What the best wireless router has
- Ease of use. Setting up a wireless router can be a daunting task for even the most experienced owner. Consider a router that's easy to set up and use.
- Ample connectivity. If you want to share a printer or data on an external hard drive on your network, you'll want a router with USB ports. Unless your network will be completely wireless, experts recommend routers with Gigabit Ethernet ports as well, which are theoretically 10 times faster than regular Ethernet ports.
- Up-to-date security. By not protecting your network with a password, you're more vulnerable to hackers or those looking for free Wi-Fi. Experts recommend wireless routers with WPA2 security encryption, the most secure available.
- Advanced features. While tech-savvy users may want the most robust features available, most routers are sufficiently feature-rich for home and small-office use. For mainstream use, consider Quality of Service (QoS) support, guest networking, MIMO or MU-MIMO compatibility, beamforming and parental controls.
- Consistent performance. A wireless router's performance has three main elements: speed, range and how well it holds a connection. However, keep in mind that external factors -- notably radio interference -- can affect performance, sometimes profoundly.
Know before you go
What's the difference between theoretical and real-life speeds? Keep in mind that whichever router you opt for, advertised speeds are theoretical, and, especially in the case of fast wireless-AC routers, you are likely to never see these speeds in real life. That's due to many factors, including interference, your Internet provider and your network equipment. PCMag.com editor Samara Lynn says if a router delivers close to half of the manufacturer's claim, its throughput is considered excellent.
Distance matters. With all routers, the best performance will be at close range -- within 10 or 15 feet and in the same room. Performance will drop off, sometimes dramatically, with every foot of distance, and every wall or other obstacle that the wireless signal will need to pass through. That can make where you place your router critical -- often spelling the difference between getting a good signal where you need it most, or getting nothing at all. If you have a large home, or one with dense (plaster) walls, you may need to consider a wireless extender or opting for a Wi-Fi system to get coverage to every part.
Wireless-N, wireless-AC or Wireless-AD? Wireless-AC (802.11ac) technology is the best choice right now for most router buyers. Most laptops, smartphones, tablets and other connectable devices made in the last couple of years are wireless-AC compatible, and wireless-AC is backwards compatible for those older devices that you still own and use. Speeds are faster than wireless-N and older routers, and these devices are more feature rich and generally capable. While the fastest wireless-AC routers can be quite pricey, lower-priced, lower-performance wireless-AC routers still out-perform wireless-N models, and some don't cost very much more. That said, if you have mostly older gear, lack a broadband internet connection, and/or have a very modest budget, some ultra-cheap wireless-N routers can make sense. Wireless-AD is the latest standard, but support is limited and while these routers are capable of blazing speed, the biggest benefit will only be seen over short distances and within the same room. What about wireless-G and older routers? Our advice is that if you see one on a retailer's shelves, you should leave it there.
How fast is your Internet connection? Gaudy speed numbers are great, but except in cases where your primary concern is a router to move data between devices in your home, they could be overkill if you lack a high-speed broadband connection that can make use of that. On the other hand, if you get (and are paying for) a high-speed connection (and speeds of 150, 200 and even 300 Mbps are available from some providers), you are leaving bandwidth (and money) on the table if you don't opt for a router that can deliver all of that speed.
Will other household electronics cause interference? Expect that cell phone, microwave ovens, cordless phones and other household electronics may cause annoying interference with a wireless network. If you have a cordless phone that uses the 2.4 GHz band, you can avoid interference by upgrading to a 5.8 GHz or 1.9 GHz DECT phone. Wireless-AC routers and some wireless-N routers can also operate on the 5 GHz band which is less congested, and less prone to issues.