Routers range from simple to complex
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.
Wireless routers use two frequency bands, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The 2.4 GHz band is more crowded, so consider a dual-band router for better performance. These are typically more expensive than single-band routers, but are faster and more reliable because they can work on both bands. Simultaneous or "true" dual-band routers, which work on both bands at the same time, offer the best performance. Some dual-band routers aren't simultaneous, so check a router's specs carefully.
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 claimed throughput.
Wireless routers follow communications standards set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Up until relatively recently, IEEE 802.11n was the most advanced Wi-Fi standard. Routers that support this, sometimes called wireless-N models, offer better performance and security than older wireless-G routers. However, some wireless-G routers are still popular with advanced users, thanks in part to their hackability. Many use open-source firmware.
The latest wireless standard is 802.11.ac, or wireless-AC. Dual-band wireless-N routers claim throughput of up to 900 Mbps (megabits per second), or 450 Mbps on each band, while wireless-AC theoretically offers up to 1.3 Gbps or 1,300 Mbps. The catch? Wireless-AC isn't currently certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance; available models are considered "draft" 802.11ac routers.
Relatively few devices currently support 802.11ac, but that should change quickly. For starters, Apple includes 802.11ac support in MacBook Air models released in mid-2013, as well as in its AirPort Extreme wireless router released simultaneously. Note that 802.11ac routers are backward compatible with devices that support earlier Wi-Fi standards (802.11a/b/g/n), so opting for one won't render other devices obsolete. You won't, however, get wireless-AC performance with those.
Because wireless routers can get quite technical, finding the right one can be an arduous task. The good news is that many of the routers reviewed here are fairly easy to set up and use, even for a beginner. To help narrow your choices, we look at expert and owner evaluations to find the very best models overall. We name the top wireless routers for Windows and Mac users, as well as 802.11ac, hackable and budget options. Reviews break down models by ease of use, performance and features, and those that rate the highest earn Best Reviewed status in our report.