the router has
Many devices function better when connected by an ethernet cable to your router rather than wirelessly. Connecting via cable offers the fastest possible speeds and saves precious wireless bandwidth for the devices that must connect wirelessly. So, having at least four ethernet ports on your router is useful.
Some routers have a USB port too that can be used to connect up a printer or network-attached storage (NAS). This can be a convenient way to share a printer or hard drive across the network.
Start by considering whether a new Wi-Fi router is really what you need and decide how fast it must be.
Choose a Wi-Fi router that supports a fast enough Wi-Fi protocol—at least Wi-Fi 5 but perhaps Wi-Fi 6. If you’re gaming or you share your internet with multiple people, consider choosing a tri-band router for better speeds.
Check that the router you plan on purchasing supports the latest WPA3 security standard. Finally, research all the extra features each router has, such as additional ports or a mobile app.