How to Pick the Right Wireless Router

How do you know what kind of router you need?

Kids installing a wifi router

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All wireless routers might appear very much alike at first glance — all you need is a device that gives you internet, right?

In reality, there are several brands of routers that each work slightly differently, and within those brands are various models with unique features and capabilities, both in software and hardware. Knowing what to look for can help tremendously in choosing the right router for your specific situation.

Follow the checklist below to help decide what kind of wireless network router you should buy.

Speed Ratings

Wireless routers typically 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.

You may be tempted to only look at the routers with the highest Mbps rating. However, consider that the actual performance you'll achieve in practice typically averages much, much lower than the maximum rating shown on the package.

The speed you'll actually get from your router is determined by factors like how many other devices are running on your network, if there are physical interferences that degrade the wireless signal, your distance from the router, and more.

Furthermore, even high-speed routers can't directly speed up a slow ​internet connection. For example, if you pay your ISP for only 25 Mbps, even a router that can deliver speeds exceeding 1 Gbps will only really work at the maximum speed that you're paying for.

What you need to look for to maximize the speed of your wireless network is a router that can deliver speeds at least as fast as what you're paying for. In other words, you want to make sure that the Mbps of the router you purchase can support the maximum bandwidth delivered to your network from your ISP.

To reiterate: your network's maximum speed is determined by both your router and the speed you're paying your ISP for (whicher is slower). So, even if your router can deliver ultra-fast speeds, if you're only paying for a small amount of bandwidth, that lesser amount will be all that the router will deliver. The same is true in reverse (i.e., a slow router will deliver slow speeds even if you're paying for faster bandwidth).

Extendability

Does your new router need to reach just a few bedrooms on one floor, or are you needing something that extends throughout your entire three-floor home and even out into the garage? This will determine the strength of router you need.

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

Usability

If you're new to setting up a network or you're generally unfamiliar with technology, you might choose a different router than someone who knows what they're doing. Fortunately, there are basically two kinds of routers in this category.

One type of router you can buy is the "old" way of doing things because it requires you to access its settings by typing the router's IP address into a web browser window. This is generally considered 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 (like when making a Wi-Fi password and changing other settings).

The other kind of router you can buy, which might be considered a "smart router," is managed entirely from your smartphone via a special app that connects directly to your network from anywhere you are (whether at home or not). The initial setup involved with these kinds of routers is usually very straightforward and can be completed in literally minutes.

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

Warranty

Wireless internet router manufacturers always provide a warranty package together with their equipment. The length and terms of these warranties vary widely. A better warranty may indicate a manufacturer more committed to supporting their products, while a lesser warranty could indicate a somewhat lesser standard of product quality or reliability.

Always consider wireless router warranties when making your purchase decision.

Feedback From Other Consumers

Countless consumers post opinions of their particular wireless router to blogs, product review pages (Amazon is a great place to look for reviews), message boards, and elsewhere online. A confusing mix of positive and negative anecdotes awaits shoppers looking at almost any specific model.

Due to the complexity of home networking today, any given brand of wireless router that performs flawlessly in one person's home network could fail miserably in yours.

Bottom line: don't let someone else's experience, good or bad, sway your decision too much. However, do take into consideration other user reviews — if there's an overwhelming dislike for the router you're looking into, you might look elsewhere.

Brand Selection

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

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

Size and Style

In many households, wireless internet routers are installed in a visible central area of the residence. Purchasing a stylish router can make this an attractive addition to the decor that you'll be proud to show family and friends.

Routers vary in both size and shape. If you plan to install the router in a confined space, ensure you pick one with a suitable form factor. Small business owners and others interested in portability may likewise consider the class of travel router products.

Cost and Budget

Manufacturers sometimes offer rebates or other discounts from the full retail price of their wireless routers. Like an automobile, even last year's models tend to offer all of the essential features you need at a discount. Setting a budget and staying with it will help you avoid buyer's remorse. Shop around and you're more likely to land a good value for your money.

Maybe it's a router under $50 that you're after, or something a bit more but still under $100.