How to Pick the Right Wireless Router

How do you know what kind of router you need?

The current market for wireless routers admits to significant diversity of capability and feature sets. Before you shop for your next Wi-Fi router, assess your specific needs in light of the technology standards and hardware design that each major model offers.

Routers Can Cost More or Less for Many Reasons

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 absolutely critical to some people and immaterial to others.

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

  1. Wi-Fi generation: 802.11ac routers carry a cost premium over prior generation 802.11n models
  2. 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 larger selling price than the same model configured for 300 Mbps 802.11n.
  3. Industrial design: Home routers have traditionally featured plain, box-like designs, some with antennas poking out the top or side. Vendors have gradually started introducing different shapes, rounded corners, and more variety of colors and materials in an attempt to differentiate their products and get a higher price.
  4. Brand name: Many different brands of consumer routers exist. Better-known brand names may sometimes carry a higher price tag based on vendor reputation.
  5. Temporary price reductions: Like many other consumer electronics, sellers occasionally discount the prices of their routers. Purchasing a router during a major sale can have significant cost savings.

Speed Ratings

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 provided by the ISP).

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.

Extendability

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.

Usability

If you're new to setting up a network or unfamiliar with technology, choose a router with an interface optimized for casual home buyers. In general:

  • Older types of routers provide access to its 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 have to 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 far 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.

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 the device when the challenge is that the device wasn't well-chosen for their individual circumstances.

Brand Selection

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.​

Wireless Routers Support Wired Connections, Too

Some network routers support only wired Ethernet interfaces. Home broadband routers support Wi-Fi and are often are widely known as “wireless routers,” yet all home routers include integrated Ethernet switch support (for anywhere between 1 and 5 wired devices) as a standard feature.

Child and adult installing a wifi router
Maskot / Getty Images

You May Need More Than One Router in the House

When homes had only a few PCs and a printer to network, the job of a router wasn’t too difficult. Most households with home networks even today use just one router without major issues. There are a few scenarios when adding a second home router is helpful or even necessary:

  • Phones may be carried to all corners of the home and onto the patio and backyard. Losing Wi-Fi connection at home eats into the household’s cellular data plan unnecessarily. Even worse, when a mobile device is connected to Wi-Fi at the edge of its effective range, very slow performance and occasional Internet connection failures result.
  • Households may choose to add a second Internet subscription, either for a home business, or to supplement the primary connection.
  • Instead of throwing away the older router after upgrading to a newer model, keeping both running together can help distribute network load around the house and provide a backup plan in case one or the other breaks.

The technology industry envisions a future where each home contains hundreds of connected appliances and gadgets inside, everything from light bulbs to televisions and toys. To the extent Wi-Fi is a wireless communication standard for all of this gear, the demands on home broadband routers will continue to grow. Whether Wi-Fi or some combination of wireless tech, some think that routers have a future as the centerpiece of a smart home.