Wireless-AC goes mainstream
You can spend more for a router, especially if you are in the market for a wireless-AD model (see below), and certainly less -- a lot less, in fact -- but if you want a top-performing, feature-equipped router, the (Est. $270) should get top consideration. It's an Editors' Choice award winner at a bevy of sites, including CNET, PCMag.com and HotHardware.com. It also has a good track record with owners, garnering, for example, a 4.1 star rating at Amazon.com based on nearly 650 reviews. As a brand, Asus is a repeat co-winner of a Readers' Choice award in the router category at PCMag.com
"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 HotHardware.com 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.com 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 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 to date.
If the capabilities of the Asus RT-AC88U are overkill for your needs (it's worth noting that even at long range, the speed capabilities outpace those that even 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.
One example is the (Est. $170). It's been on the market now for a couple of years, which gives it two advantages: The price has dropped from its once loftier perch (originally $250), and it's had the time to build a track record with users, earning, for example, a 4.5 star rating at BestBuy.com based on around 675 reviews.
Among experts, it gets generally good feedback in most quarters. Tom's Guide names it the best overall router for 2017 based on its tests of 15 routers. It's also on CNET's list of the best wireless-AC routers currently available. "If you're looking for a router to share your fast broadband connection wirelessly to every corner of your home, the WRT1900ACS fit that bill," Ngo says. Tyler Bernath at TweakTown.com is also a fan, and names it an Editor's Choice.
Though the Linksys's throughput is theoretically slower than the RT-AC88U (it supports fewer simultaneous streams), in real life, it is still blazing fast, especially at 5 GHz. In CNET's testing, it delivered speeds of 536 Mbps at close range (15 feet) and 349 Mbps at long range (100 feet). Its performance at 2.4 GHz isn't as fast, of course, but still strong. Range is excellent as well, aided by the use of beamforming technology -- about 300 feet maximum in CNET's testing, with an effective range (meaning a stable connection is guaranteed) of 200 feet.
In terms of features, a few things are missing compared to the RT-AC88U. It has fewer LAN ports -- four versus eight. It's also not MU-MIMO capable. That might be a big deal down the road, but not necessarily today as there are relatively few MU-MIMO capable clients available, and experts such as SmallNetBuilder.com note that you need at least two on a network for MU-MIMO to provide any benefit.
On the plus side, set up and use are easy for both experts and neophytes. You can prioritize clients, set up parental controls, test connections speeds and more. The router supports OpenVPN and a guest network (2.4 GHz) with up to 50 users.
If even the Linksys is too much router for your needs, we saw good feedback for the (Est. $95). TheWirecutter.com names it the best Wi-Fi router for most people. It's not in the same hardware class as the Asus and Linksys routers above, and can't deliver anywhere near their tested speeds. However, experts such as Samara Lynn at PCMag.com opine that real-world performance is "decent for most tasks the average home user would do on a network: stream a movie from Netflix, check e-mail, VPN to the office, and so on." Users largely like it, too. It earns a 4.1 star rating at Amazon based on more than 5,800 reviews.
One place where the Archer C7 punches above its weight class is range. It was a top performer in TheWirecutter.com's difficult long-range test, 43 feet away, even with walls and furniture blocking the signal between the client and the router. Where other tested routers had trouble reaching real-world throughputs of 35 Mbps (and some couldn't do better than 10 Mbps), "The Archer C7 reached 71.3 Mbps, which is more than enough for 4K video streaming and speedy file transfers," Murphy says. That's echoed in PCMag.com's testing, which showed less throughput drop off when the distance was increased from 5 to 30 feet than was seen with many otherwise higher performance, and higher priced, routers.
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. The user interface doesn't earn it a ton of friends. It's described as clunky and heavily text based -- fine for those who know what they are doing, but not very user-friendly for those who need a bit of help. 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). However, there's no support for VPN, nor for Quality of Service (prioritizing clients/applications). PCMag.com takes a swipe at the set-up directions, saying that they are puzzling and more of a hassle than they need to be; instead, Lynn says, stick to the web-based alternate method and things will go much easier.
