The 9 Best 802.11ac Wi-Fi Wireless Routers of 2021

Keep your connection strong with these top-notch routers

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The Rundown
Best Overall:
Asus RT-AC88U at Amazon
Offers a great balance of price, performance, and features for everything from streaming to online gaming.
Tri-band mesh Wi-Fi offers coverage for even the largest homes, while ensuring you’ll get the best possible speeds in every room.
An extremely affordable router with a surprising amount of power and advanced features under the hood.
Best Expandability:
Eero Pro at Best Buy
With support for adding unlimited Eero Pro, Eero, or Eero Beacon modules, this system can grow to cover even the largest homes.
Offers the performance gamers need, with maximum speeds of 5.3Gbps and a built-in Gamers Private Network.
Delivers solid AC1900 Wi-Fi performance and a lot of power for the price.
Best Parental Controls:
Synology RT2600ac at Amazon
One of the few routers that offers great parental controls without the extra cost of an annual subscription.
Best for Smart Homes:
Google Nest Wi-Fi at Amazon
Offers the full Google Home experience, plus great coverage for larger homes.
One of the most customizable routers you can buy, with solid Wi-Fi performance and advanced security features.

Even as newer standards like Wi-Fi 6 are becoming more popular, the tried-and-true 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5 remains the dominant wireless technology today, and the best 802.11ac routers will provide everything that the vast majority of home internet users need, offering solid performance for streaming, gaming, video calling, and more. 

After all, the vast majority of home network devices still use 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5, and all newer Wi-Fi standards are backward compatible. This means that even the latest Wi-Fi 6 devices will work just fine with any Wi-Fi 5 router, so there’s no need to pay a premium for a leading-edge router unless you’re living in a really large home with dozens of Wi-Fi 6 devices on your network. This makes the best 802.11ac routers ideal for anybody who wants great performance from their home Wi-Fi without spending a bundle.

Best Overall: Asus RT-AC88U AC3100 Dual Band Wi-Fi Router

Asus RT-AC88U Wi-Fi Router
What We Like
  • Excellent performance

  • Feature rich

  • Advanced security features at no extra charge

What We Don't Like
  • A bit pricey

  • Configuration can be a bit intimidating

Asus’ RT-AC88U offers a great balance of price, performance, and features, making it easily the top pick for anybody looking for a general-purpose Wi-Fi 5 router that checks all the right boxes. The dual-band Wi-Fi delivers a combined bandwidth of 3Gbps on 5GHz and 2.4GHz channels, plus the four beamforming antennas can provide coverage for up to 5,000 square feet of living space.

This allows it to deliver more than enough performance for smooth 4K streaming and uninterrupted video calling, but it’s also a strong performer for gaming, thanks to its dual-core CPU that processes traffic quickly and keeps the latency low. With MU-MIMO support and advanced features like adaptive QoS, it can also easily handle a dozen or more active devices without breaking a sweat, while making sure that everyone gets their fair share of your broadband connection. 

One of the best things about Asus’ routers is how versatile and full-featured they are, so there’s a lot here for advanced users to like as well, including eight Gigabit Ethernet ports around the back for connecting wired devices, plus two USB 3.0 ports for sharing media, files, and even printers in a bunch of different ways, from backing up your Macs with Apple’s Time Machine feature to setting up a DLNA server for sharing videos, photos, and music on your home network. It also includes Asus’ AiProtection Pro suite of tools to keep your network secure from threats—both from outside and from within—and best of all you don’t need to pay a recurring subscription fee to maintain the latest antivirus and anti-malware protection.

Wireless Spec: 802.11ac | Security: AiProtection, WPA2 | Standard/Speed: AC3100 | Bands:Dual-band | MU-MIMO: Yes | Beamforming: Yes | Wired Ports: 9

"The router is a dream come true for the power users out there, and is filled to the brim with software features." — Bill Thomas, Product Tester

Best Mesh: Netgear Orbi Whole Home Wi-Fi System

Netgear Orbi RBK50 Mesh Wi-Fi System
What We Like
  • Speedy performance

  • Full home coverage

  • Beautiful aesthetics

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

  • Older devices complicate things

From the moment you take it out of the box, it’s clear that Netgear’s Orbi is a big departure from the company’s more traditional black-box routers. There’s a practical reason for this, however, since as a mesh Wi-FI system it features multiple satellite units designed to be placed strategically around your home, so it’s much more important that it’s something that won’t look out of place in your living room. 

