Types of Wireless
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.
with minimal connectivity needs, and with older gear that does not support the
wireless-AC standard, 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.
What about wireless-AD routers?
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 a 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. Because of those
factors, we don't think that wireless-AD routers make sense for typical users,
at least at this time, so they are not covered in this report.
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 touting 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 when 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
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.
expensive wireless-AC routers are tri-band 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.
Wireless-AC is now the best
You can spend more for a
router, and certainly less -- a lot less, in fact -- but if you want a
top-performing, feature-equipped router, the (Est. $255) should get
top consideration. It received Editors' Choice honors at a bevy of sites,
including CNET, PCMag and Hot Hardware. It also been around for a few years --
more than long enough to accumulate a good track record with owners.
Furthermore, as a brand, Asus has either shared or won outright (as it did in
2017) PCMag's Readers' Choice award among routers.
"You'll pay a lot for
the Asus RT-AC88U, but it has everything you'd want in a router." says
CNET. Reviewer Dong Ngo calls it "The Lexus of wireless routers," and
adds, "If you have the money, this is the router to get." Josh Norem
at Hot Hardware agrees: "Its package of chart-topping performance,
next-gen features, eight LAN ports, and a full-featured software package for
both the desktop and mobile is going to be tough to beat," he says
The wealth of features and
management options could go on for pages -- it has "by far the most to
offer among all home routers I've reviewed," Ngo says. Fortunately, the RT-AC88U
has what PCMag calls a "user-friendly Web interface and mobile app,"
that makes use relatively easy, and set up is "a snap" thanks to a
setup wizard that's described as "intuitive." Security is robust,
guarding against intrusion from malware, and even preventing an already
infected client from sending out personal data. Adaptive Quality of Service (QoS)
lets you prioritize bandwidth for specific applications and devices. Up to six
guest networks can be enabled, allowing visitors to access the Internet but not
gain access to things such as files on another computer. There's a built-in VPN
server. Beyond its Wi-Fi connectivity, the router has eight Gigabit LAN ports
for wired networking and two USB ports (including one USB 3.0) for networking
external hard drives, printers, etc. It's MU-MIMO enabled for multiple
simultaneous connections and has beamforming technology to improve range.
Oh, yeah, it's fast, too.
Different testers using different benchmarks and testing protocols come up with
differing results but largely similar conclusions -- the Asus RT-AC88U is among
the fastest wireless-AC routers they had tested to date. On the 5 GHz band,
CNET measured real world close range (15 feet) speeds of 645 Mbbs and long
range (100 feet) speeds of 335 Mbbs. "Both of these numbers topped the
charts," Ngo says. Things aren't so sparkling at 2.4 GHz, but it still
finishes in the top three that CNET had tested to date. Other testers also put
performance at or near the top compared to other routers they had tested so far.
Asus also offers a similar
model, the (Est. $245); it differs from the
RT-AC88U only in that it offers four LAN ports instead of eight. Given the
relatively modest difference in price, most experts, such as Terry Walsh at We
Got Served, hold that the RT-88U is "the better bet." Be that as it
may, the RT-AC3100 rates well with users, including a 4.5 star score and
recommendations from 91 percent of owners posting at Best Buy.
If the capabilities of the
Asus RT-AC88U/RT-AC3100 are overkill for your needs (it's worth noting that
even at long range, the speed capabilities of these routers outpace those that
the fastest current broadband Internet connection can deliver -- around 300
Mbps), and/or its price tag overkill for your wallet, there are a bevy of more
modestly priced routers that gain affection from experts and owners.
For example, Wirecutter
now names the (Est. $190) as "The Best
Wireless Router (for Most People)." Not every expert is as enamored as Jim
Salter, but most say that it provides good throughput and range. It's an
especially good choice for situations where there are lots of simultaneously
connected devices as it automatically steers connections to either the 5 GHz or
2.4 GHz bands to achieve the best combination of range and throughput. "The
R7000P really shines under busy network conditions," Salter says. "Even
the slowest 1 percent of requests came back in quickly enough that most users
won't be eyeing the 'refresh' button and wondering if they should click it,"
Tweaktown's Tyler Bernath
isn't sold on this router's value compared to other routers in its class, but
says that "the R7000P does perform slightly better than most AC1900 class
solutions in real-world testing." User feedback is fairly solid, including
a 4.2 star rating at Best Buy based on more than 220 reviews, though complaints
about units that didn't work out of the box, or that failed soon after being
put in service, are not unheard of.
Ease of set-up and use are
well liked, and the automatic band steering feature (called Smart Connect)
means you don't need to mess around with manually selecting whether to link a
client to the 5 GHz band for faster throughput, or the 2.4 GHz band for longer
range. It's feature rich, too, with MIMO-MU support, Open VPN access, dynamic QoS
prioritization to improve streaming performance, five Gigabit Ethernet ports (four
LAN and one WAN) and two USB ports.
For a bit less, we also
found some solid feedback for the (Est. $145). Like the R7000P, it features band steering to maximize connection
performance. Among experts, Both Small Net Builder and CNET give it props, with
the latter calling it "A race car at sedan prices" and placing it on
its list of best routers overall. If there's a caveat it's that user feedback
is limited and a little mixed -- though Best Buy customers do give it 4.4 stars
following around 25 reviews.
The D-Link EXO does have a
lot in common with the R7000P. In addition to band steering, it's MU-MIMO
capable, has QoS prioritization, four Gigabit LAN ports, one Gigabit WAN port,
and two USB ports.
