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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Shopping for a Router Sucks. Here’s What You Need to Know

Everyone wants reliable and fast internet, and a good router can help. The trick is working out how the complicated mess of standards, confusing acronyms, and sci-fi-sounding features translate to better Wi-Fi in your home. Join us as we tear down the curtain to reveal the pertinent facts about Wi-Fi, routers, mesh systems, and other jargon. Hopefully, you'll be better equipped to buy a router by the end. 

Table of Contents

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Who Is Your Internet Service Provider?

Internet service providers (ISPs) connect your home to the internet, and they usually send you a modem and router (sometimes in a single device). The modem connects your home to the broader internet; the router hooks up to the modem, and you connect all your gadgets wired or wirelessly to the router to access that connectivity. ISPs often charge you a rental fee for this equipment, and their routers are usually basic in terms of performance and features. The good news is that ISPs are no longer allowed to force you to use their equipment or charge you to use your own hardware by law, though you may still have to return their stuff to avoid charges.

We're largely looking at using your own router in this guide and using your ISP's modem. By using your own, you can potentially save money in the long term, but you can also enjoy faster Wi-Fi, better coverage, easier configuration, and extra features like parental controls and guest Wi-Fi networks. We will run through your router options, but whatever system you decide to go with, check compatibility with your ISP before buying. You can also search your ISP’s forums to find posts where people discuss using different routers and modems. A little research before you shop can save you a big headache down the line.

What Kind of Router Do You Need?

There are various ways to make your Wi-Fi faster, and buying a new router is one of the most obvious. To help you decide on the type of router to go for, calculate the rough square footage of your home before you begin.

Single Router

The simplest solution for most people is to choose a single router or a router and modem combo. Bear in mind that this device will have to plug into your existing socket or modem via Ethernet cable, which restricts where you can place it. The Wi-Fi signal will be strongest near the router and will gradually drop off and slow down the further away you get.

Routers should always state square footage for coverage, but certain types of construction—thick walls, insulation, and other devices—can interfere with Wi-Fi signals, so don’t expect to enjoy full-speed Wi-Fi at longer distances. Powerful routers with wide coverage are often large devices with multiple external antennas, but they're usually very expensive.

Mesh Systems

If you have a larger home and want solid coverage in your garden, or you have thick walls and specific dead spots with your current setup, then mesh Wi-Fi could be the answer. Mesh systems consist of a central hub, which connects just like a single router, as well as additional satellites or nodes you can place around the home.

Devices connect to the internet through the nearest node, so you can achieve wider Wi-Fi coverage and a more reliable connection in different areas by adding a node. Just bear in mind that each node will need a power outlet. Mesh systems are more expensive than single-router setups (though not always), but they enhance coverage and reliability, and they often boast additional features and control options. They also tend to be smaller than regular routers and are typically designed to blend in with your decor harmoniously.

Alternatives to a New Router

If your issue is more about coverage and you have a single problem room you want to improve Wi-Fi in or a particular device that needs a faster connection, then you might not need to buy a new router. Try one of these alternatives. They each have their own technical challenges and potential issues. Even when successfully deployed, they won’t come close to matching the convenience of a good mesh system, but they are all much cheaper.

Wi-Fi Repeaters

You can use Wi-Fi repeaters to spread the Wi-Fi from a single router a bit further and potentially boost the signal in a dead spot. These devices are a good solution for some people, but they can be inefficient, prone to interference, and often create a secondary network with a different name from your regular Wi-Fi.

Power Line Adapters

Sold in pairs, power line adapters pass an internet signal through your electrical wiring. You plug one into a power outlet near your router and connect it with an Ethernet cable, while the other power line adapter plugs into a power outlet in the room where you want faster internet. They can be a good solution if you have a console or smart TV in your living room at the back of the house, but your router is in the front hall, for example. Unfortunately, effectiveness depends heavily on your electrical wiring.

Access Points

If you don’t mind a challenge and have a spare old router lying around, you can look into configuring it as an access point or using it as a Wi-Fi extender. This can be particularly effective if you’re able to connect it to your main router via cabling, but configuration can prove tricky.

What Speed Do You Need?

There’s plenty to consider when you’re trying to decide how fast your router should be. The maximum speed of your internet is determined by your ISP. Internet speeds are stated in Mbps (megabits per second). The average global fixed broadband speed is 106 Mbps for downloads and 57 Mbps for uploads, according to Ookla’s Speedtest. Most ISPs will state up to a certain speed or give you a range—like 300 Mbps download and 30 Mbps upload—but what you actually get is often lower than the maximum (especially upload speeds), and it must be shared between all of your connected devices. 

