Types of Wireless Routers
These routers comply with the 802.11.ac Wi-Fi standard. They use the 5 GHz band and support faster speeds and more connections than previous-generation routers. They also use the 2.4 GHz band for backward compatibility with older devices. If you have multiple devices that connect simultaneously to the Internet, or if you regularly do things such as competitive online gaming or streaming video on multiple devices, a wireless-AC router is your best choice.
Wireless-AD (802.11ad) is the latest Wi-Fi standard and adds support for signals in the 60 GHz band. These routers offer the fastest speeds of all (on the 60 GHz band) and are backward compatible with older wireless protocols. That's a good thing because the 60 GHZ band has very short range compared to the other Wi-Fi frequencies and its signals won't penetrate walls at all. However, if you need to move tons of data between devices in the same room, they are worth considering. That said, there currently are only a handful of wireless-AD routers available, and relatively few compatible client devices such as laptops, tablets, etc.
For those with minimal connectivity needs, and with older gear that does not support the wireless-AC standard (let alone wireless-AD), a wireless-N (802.11n) router can make sense and save some money. Most wireless-N routers support both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, though some super-cheap legacy routers that only support 2.4 GHz remain available. Wireless-N is slower than wireless-AC (by about a factor of 3), however, and supports fewer simultaneous connections.
One issue with any wireless router is range. In a large house, or one with dense walls (such as plaster), getting a usable Wi-Fi signal throughout your home from a router's single access point can be a challenge, or nearly impossible. To overcome that, Wi-Fi systems use mesh technology to spread coverage throughout the premises, and they provide faster speeds and/or easier set up than using other techniques, such as range extenders. The system consists of a main, or parent, node that sits in place of a standard router, and a series of satellite or child nodes that connect to one another to spread the signal. The downside is cost, as you will typically need multiple node units to cover a larger home. All modern Wi-Fi systems are wireless-AC.
Building a home
To build a
computer network in your home or office without running wires everywhere, you
need a wireless router to create a Wi-Fi access point. Wi-Fi clients such as
laptops, tablets and smartphones can connect via radio signals from anywhere
within the router's range to share data. Attach the router to a modem, and
those same clients can also wirelessly access the Internet. Wireless routers
usually have Ethernet ports, so they can simultaneously support hard-wired
networking, and some have USB ports for sharing a printer or an external hard
drive over the network.
Many factors can
interfere with your wireless network, including nearby electronic devices,
other Wi-Fi networks and even the layout of your house. Manufacturers don't
take these real-world scenarios into account when claiming a router's
performance, and experts say the best routers deliver about half of their
that can slow performance is the large and growing number of devices that can
connect wirelessly to the internet. All modern wireless-N and wireless-AC
routers support MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) technology, but only to
one device at a time. That's not as much of a handicap as you might imagine as
the distribution of data to multiple devices happens so quickly that users are
unlikely to be even aware that it is happening, even if streaming video to a
couple of devices. However, things can slow down if multiple users gulping down
lots of data are accessing the router simultaneously.
Enter MU-MIMO, or
multi-user MIMO. This is an optional feature of the 802.11.ac standard that
allows the router to serve data to up to four users simultaneously. The catch
is that it's only compatible with client devices that also support MU-MIMO, and
at present, there's not a ton of those available. Also, MU-MIMO support is only
beneficial if your network includes at least two client devices that are
MU-MIMO compatible. Still, you will find MU-MIMO supported on many higher end
wireless-AC routers. These are a good option for some -- such as a competitive
gamer who doesn't want his online fun slowed down an instant just because
someone else in the household wants to stream 4k video -- and does make a router at least a little
more future proof as more MU-MIMO client devices become available.
All but the
cheapest current routers support communications over the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz
bands. Of the two, 2.4 GHz is generally more congested as more devices -- such
as cordless phones, garage door openers and the like -- use it. It can also
support fewer connections and lower speeds than the 5 GHz band. However, 5 GHz
signals have a shorter range in general, and a harder time passing through
floors and walls. Wireless-AD routers add support for the 60 GHz band. However,
60 GHz signals are short range and can't penetrate walls, ceilings and floors
very well, limiting it to same-room use, but it offers the fastest connection
speed of all.
routers support beamforming technology. Normally, wireless signals from a
router are omnidirectional, travelling with equal strength in all directions.
Instead, with beamforming, a router can focus the signal in specific directions
to improve range. There are two types of beamforming. In explicit beamforming,
introduced with the wireless-AC standard, compatible clients can relay location
information to the router. In implicit beamforming, the router will analyze
client locations on its own and boost signals in those directions. While
implicit beamforming provides some benefits in networks with older devices,
explicit beamforming is the more effective technique.
At the high end
of the market, you'll also find tri-band wireless-AC devices. These have three
radios, one for 2.4 GHz and two separate ones for different frequencies in the
5 GHz band. Though these are marketed as having higher speed, their true
advantage is that the extra band allows for more connections. If you have a ton
of devices all trying to access your router simultaneously, the added
connections will make things appear to move more swiftly. If, on the other
hand, you only have a handful of devices trying to make a connection, adding
the extra band won't affect throughput in any meaningful way.
Finding The Best Wireless Routers
"Best wireless routers of 2017"
To find the best
wireless routers for most situations and budgets, we looked at expert reviews,
ranging from highly technical resources such as SmallNetBuilder.com
to everyday-user-friendly ones such as ConsumerReports.org. Along the way, we
also consulted the experts at PCMag.com, CNET, TheWirecutter.com and others.
Because the real-world experience of typical consumers can differ so markedly
from the brief testing by experts well-versed in the ins and outs of wireless
technology, we paid special attention to user feedback posted at sites such as
Amazon.com and BestBuy.com -- and there are hundreds and often thousands of
user reviews available for popular models. All of that is distilled, analyzed
and considered to come up with our recommendations for the Best Reviewed