Source: Windows Central
Our connected reality means that the devices we use every day are becoming “smart” and joining our home networks. Whereas just a few years ago, a home router commonly had just a phone, PC, and maybe a tablet connected, you’ll often now find more connections than you can count on two hands. Streaming TV, making calls, dimming lights, and adjusting the temperature in your place is all handled over wireless internet, provided by a Wi-Fi router. Now that many people are quarantined, self-isolated, and working from home, investing in a proper router is more important than ever.
Top routers in 2020
Why shop for a specific router?
Source: Windows Central
In some cases, the router provided by your ISP will indeed serve you well, and you’ll be satisfied with what you have, especially if it’s loaned to you as part of the subscription package. For years I lived in a small, open place that easily picked up my few devices with the single antenna, and when I needed to hit top speed, I used an Ethernet cable. If, however, you have to rent a router from your ISP, or if it’s outdated compared to the devices you’re using in your home, you can likely take advantage of an upgrade.
Now that many people are forced to work from home, are self-isolated, or quarantined due to the coronavirus pandemic, a shoddy router is going to become even more apparent.
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax standards
Wi-Fi is a global standard, and to ensure that devices can connect without issue, there are specifications that it must adhere to. That standard is known as 802.11, and the letters a, b, g, n, ac, and the new ax following designate the version. The versions are compatible with each other, but connecting to an earlier version means your device will be capped at the slower speed.
With the release of 802.11ax, a new naming method has come into effect to help differentiate the older versions of Wi-Fi. They are now designated as follows:
- 802.11b is now Wi-Fi 1
- 802.11a is now Wi-Fi 2
- 802.11g is now Wi-Fi 3
- 802.11n is now Wi-Fi 4
- 802.11ac is now Wi-Fi 5
- 802.11ax is now Wi-Fi 6
What exactly is Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 has some major benefits over the older Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). The Wi-Fi Alliance (the standards body that oversees Wi-Fi technology) lists these four key benefits of Wi-Fi 6:
- Faster overall transfer speeds to and from devices
- More capacity for connected devices
- Better performance with many connected devices
- Less device battery drain when connected
Wi-Fi 6 is much better cut out for handling traffic from large crowds, and it can handle a much higher theoretical speed up to about 9.6Gbps (about three times the current theoretical limit of Wi-Fi 5). As people move to high-resolution streaming, intensive gaming, and many more connected devices, Wi-Fi 6 will truly begin to show its benefits.
If you’re interested in future-proofing your Wi-Fi network and already have some Wi-Fi 6 devices that can connect to a shiny new router, be sure to check out our roundup of the best Wi-Fi 6 routers available right now.
Single-band vs. dual-band
Devices that can use only the 2.4GHz radio are called single-band devices, while dual-band devices can use the 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios. Whereas the lower-frequency radio has a lower speed limit and is more narrow, the 5GHz band is much wider and has a much higher speed limit.
There are drawbacks to the 5GHz band. Higher frequency means the signal loses more of its strength as it deals with walls, furniture, and other obstacles. However, modern routers have something called beamforming that will send a signal in the direction of a device, rather than just spraying a signal in a sphere around it. Still, the increased speed and wider road mean it’s perfect for streaming high-def video and gaming.
Consider your internet’s top speed
Even these speeds are theoretical, and in real-world testing, you likely won’t get anywhere near that number. Likewise, if you see a Wi-Fi 5 router labeled with something like AC5000, it’s not magically hitting 5,000Mbps. Instead, you’re getting a single 600Mbps 2.4GHz band and two 2,166Mbps 5GHz bands. In the case of an AX6000 Wi-Fi 6 router, which can triple speeds on the radios, you’re looking at theoretical speeds up to 1.2Gbps on the 2.4GHz radio and 4.8Gbps on the 5GHz radio.
So, stepping out and buying the biggest, baddest, most expensive router might be tempting, but paying for something you don’t need will be more of a letdown. For example, if you’re paying for a 50Mbps internet plan from your ISP and you live in a one-bedroom apartment, it doesn’t make much sense to buy an AC5000 router with eight antennas. Your internet can only be as fast as the slowest point in the connection, which in this case, is likely what’s provided by your ISP. A lot of the options we’ve collected in our best Wi-Fi router roundup will appeal to the average user who needs hardware to fit their ISP plan.