You can check what download and upload speed you are getting by running a speed test in your browser. Simply type “speed test” into Google to find some options. To get a rough idea of how Mbps translates into internet use, we can refer to the FCC’s broadband speed guide, which suggests you need 3 to 4 Mbps to stream a standard-definition video, 5 to 8 Mbps for HD, and 25 Mbps for a single 4K stream. Generally speaking, if there are multiple people in the household streaming 4K video with several gadgets connected, you'll want at least 200 Mbps, if not more. If you only have a few devices connected and are mostly just surfing the web, with some videos here and there, you'll be fine with 50 or 100 Mbps. 

If your internet connection maxes out at 100 Mbps, then any device in your home connecting to the internet will be capped at that speed, even if the router supports much higher speeds. It’s also important to note that router manufacturers print theoretical maximums and lab test results on the box. The stated speed is the combined maximum, rather than the speed you can expect to reach with a single connected device. You will always get a lower speed in real-life conditions.

Wi-Fi Standards Explained

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the body that sets Wi-Fi standards. There’s a long list of different Wi-Fi protocols that support different ranges and speeds. They always begin IEEE 802.11 and then there's a group of letters, for example, IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n.

Since the IEEE deals with lots of different standards, 802 simply relates to computer networks, and 11 is specifically Wi-Fi and WLAN (Wireless local area network). The bit to pay attention to is the letters at the end. The n protocol is also known as Wi-Fi 4, ac is Wi-Fi 5, and ax is marketed as Wi-Fi 6 or 6E. We recommend ac (Wi-Fi 5) as a minimum, but ax will afford you some future-proofing even if you can’t take advantage right now. Wi-Fi 6 and 6E aren't just about faster speeds; they also offer increased capacity, efficiency, performance, and security.

You should know that if you get a Wi-Fi 6 or 6E router, your other hardware, like your laptop and smartphone, needs to support Wi-Fi 6 to truly reap the benefits of the latest standard. 

Wi-Fi Bands and Channels

Different Wi-Fi protocols support different frequencies or bands. You'll mostly see routers that support 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) and 5 GHz. When a router or device is dual-band, that means it supports both. Tri-band routers broadcast three signals, which currently means two on the 5-GHz band and one on 2.4 GHz, though we are starting to see some routers that include the 6-GHz band. 

Each of these bands is essentially a chunk of frequency. The 2.4-GHz band comprises 11 channels that are each 20 megahertz (MHz) wide. The 5-GHz band has 45 channels, but they aren't limited to 20 MHz; they can also be bonded together to create 40-MHz or 80-MHz channels, which allows them to transmit more data. The 6-GHz band supports 60 channels and they can be as wide as 160 MHz.

The main difference is that 2.4 GHz has a longer range, but 5 GHz offers faster speeds and greater bandwidth. 6 GHz has the same theoretical top speed as 5 GHz but offers much wider bandwidth. It's like jumping from a single-track road (2.4 GHz) to a three-lane highway (5 GHz) to a six-lane superhighway (6 GHz). Each of the protocols is backward compatible.

Any router you choose nowadays is likely to be at least dual-band, but you may want to check how the bands are handled. It was common to have the bands appear separately, so when searching for Wi-Fi on your device you might see two options like Wi-Fi 2.4 GHz and Wi-Fi 5 GHz.

Modern routers such as Google's Nest Wifi engage in band steering, where they automatically pick the band, and you only see a single Wi-Fi network. This is simpler and will work well for most people, but it can cause issues when setting up smart home devices that can only connect to one band, as they often also require the device setting up (usually your smartphone) to be on the same band. It’s something to consider if you have lots of smart home gadgets that can only connect to 2.4 GHz.

Check for Ports

Some devices require a wired connection to your router. Even when it's not needed, an Ethernet cable is always going to offer more stable connections that are much faster than Wi-Fi. If you can, you should try to use a wired connection for devices like PCs, TVs, and consoles so you can leverage the fastest speeds out of your router. Either way, you'll need a free Ethernet port, so make sure you check that your router or mesh system has enough of them. 

Several high-end mesh systems, such as Nest Wifi or Eero, only have a single Ethernet port on the main router and none on the nodes. If your chosen router doesn't have enough ports, you can get a network switch. These devices are relatively cheap and give you a few extra Ethernet ports. For example, this TP-Link Network Switch gives you four ports and costs less than $20. If you want to plug in storage, such as a NAS drive for sharing files, make sure your router has a USB port.