Although the main base unit still need to be plugged in wherever your cable or DSL modem lives, you can drop the other satellite units in whatever areas of your home need the strongest Wi-Fi coverage. Your devices in those areas connect to the nearest Orbi unit, which relays those signals back to the main base station over a dedicated 1.7Gbps backhaul connection on the 5GHz band. This ensures you’ll always get the best possible speeds no matter which of the Orbi units you’re connected to, and with tri-band AC3000 Wi-Fi, it still offers another 1.2Gbps of bandwidth to all your client devices on the 2.4GHz and second 5GHz bands. 

A pair of Orbi units will give you enough coverage for a 5,000 square foot home, while also making sure you get the strongest coverage exactly where you need it. If you need more, however, you can add up to five additional satellites to expand or optimize your coverage for the best performance. Each satellite also includes four Gigabit Ethernet ports, so you can wire in game consoles or PCs in any room and still get a fast connection, thanks to the dedicated backhaul channel. With built-in security and parental controls provided by Netgear’s Armor and Circle with Disney, this also makes a great system for families, although you’ll need to pay an annual subscription fee to fully benefit from these features. 

Wireless Spec: 802.11ac | Security: NETGEAR Armor, WPA2, Guest Wi-Fi Secure Access | Standard/Speed: AC2200 | Bands: Tri-band | MU-MIMO: Yes | Beamforming: Yes | Wired Ports:4 (per unit)

"Anyone that has a large home or office that needs a fast and reliable network connection will find a lot to love with this router." Bill Thomas, Product Tester

Best Under $50: TP-Link Archer A6/C6 AC1200 Dual-Band Wi-Fi Router

TP-Link Archer A6/C6 (V3)
What We Like
  • Very affordable

  • Easy to set up

  • Four antennas

What We Don't Like
  • Speed falls off at range

  • No USB ports

TP-Link’s Archer A6 (also known as the C6 in some markets), is an extremely affordable router with a surprising amount of power under the hood. While you’re obviously not going to get enough coverage for a large home at this price, it’s an excellent choice for users in smaller homes, apartments, or condos who just need something that will get them online for general web surfing, streaming, and making group video calls with friends and family. 

In fact, thanks to dual-band Wi-Fi, the Archer A6 offers up 1.2Gbps of bandwidth across its 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, which is more than enough for smooth 4K streaming on Netflix and uninterrupted video calling on services like Zoom and FaceTime. Plus, the four beamforming antennas with MU-MIMO support will make sure all of your devices will get their fair share of bandwidth throughout a modest-sized living space. 

What we found particularly surprising for a router in this price range is support for more advanced features that often aren’t even included on more expensive routers, including the latest WPA3 wireless encryption standard, plus a built-in OpenVPN server. Of course, TP-Link still had to cut a few corners somewhere to product such an affordable router, so while there are still four Gigabit Ethernet ports around the back, you won’t find any USB ports for file and printer sharing. Note that the Archer A6 and Archer C6 are virtually identical routers, with TP-Link simply using different model numbers for marketing purposes. Both offer the same features and capabilities, however. 

Wireless Spec: 802.11ac | Security: WPA3 | Standard/Speed: AC1200 | Bands: Dual-band | MU-MIMO: Yes | Beamforming: Yes | Wired Ports: 5

"This router comes fully assembled, which makes it a bit easier and faster to set up than most." — Jeremy Laukkonen, Product Tester

Best Expandability: Eero Pro Mesh Wi-Fi System

Eero Pro kit with two Eero Beacons
What We Like
  • Very easy to set up

  • Excellent range

  • Versatile expandability

What We Don't Like
  • Limited Ethernet ports

  • Requires mobile app for configuration

  • Lacks PPPoE support

The Eero Pro is one of the simplest and most versatile mesh Wi-Fi systems on the market. It offers reliable whole home coverage that just works right out of the box, saving you the need to worry about cumbersome technical details with an intuitive mobile app that will walk you through the entire process and have you up and running in a matter of minutes.

Not only does the Eero Pro provide powerful tri-band Wi-FI, with three units able to cover homes of 5,000 square feet and beyond, but you can also add more affordable dual-band Eero units or plug-in Eero Beacons to expand your coverage into areas of your home where you don’t have too many devices, or simply don’t need the fastest possible throughput. There’s also no practical limit to how many Eero Pro, Eero, or Eero Beacon units you can add, making this a system that can grow with you to cover even the most sprawling estates.

You’ll find two Ethernet ports on the back of each Eero Pro and Eero unit for connecting wired devices, and while the Eero Beacons don’t offer any wired connections, they make up for this with a low-profile design that can simply plug into any wall outlet, and double as a night light at the same time. While the Eero system doesn’t offer more advanced features that power users might be looking for, like built-in VPN support or dynamic DNS, the basics are all there, including WPA3 security, plus time-based parental control filters with an optional Eero Secure subscription. The only catch to this otherwise great system is that it lacks support for the PPPoE protocol used by some ISPs, so while it should be fine for all cable providers, if you’re on DSL or fibre you’ll want to double-check with your ISP to make sure it’s compatible. 

