Best Wireless Router

By: Carl Laron on December 18, 2017

Editor's Note:
If you have a fast Internet connection and a need for speed, the Asus RT-AC88U is tough to beat. On a budget? Try the TP-LINK Archer C7. For everyone else, we found a bevy of alternatives that provide the right balance of performance and value for life online.

Asus RT-AC88U Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Wireless standard -- Wireless-AC Data transfer rate (theoretical) -- 3,100 Mbps Connectivity -- 8 Gigabit LAN, 1 Gigabit WAN, 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0

Best wireless router

It's not the cheapest wireless-AC router, but on balance, the Asus RT-AC88U is near impossible to beat. It's blazingly fast, has a long range, is relatively easy to set up and use, and is about as feature-laden a router as you are likely to find. In addition to terrific wireless performance (with tested speeds that are faster than what even the fastest residential broadband connections can deliver), its support for wired networking is superb, with eight Gigabit LAN ports and two USB connections.

Buy for $229.41
TP-Link Archer C7 (v2) Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Wireless standard -- Wireless-AC Data transfer rate (theoretical) -- 1,750 Mbps Connectivity -- 4 Gigabit LAN, 1 Gigabit WAN, 2 USB 2.0

Best cheap wireless router

It's not in the same hardware class as the Asus RT-AC88U (Est. $255), but the TP-Link Archer C7 (v2) is a compelling value. It can stumble a little if tasked with maintaining too many broadband connections at once, but for typical home networks, it delivers the fastest throughput of any router under $100. That means more than enough speed for for everyday life online, including more than enough bandwidth for streaming video, even 4K. It's also highly customizable, though a clunky interface can make that a little bit of a chore.

Types of Wireless Routers

Wireless-AC 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-N Routers

For those 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 wireless network

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 claimed throughput.

Another factor 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 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.

Some wireless 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.

The most 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 choice

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 Asus RT-AC88U (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 Asus RT-AC3100 (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 Netgear R7000P (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," he adds.

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 D-Link EXO AC2600 (DIR-882) (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 bill.

There haven't been many wireless-N router reviews in recent years, but CNET looked at the ultra-cheap TP-Link TL-WR841N (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 Linksys EA4500 (N900) (Est. $70) could be a slightly better, but pricier choice.

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 test.

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.

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