Consider Security Standards

It's vital to secure your Wi-Fi router, because all traffic in and out of your house goes through it, and every device connects to it. Early security standards like WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) are dated. The minimum standard to look for in a router today is WPA2, which was developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2004. It offers reasonably strong encryption but is not without vulnerabilities, which is why it was followed by WPA3 in 2018. 

WPA3 boasts several features designed to address the weaknesses in WPA2. For example, opportunistic wireless encryption (OWE) provides a separate decryption key for every device that connects to the router, so even if another device on the network is monitoring traffic (known as sniffing) it can't decrypt that data. WPA3 also makes it much tougher for hackers to crack passwords, as they can't use offline dictionary attacks anymore where they rapidly guess lots of possible passwords. 

Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E devices certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance must support WPA3, but it's not exclusive to the new standard. You can find Wi-Fi 5 routers with WPA3 support, and some manufacturers are rolling it out onto older devices via firmware updates. It is also backward compatible. Most routers will offer a hybrid mode labeled WPA2/WPA3 to avoid issues as devices transition to the new standard. 

No security standard is perfect, so you should make sure your router has automatic updates turned on and always install the latest security updates on any devices you own. If your router offers remote access, Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), or Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), we advise disabling those features in the settings. Another feature to look for is a guest network, so you can hook guests up with Wi-Fi without giving them access to the rest of your network and all your connected devices.

Check Out the App 

While older routers tend to have basic settings you can only access by entering the IP address into your browser and logging in, many new routers and mesh systems offer apps you can access on your phone. It's worth taking a look at the interface to make sure it has all the features you want. We suggest reading our reviews and user reviews to get a feel for how well it works and to identify any potential problems. 

The latest mesh systems boast accessible apps that show all connected devices at a glance. You may find the option to pause the internet, create schedules, and the ability to organize devices into profiles. Many also include parental controls, so you can block different types of potentially sensitive content and block or white-list specific websites. Some companies charge extra for these perks, so keep an eye out. For example, you need an Eero Secure subscription ($3 per month or $30 for the year) to unlock parental controls on your Eero mesh system. 

Device Prioritization

Quality of service (QoS) is an underappreciated feature worth looking into, particularly if you have a busy household with several people using the internet. Imagine a video call for work gets choppy or disconnects because your kid starts streaming Netflix. Perhaps the movie you're watching starts to buffer when your roommate begins downloading a game update.

With QoS, you can prioritize devices and sometimes services or activities. You might dictate that your work PC is the priority device, for example, ensuring it has the most bandwidth to reduce the risk of stuttering calls. Some routers enable you to prioritize activities like gaming to minimize latency and ensure the smoothest possible experience. 

Common Terms, Explained

There's a lot of jargon you'll run into when shopping for a router. Here's a quick explanation of some of those technical terms.


This pops up as a plus on many routers and other Wi-Fi-connected devices, but what does it mean? MU-MIMO stands for multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output. Routers sort incoming requests from devices into a single file queue, but MU-MIMO enables them to split the available bandwidth into equal chunks. Now, instead of one long queue, you can have two, three, or four short queues and should get served faster. The maximum number of queues or users that can be served simultaneously in Wi-Fi 5 is four, but that’s set to increase to eight with Wi-Fi 6.


Each antenna in your router emits a Wi-Fi signal in all directions. Beam-forming is a way of focusing the Wi-Fi signal in one particular direction to improve the connection with a device. This can boost speeds, efficiency, and signal quality, while simultaneously reducing errors and interference.


An exciting technology in Wi-Fi 6 that will serve multiple users with different bandwidth requirements simultaneously, OFDMA stands for orthogonal frequency-division multiple access. If you imagine individual Wi-Fi requests as packages on a truck, your router is currently sending out deliveries to a single point then returning to do the next one. OFDMA lets it load up the truck with packages for multiple users, which is much more efficient.

Final Takeaways

  • Your maximum internet connection speed is determined by your ISP, but routers that offer faster speeds still bring benefits for connections between devices on your home network.
  • Always check compatibility for any router, modem, or combination you are considering with your ISP.
  • Mesh systems can ensure greater coverage and more reliable performance than single routers. They're often easier to set up and use, too.
  • The minimum specs we recommend are Wi-Fi 5 (IEEE 802.11 ac) support and WPA2 security but go for Wi-Fi 6 (IEEE 802.11 ax) and WPA3 security if you can afford it.

Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-year subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you'd like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.

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