Wireless Spec: 802.11ac | Security: Eero Secure, WPA3 | Standard/Speed: AC2200 | Bands: Tri-band / Dual-band | MU-MIMO: Yes | Beamforming: Yes | Wired Ports: 2 (per unit)

"If you need to extend your Wi-Fi network through a very large space, or you have a history of Wi-Fi dead zones, our hands-on testing shows that the Eero Pro can get the job done." — Jeremy Laukkonen, Product Tester

Best for Gaming: Asus ROG Rapture GT-AC5300 Gaming Router

Asus GT-AC5300 Wi-Fi Gaming Router
What We Like
  • 8 Gigabit Ethernet ports

  • Two USB 3.0 ports

  • Gamers Private Network

What We Don't Like
  • Pricey

  • Large footprint

Like gamers themselves, gaming routers like Asus’ GT-AC5300 are a special breed, focused on providing the specific kind of performance that today’s fast-paced online games demand. It’s not enough just to offer the kind of raw speed that will let you stream Netflix in 4K—a good gaming router also needs to provide low latency, be more effective at handling network congestion, and prioritize and optimize gaming traffic to keep everything running smoothly.

These are all areas in which the GT-AC5300 excels, with tri-band Wi-Fi that means you’ll be able to dedicate one of the two 5 GHz bands exclusively to your high-performance gaming traffic, while the powerful quad-core processor will help to ensure lag-free gaming. This means you won’t have to worry about your network slowing you down just as you’re about to make that critical kill shot in Call of Duty. This router also packs in some powerful game optimization features like the Gamers Private Network (GPN) for automatically making connections to the fastest and most stable game servers.

While the GT-AC5300 is designed to prioritize gaming traffic, with 5.3Gbps of total throughput, there’s more than enough performance here so that everybody in your home can enjoy the uninterrupted streaming and video calling, with MU-MIMO technology that will make sure that every device gets its fair share of bandwidth, and eight beamforming antennas that help to deliver a strong and focused enough signal for even the largest homes. A generous collection of eight Gigabit Ethernet ports and two USB 3.0 ports also provides plenty of room for wiring in PCs, game consoles, and external storage devices. 

Wireless Spec: 802.11ac | Security: AiProtection, WPA2 | Standard/Speed: AC5300 | Bands:Tri-band | MU-MIMO: Yes | Beamforming: Yes | Wired Ports: 9

"You essentially have a dedicated gaming Wi-Fi router combined with the bandwidth you want to support other activities like streaming 4K content." — Yoona Wagener, Product Tester

Best Value: Asus RT-AC68U Dual-Band Wi-Fi Router

Asus RT-AC68U
What We Like
  • Solid Wi-Fi performance

  • Advanced features

  • Compact size

What We Don't Like
  • Non-removable stand

  • Can't be wall-mounted

There’s no point in spending a lot of money on a premium router that’s just going to deliver more range and performance that you need, so if you’re in an apartment or condo, you’ll find that Asus’ RT-AC68U is a strong performer that provides great bang for your buck. The slim and lightweight design means you can tuck it away just about anywhere, and yet it still provides enough coverage for a modest-sized living space—even a small bungalow. 

This router is no slouch when it comes to performance either, with dual-band AC1900 speeds that deliver up to 1.3Gbps on the 5GHz frequencies and up to 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz side. While that lack of MU-MIMO support means you shouldn’t expect to get top speeds if you throw a lot of devices at it, there’s still more than enough bandwidth to allow for three or four devices to stream Netflix in 4K or stay in touch on Group FaceTime calls without slowing each other down.

Plus, you’ll still find the usual assortment of ports around the back—four Gigabit Ethernet ports for connecting wired devices for maximum speeds, plus two USB ports—one of which is USB 3.0—which can be used for just about anything you can think of, from sharing files and printers to backing up your Macs with Apple’s Time Machine or streaming media to a smart TV via DLNA. Even at this more affordable price, the RT-AC68U includes Asus’ full (and free) AiProtection Pro security suite, so you won’t have to worry about viruses or malware getting into your network either. 

