5 Things to Consider Before Buying a Wireless Router

What kind of router do you need?

To set up a home Wi-fi network, you need a wireless router. Picking the right router can be a challenge because there are hundreds of models that offer different features. This buying guide will help you determine which wireless router is best for your budget.

Kids installing a wifi router

Maskot / Getty Images

What Is a Wireless Router?

A Wi-Fi router is a computer network device that broadcasts the internet signal from your modem, allowing you to connect devices to the internet wirelessly. Some modems have built-in routers, but if yours doesn't, you'll need to connect a router to access the web via Wi-Fi.

Top 5 Things to Consider When Buying a Wireless Router

Keep in mind that the performance of your network equipment (i.e. your router and modem) is limited by your internet service provider (ISP). If you have a high-end router, you won't enjoy the full benefits unless you have a comparable internet plan.

There are hundreds of router models from dozens of brands, but these are the main factors to consider:

  • Price
  • Speed
  • Wi-Fi Range
  • Usability
  • Brand

At a minimum, make sure the device supports the latest Wi-Fi generation (802.11ac) and has a speed rating higher than 25 Mbps. Assess your needs (such as streaming video and online gaming) and the different hardware designs that each major model offers. If your router needs to reach multiple rooms on different floors, consider a long-range router or a Wi-Fi range extender.

How Much Should You Spend on a Wi-Fi Router?

Price comparison shopping for routers requires patience and attention to detail. Router A can cost twice as much as Router B, yet the differences between them may be critical to some people and immaterial to others.

Price Range What You Can Expect
$50-$99 Suitable for video streaming, video chat, and other basic online activities for a single user or a small family living in an apartment or small home.
$100-$300 Suitable for larger homes and more intensive online activities like high-speed online gaming and live-streaming.
$300-$400+ Ideal for large buildings with a lot of users. High-end models usually come with extra security features.

The primary factors that determine the selling price of a consumer broadband router are:

  • Wi-Fi generation: 802.11ac routers carry a cost premium over prior generation 802.11n models.
  • Speed rating: Routers that can claim higher data rates bring higher prices over routers with lower rates, all other factors being equal. A 600 Mbps router with 802.11n, for example, will have a higher selling price than the same model configured for 300 Mbps 802.11n.
  • Industrial design: Home routers have traditionally featured plain, box-like designs, some with antennas poking out the top or side. Vendors have gradually introduced different shapes, rounded corners, and more variety of colors and materials in an attempt to differentiate their products and get a higher price.
  • Brand name: Many brands of consumer routers exist. Better-known brand names may carry a higher price tag based on vendor reputation.
  • Temporary price reductions: Like many consumer electronics, sellers occasionally discount the prices of their routers. Purchasing a router during a major sale can have cost savings.

How Fast Does a Wi-Fi Router Need to Be?

Wireless routers advertise their speed in megabits per second (Mbps). The first consumer Wi-Fi models offered 11 Mbps, followed by mid-range 802.11g routers at 54 Mbps, 802.11n routers anywhere from 150 Mbps to 600 Mbps, and now 802.11ac routers offering above 1 Gbps.

Don't look only at routers with the highest Mbps rating. The actual performance you'll achieve in practice typically averages lower than the maximum rating shown on the package.

The actual router speed is determined by factors such as the number of devices on the network, physical interferences that degrade the wireless signal, the distance between the connected device and the router, and more.

A high-speed router can't speed up a slow ​internet connection. For example, if an ISP provides 25 Mbps service, a router that delivers speeds exceeding 1 Gbps will only work at 25 Mbps.

The maximum speed of a network is determined by the router and the speed provided by the ISP—whichever is slower. So, if a router delivers ultra-fast speeds and your ISP provides a small amount of bandwidth, that lesser amount will be all that the router will deliver. The same is true in reverse (that is, a slow router will deliver slow speeds even if you have fast bandwidth).

To maximize the speed of your wireless network, buy a router that delivers speeds at least as fast as what your ISP provides.

Asus RT-AX88U

How Far Does the Wi-Fi Range Extend?

Does your router need to reach a few rooms on one floor, or throughout a three-story home and a garage? This feature determines the strength of the router you need.

Some standalone routers that come with one unit may or may not be able to deliver Wi-Fi throughout a whole home (depending on how big the house is and how powerful the router is). However, if you have a large area to cover, consider a long-range router, a mesh network with several routers bundled into one, or a Wi-Fi repeater/range extender.

Adding a second home router can also be helpful in large, multi-level homes or if you want to extend Wi-Fi outdoors.

Do You Need a Smart Router?

If you're new to setting up a network or unfamiliar with technology, choose a router with an interface optimized for casual home buyers. Here's how to determine what kind of router you need:

  • Older types of routers provide access to their settings by typing the router's IP address into a web browser. This procedure is a difficult way for beginners to manage a network because you must remember the password and be at home when you make changes to the network (such as changing the Wi-Fi password and other settings).
  • Smart routers are managed from a smartphone using a special app that connects directly to the network from anywhere you are, even if you're away from home. The initial setup involved with these routers is straightforward and can be completed in minutes.

Choose the first type of wireless router if you want something cheap, because the convenience of the other kind is usually what brings its price up. Also, mesh Wi-Fi network systems usually use a mobile app, whereas routers that use the IP address method are often seen only with standalone devices.

Google Nest Wi-Fi

Although it's always helpful to get advice from consumer ratings, review scores, and ratings about routers with a grain of salt. Often, people complain about a device when the device wasn't well-chosen for their circumstances in the first place.

What Brand Should You Choose?

Years ago, it was commonplace to purchase external network adapters with routers. Networking vendors sometimes added proprietary extensions to their products that resulted in slightly higher performance when brand-matched. Vendors may also thoroughly test compatibility with their own equipment.

If you own some consumer electronic gear, brand-matching your Wi-Fi router might make sense. Otherwise, research the available brands and pick one you trust.​

Netgear Nighthawk RAX80

Who Should Buy a Wireless Router?

Since routers are a necessary component of any network, anyone who needs Wi-Fi needs a router:

  • Home Wi-Fi users. If you want to surf the web, stream movies, and play online games, you'll need a router that can support all of your wireless devices.
  • Offices. High-speed internet and Wi-Fi are essential for most work environments.
  • Businesses. If you own a business, you'll probably need Wi-Fi for managing operations, and you may want to provide free Wi-Fi for your clients.
  • Public Places. Libraries, churches, community centers, and other public venues can offer free Wi-Fi for guests.

What to Do After You Buy

Once you have your router, it's time to set it up:

  • Connect your router to your modem. Plug one end of an Ethernet cable into your router, then plug the other end into your modem.
  • Connect to Wi-Fi. Connect to the Wi-Fi network and enter the password on your wireless device. You can find this information on the router or in the manual.
  • Log in to your router. Access the administrative console to change the Wi-Fi password, configure security settings, block websites, etc.
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