Determine how much area you need to cover
Source: Windows Central
If you know you’re going to have an issue covering a large space and don’t want to buy a single, large router, you can always take a look at mesh Wi-Fi kits. These systems work in unison to deliver Wi-Fi to a large area, often covering thousands of square feet of indoor space. They’re built to be as easy as possible to set up, and they’re an increasingly popular choice even for smaller areas. Interested? We’ve rounded up the best mesh Wi-Fi router systems to help you buy what’s right for your space.
Count how many devices need to connect
If you have a router with a 2.4GHz band that can hit a theoretical max of 300Mbps and have ten devices connected at once, each of those devices would only be getting an average of about 30Mbps. For anyone in a crowded home with multiple devices connected at once, a high-end, dual-band router is your best bet. If your family can’t stop streaming Netflix, a tri-band router with two 5GHz bands is definitely something to consider.
On that note, pay attention to how many Ethernet ports a router has. Have lots of devices for which you want to provide a wired connection? Start counting. Likewise, check for USB ports if you’re looking to add an external drive or other device to your home network.
Do you need MU-MIMO?
SU-MIMO is fine for most purposes, and the rotating delivery happens so fast you usually won’t notice. If, however, someone in the home is streaming video and you’re trying to game online, MU-MIMO can come in handy by offering uninterrupted data flows to both devices. If you’re mostly using older devices, MU-MIMO won’t be as important, but if you’re always updating hardware, you’ll no doubt be able to take full advantage of the feature.
Consider software and security features
If you need to be in full control of everything that goes through your router, go for one with advanced firmware that includes a decent firewall and offers any additional features you may require, or supports the installation of third-party advanced firmware like DD-WRT that can offer those features.
If you are concerned about your children being exposed to inappropriate information on the internet, choosing a router with built-in parental controls can be useful. Some routers even let you allow and restrict internet access for your children based on time slots and offer guest access for your visitors so that you won’t need to provide them with your primary Wi-Fi password.
Choosing the right router
Source: Windows Central
Consider how big of a space you need to cover, and plan accordingly. Some of the high-end routers can tackle a pretty impressive chunk of real estate, but you might need to invest in a mesh Wi-Fi system to hit that bottom corner of the basement.
If you are in a big space, you might have a lot of people trying to connect their devices simultaneously. If this is the case, investing in a router with two 5GHz bands isn’t a bad idea, and going for something with a high speed might come in handy if you decide to upgrade your ISP internet package in the future.
Finally, choose a router with the proper customization options. If you want to tweak a lot of settings, ensure it makes them available to you. If you’d rather just plug it in and not worry about it, you’ll probably have an easier time when shopping.
Top routers in 2020
We have multiple roundups available that can help you get the right hardware, whether you’re looking for a standard Wi-Fi router, a mesh Wi-Fi system, or the latest Wi-Fi 6 router. Just need something quick? These options should fit the bill no matter the networking needs you have.
ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AC5300 ($319 at Amazon)
This beastly Wi-Fi 5 router is what you want for killer performance across many devices, especially if you’re gaming. It has dual 5GHz radios and a 2.4GHz radio for combined theoretical speeds up to 5.3Gbps. It includes VPN support, 4×4 MU-MIMO, and tons of range.
ASUS RT-AX88U ($285 at Amazon)
If you’re looking to buy a router that will last well into the future, this Wi-Fi 6 option from ASUS is a great pick. It offers theoretical speeds up to 6.0Gbps across radios, it has eight Ethernet ports, and it has excellent range and the ability to handle plenty of devices.
Amazon eero ($199 at Amazon)
Want to blanket your entire home in an uninterrupted Wi-Fi 5 signal? The eero mesh system brings three nodes that intelligently and seamlessly move your connected devices around to ensure the absolute best connection. Setup is simple, and there are plenty of family controls.
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