Wireless Spec: 802.11ac | Security: AiProtection, WPA2 | Standard/Speed: AC1900 | Bands: Dual-band | MU-MIMO: No | Beamforming: Yes | Wired Ports: 5

"The Asus RT-AC68U is not too large or heavy, which makes it ideal for even smaller apartments." — Yoona Wagener, Product Tester

Best Parental Controls: Synology RT2600ac Dual-Band Gigabit Wi-Fi Router

Synology RT2600ac Wi-Fi Router
What We Like
  • Includes advanced parental controls without a subscription

  • Great web interface

  • SD card slot

What We Don't Like
  • Sluggish network storage

  • Difficult to wall mount

There are many routers that offers great parental controls, however Synology’s RT2600ac stands out as one of the few that does so without saddling you with extra monthly fees. While the company is best known for its lineup of powerful Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices, it also has a wireless router that offers a powerful and intuitive web interface that will be easily familiar to anyone who has worked with any of the company’s popular NAS devices. 

In fact, in the RT2600ac, Synology is offering up a full-featured router operating system that not only delivers advanced parental controls, but lets you download additional packages like VPN servers and cloud sync services to enhance your home network experience even more. The parental controls let you easily set up profiles for each of your kids, so you can schedule when and how much they’ll be allowed online and control what they can access based on a list of over 20 content filtering categories such as gaming, social media, and entertainment. Filters for each profile can also be customized for different periods of the day, so you can make sure your kids aren’t playing online games when they’re supposed to be doing their homework.

In terms of performance, the dual-band Wi-Fi on the RT2600ac delivers 2.6Gbps of bandwidth across the 5GHz and 2.4GHz channels, and the four beamforming antennas punch out a strong enough signal for all but the largest homes. In addition to the standard set of four Gigabit Ethernet ports, the RT2600ac also keeps with Synology’s NAS expertise by offering a pair of USB ports and even an SD card slot to let you easily share media files with your whole family. 

Wireless Spec: 802.11ac | Security: WPA2, Guest Wi-Fi Secure Access | Standard/Speed: AC2600 | Bands: Dual-band | MU-MIMO: Yes | Beamforming: Yes | Wired Ports: 5

"This router is worth a look if you want something that’s easy to set up but hides a lot of hidden potential under the hood." — Jeremy Laukkonen, Product Tester

Best for Smart Homes: Google Nest Wi-Fi (2nd Generation)

Google Nest Wi-Fi (2nd Gen)
What We Like
  • Incredibly easy setup

  • Wi-Fi points double as smart speakers

What We Don't Like
  • Limited Ethernet ports

Among the current big three smart home ecosystems, Google stands out as the only one that offers its own first-party Wi-Fi router. This makes the Google Nest WiFi hard to beat if you’re using Google Home accessories, and you want a router that will fit right in with a minimum of hassle. 

As a mesh Wi-Fi system, Google’s Nest WiFi will not only give you a really tight level of integration into the full Google experience, but it also provides great coverage for larger homes, thanks to the ability to deploy multiple satellite units in those places where you need the best wireless coverage. A Nest WiFi router and single-point combo will give you enough coverage for a 3,800 square foot home, while you can bump that up to 5,400 square feet simply be adding a second point. 

Even better, each of these “points” can also double as a Google Assistant smart speaker, saving you the need to deploy even a Google Home mini in those rooms. The Google Home app also makes the Nest WiFi effortless to set up and manage, letting you prioritize devices, schedule online access for your kids, and easily link up Chromecast devices around your home. Naturally, these features also tie right in to Google Assistant, so you can ask it to do things like run speed tests and pause your kids’ Wi-Fi access when they’re supposed to be doing their chores. 

Wireless Spec: 802.11ac | Security: WPA3 | Standard/Speed: AC2200 | Bands: Dual-band | MU-MIMO: Yes | Beamforming: Yes | Wired Ports: 2 (per unit)

"It’s a breath of fresh air to set up a Wi-Fi system and have it feel absolutely foolproof." — Andrew Hayward, Product Tester

Best Security: Linksys WRT3200ACM Tri-Stream Gigabit Wi-Fi Router

Linksys WRT3200ACM Wi-Fi Router
What We Like
  • MU-MIMO Capable

  • Open source firmware

  • Solid 5GHz throughput

What We Don't Like
  • Slower 2.4 GHz speeds

  • Poor long-range performance

The WRT3200ACM is an evolution of Linksys’ classic line of routers that dates back nearly 20 years, combining all the advanced features and powerful customization that made its WRT lineup so popular in the first place and adding in the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi 5 to bring it into the current era. In fact, don’t let the slightly dated look fool you—this is one fo the fastest routers in its class, thanks to Linksys’ use of 160MHz-wide channels, plus modern features like MU-MIMO and strong beamforming antennas. 