If even the Netgear and
D-Link models above are too much router for your needs and budget, we saw good
feedback for the TP-Link Archer C7 (v2) (Est. $70). It's not in the same hardware
class as the routers discussed thus far, and can be challenged in complex
network environments as it lacks the band-steering ability of pricier options. That
caused Wirecutter to relegate it to also-ran status after naming it the top
router for "most people" several years in a row. Jim Salter notes
that "the C7 appears to outperform a wide selection of routers which cost
a lot more money," but adds that when it was asked to serve four laptops
connected at once, performance suffered.
Be that as it may, at less
than $100, we think you'll be hard-pressed to find a better performing router
for the kinds of networking demands found in most homes. PCMag seems to agree,
and following a recent test, was impressed enough to name it both an Editors'
Choice and a Best of the Year product for 2017. "The TP-Link Archer C7
AC1750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (V2) delivers the fastest throughput
speeds we've seen from a sub-$100 router. It's also a breeze to install and
offers plenty of settings," John R. Delaney says. User feedback is pretty
good, too, including a 4 star rating at NewEgg, based on nearly 350 reviews.
On the features front,
you'll find four Gigabit LAN ports and two USB ports, but both of the latter
are USB 2.0 only. There are also a ton of customization options considering the
price range, but while basic set up is easy, thanks to a set up wizard, a
clunky, text-based user interface can make tweaking things more challenging
than it needs to be. "Management settings are plentiful, but the web
console is slow to respond and lacks user-friendly icons to help you navigate
the menu system," Delaney says. Configuration options include the ability
to set up basic user accounts (to limit certain users' access) and to set up
guest accounts (one per each wireless band). Parental control options include
scheduling when children can access the Internet, and to limit child access
only to specific sites.
The bottom line? While you
may want to look elsewhere, and be prepared to spend a bit more, in situations
where there are a lot of devices competing for Internet access, given the value
and overall performance, there are no negatives that should be deal breakers
for typical home users.
For modest needs and modest budgets,
wireless-N might still make sense
Moving to the far other end of the
performance and pricing spectrum (ignoring, as you should, any remaining
wireless-G or older routers that might still be hanging around at retail), we
come to wireless-N routers. Given the falling prices of wireless-AC models
(with many priced at $100 and even less available), it's getting tougher and
tougher to make a case for opting for wireless-N, especially since most
consumer gear (laptops, tablets, phones, etc.) made in the last couple of years
are wireless-AC capable. That said, however, if your need for speed is modest,
and your budget is more so, an ultra-cheap wireless-N router might fill the
There haven't been many wireless-N
router reviews in recent years, but CNET looked at the ultra-cheap (Est. $22) in late 2015 and liked it enough to give
it a 3.5 star rating. "Considering its insanely cheap price, the TP-Link
TL-WR841N is a great buy for a small home with modest Wi-Fi needs," Ngo
says. It generally gets a thumbs-up from users, too. At NewEgg, it earns a 4
star rating following nearly 470 reviews. At Walmart.com, there is less
feedback, but the router earns a 4.3 star rating based on more than 220 reviews.
Speed and range are both limited. This
is a single-band (2.4 GHz model) that can support up to two simultaneous
streams. The lack of 5 GHz support caps performance, but on the 2.4 GHz band,
speed measures up well, and even beats that of some other, pricier routers.
Range is short -- about 120 feet maximum, and around 75 feet before things
begin to get dicey -- but that's not unexpected. "This is short compared
to 802.11ac routers, but compared with single-band Wireless N routers that came
out 10 years ago, the TP-Link's range is rather standard," Ngo says.
Hardware networking isn't a highlight,
but should still meet the needs of most users. However, the four LAN ports are
10/100 Mbps "Fast" Ethernet only, as opposed to the 10/100/1000 Mbps
Gigabit ports found on the wireless-AC routers above. Also, there's no USB port
at all, so you can't connect a network printer or hard drive.
Ngo says that, overall, "For
those with simple networking needs, the TL-WR841N is a smart purchase."
However, keep in mind that if you have a fast broadband connection (50 Mbps or greater),
it might not deliver that full bandwidth. In that case, the (Est. $70) could be a slightly better, but pricier
The Linksys is a dual-band (2.4 GHz
and 5 GHz) router with MIMO support for up to three simultaneous channels.
Speeds are good in testing, certainly more than good enough for most home
network applications, but fall short of wireless-AC routers. Range is excellent
-- 280 feet maximum, 170 feet for stable and fast connectivity -- in CNET's
The EA4500 is also relatively feature
rich, including the ability to control your home network from anywhere via an
iOS or Android app. You can set up guest access, prioritize which devices get access
to the router, and institute parental controls. There are four Gigabit LAN
ports and a USB 2.0 connection.
Expert reviews were largely positive
when the router was new, colored a little by the fact that it was then fairly
pricey, at around $200. User feedback remains good to this day, however,
including a 4 star rating at Amazon.com based on around 1,550 reviews. Still,
given the relatively small price gap between the LinksysEA4500 and more modern
and more capable wireless-AC models, such as the TP-Link Archer C7 (v2), the
value is a pretty iffy.
Expert & User Review Sources
To find the best
wireless routers for most situations and budgets, we looked at reviews at sites
such as Small Net Builder, PCMag, CNET, Tom's Guide, TweakTown, Hot Hardware and Wirecutter, as well as others with similarly
strong expertise in testing and evaluating routers. But 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, Newegg, Walmart and Best Buy -- 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 wireless routers.