How to Buy a Wireless Router

Updated June 30, 2013

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 QoS support, guest networking 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 are your needs for speed and range? If you play games online or trade files heavily or your network consists of distantly separated rooms, consider paying extra for a true simultaneous dual-band router. These work on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands at the same time, which can improve performance and reduce interference. Not all dual-band routers are simultaneous; check manufacturers' specs carefully.

What's the difference between theoretical and real-life speeds? While the most advanced wireless-N routers promise speeds of up to 450 Mbps and even more for wireless-AC, you'll never see these speeds in real life. That's due to many factors, including interference, your Internet provider and your network equipment. editor Samara Lynn says if a router delivers close to half of the manufacturer's claim, its throughput is considered excellent.

Do you need an 802.11ac router? Although 802.11ac technology has started to hit the market in force, this standard has yet to be ratified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Wireless-AC routers claim faster speeds and wider range than wireless-N routers, but you won't see these boons unless you also have wireless-AC compatible clients. They're scarce now, but are slowly becoming more readily available. One benefit of choosing 802.11ac now is that you'll be future-proofed for when the technology becomes more widespread.

How old is your equipment? A wireless-N router can't make your older equipment run faster. In fact, Tim Higgins at cautions that a wireless-N unit "could end up causing problems with very old gear." As the latest draft-802.11ac routers continue to hit stores, you may want to consider replacing older equipment or even weaning off wireless-G technology.

How many computers will be in your network? Understand that you need network adapters for each computer you add to the network. Your desktop or laptop probably already has installed networking components, but you might have to purchase an internal or external network card; consult your computer manual. Reviewers suggest buying a wireless router and adapters made by the same company if you can. This facilitates both setup and technical support, and it's sometimes necessary for compatibility.

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 bandwidth, you can avoid interference by upgrading to a 5.8 GHz or 1.9 GHz DECT phone. Wireless-N and wireless-AC routers can operate on either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz bands; newer dual-band, dual-radio routers can work on both at once. Interference can also vary by a surprising amount depending on the location in your home, so experiment with wireless router placement if interference is a problem.