Given the value and overall performance, however, there are no negatives that should be deal breakers for typical home users. "The TP-Link Archer C7 AC1750 Dual Band Wireless AC Gigabit Router a perfectly fine three-out-of-five-star router: it's not a choice for those looking for the top 11ac router, but it's affordable and certainly not a poorly designed piece of hardware," Lynn says. Murphy is even more effusive in his praise. Based on two years of tests by TheWirecutter.com, he says: "Though it hasn't been the fastest router in every test, the Archer C7's combination of solid long-range performance and a low price has given it a clear advantage over every other router we've tested."
Finally, while they're still available, let's touch upon the (Est. $180). It was released in 2013 and, aside from the occasional firmware patch, is largely unchanged since. It's also the last wireless router that Apple will make. In November, 2016, news leaked that Apple was abandoning the wireless router market and assigning its resources to other projects.
Be that as it may, you can, at least for the time being, still buy the AirPort Extreme and, while other routers have caught up and passed it in functionality and performance, it's still a decent alternative, especially for the Apple devotee. The last-generation Apple AirPort Extreme supports the 802.11ac standard. It's taller than previous iterations, thanks in part to its beamforming six-antenna array. Like other top-of-the-line wireless routers, the AirPort Extreme offers guest networking so you can allow up to 50 guests onto your network without telling them your password, plus it offers the ability to share external hard drives wirelessly. The router lets users share USB printers wirelessly, too, although only Mac users can do this over the Internet. Three Gigabit Ethernet ports are on board.
All expert reviews are now rather dated, but Dong Ngo at CNET says the AirPort Extreme is easy to set up and use. He recommends it for all novices, whether they use Macs or PCs. But tech-savvy Windows users -- or those on all-PC networks -- can get more features for their money elsewhere, some reviewers said at the time, and that's even more true today. Still, AirPort Extreme users love their routers. Apple has owned or shared the top spot in PCMag.com's router Readers' Choice awards every year since 2005. It's also one of the best-rated routers at Amazon.com, earning a 4.6 star score following nearly 2,300 reviews.
Life on the bleeding edge with a wireless-AD router
As noted in the introduction to this report, the latest Wi-Fi standard is wireless-AD (802.11ad). The big advance over wireless-AC is the addition of support for Wi-Fi over the 60 GHz band for performance that leaves all other routers in the dust … that is, of course, if you also have wireless-AD clients. And that's one catch, because while adapters are available, at present wireless-AD capable devices are very hard to come by. The other catch is that 60 GHz signals are very short range, and won't penetrate walls, floors, etc., so that band is only useful for same-room communications.
But if none of that bothers you, and you don't mind living on technology's bleeding edge while you wait for everyone else to catch up, there are a couple of wireless-AD routers to consider. Many tech reviewers have looked at one or both of the (Est. $350) or the (Est. $450) and come away with similar impressions: Blazing fast, but most would be better served saving their money.
PCMag.com has the most positive assessment of these routers in its review of the TP-Link Talon, with John R. Delaney saying it "positively screams" on the way to awarding it an Editors' Choice award. Like others, he notes the technology's limitations, but adds: "That said, this technology is ideal for streaming 4K video and quickly moving massive amounts of data between clients that are in close proximity to one another."
If you are thinking of opting for the Talon with an eye toward future-proofing your network, the good news is that the router performs fairly well as a wireless-AC router in testing, too. However, CNET notes that you can get similar performance for far less money in a model like the Linksys WRT1900ACS, and better wireless-AC performance and more features for a bit less money in a router like the ASUS RT-AC88U.
Our assessment might change in a year (give or take, depending on how fast technology moves on this front), but if you are in the market for a router for the here and now, we recommend skipping wireless-AD and investing instead in the best wireless-AC router to meet your performance and/or budgetary needs.
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 (Est. $25) in late 2015 and liked it enough to give it a 3.5 star rating and still includes it in its list of Best Cheap Routers of 2017. "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. Though Amazon.com lumps together reviews of this router with other TP-Link models, over 75 percent of the more than 10,500 users that leave reviews for the TL-WR841N award it either 5 stars or 4 stars. At Walmart.com, there is less feedback, but the router earns a 4.3 star rating based on more than 200 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 and wireless-AD 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. $55) 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 more than 1,440 reviews. Still, given the relatively small price gap between the Linksys EA4500 and more modern and more capable wireless-AC models, the value is a little iffy.