Specifically, the WRT3200ACM will deliver speeds of up to 2.6Gbps on the 5GHz band, plus 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz side, with enough range to handle 4K streaming and group video calling in all but the very largest homes. Four wired Gigabit Ethernet ports let you wire in your PC, game console, or smart TV, plus USB 3.0 and eSATA ports provide extra versatility for hooking up external storage devices to share files and other media on your network. 

What really sets the WRT3200ACM apart from most modern routers, however, is its fully customizable and modular open-source firmware, which lets you make this router your own with packages from a variety of repositories such as OpenWrt or DD-WRT. This means there’s almost no limit to the features you can add, including more advanced security and intrusion detection firewalls, VPN services, network traffic analyzers, and much, much more. 

Wireless Spec: 802.11ac | Security: WPA2, OpenWrt/DD-WRT | Standard/Speed: AC3200 | Bands: Dual-band | MU-MIMO: Yes | Beamforming: Yes | Wired Ports: 5

"With up to 3200 Mbps dual-band wireless speeds, it offers the fastest, most reliable speed and best performance of any current open source router."Benjamin Zeman, Product Tester

Final Verdict

For a well-rounded router that provides the best balance of performance, strong coverage, and advanced features, Asus' RT-AC88U is easily our top pick. For fast and reliable coverage in every corner of a larger home, however, you can't beat the Netgear Orbi.

About Our Trusted Experts

Jesse Hollington has over three decades of experience in information technology and networking and has installed, tested, and configured just about every type and brand of router, firewall, wireless access point, and network extender, dating back to the days long before Wi-Fi even existed.

Bill Thomas is a Denver-based freelance writer who covers technology, music, film, and gaming. They began writing for Lifewire in January 2018, but you can also find their work on TechRadar. Bill has also worked as an editor at Future.

Jeremy Laukkonen is an experienced tech journalist with a background in automotive repair that has taught him the importance of breaking down complex technical subjects in understandable ways. He specializes in VPNs, antivirus, and home electronics, and manages his own automotive blog on the side.

Yoona Wagener enjoys helping people simplify processes. She has experience providing technical support and help documentation to end users, building websites for small business owners, and offering career advice to social-impact job seekers.

Benjamin Zeman is a business consultant, musician and writer based in southern Vermont. When he’s not reviewing tech products for Lifewire, he’s getting nerdy fixing them or solving complex problems for businesses in need of an outside perspective.

FAQ

How fast of a router do I need to stream Netflix in 4K?

With the high specs offered by modern routers it may surprise you to know that you only need a connection of around 25Mbps (0.025Gbps) to stream Netflix in 4K UHD to a single device. This means that even the most basic routers can easily meet the needs of a single user, but since the bandwidth of your router is shared across all the devices on your network, more expensive routers offer higher speeds to allow multiple users to get online at the same time without slowing each other down. 


Do I need tri-band Wi-Fi?

Every 802.11ac router offers at least dual-band Wi-Fi, which means your devices will be able to connect either on the 5GHz or 2.4GHz frequencies to give you the best balance of range and performance. Some more advanced Wi-Fi routers also offer a third band in the form of another 5GHz frequency range, allowing you to divvy up your high-speed devices across two channels. Tri-band routers are a great option for busy homes with lots of wireless devices streaming and gaming at the same time. Since a device can only be connected to a single channel at a time, however, there’s no point in spending the money on a tri-band router if you only have one or two users on your home network. 


Shouldn’t I buy a Wi-Fi 6 router to keep up with the latest technology?

While you’ve probably heard a lot about the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, more technically known as 802.11ax, this is still a leading-edge technology that very likely isn’t even supported by most of the devices on your network. While purchasing a Wi-Fi 6 router may be a good investment for the future, you won’t gain any advantage from it unless you also have Wi-Fi 6 client devices, which are relatively rare right now. Plus, once the technology moves more into the mainstream, Wi-Fi 6 routers should become more affordable and even more advanced.

The Ultimate 802.11ac Router Buying Guide

The 802.11ac standard was ratified in late 2013, and these days it's pretty difficult to find a modern router that doesn't support it. In fact, even though it took until 2013 for it to become official, it was actually around in draft form for a few years before that, so there have been 802.11ac capable routers available on the market since at least early 2012.

These days, unless you're looking for a really inexpensive router or trying to stay on the bleeding edge of Wi-Fi technology, just about any router you're shopping for will be an 802.11ac router, but with so many on the market it can be hard to sort them all out. Should you go for faster AC5300 speeds? What about dual-band or tri-band? Or supporting older devices? 

It's easy to feel overwhelmed, but the good news is that picking out an 802.11ac router isn't nearly as complicated as it sounds, and you only need to consider a few relatively simple factors to select the best router for your needs.

Asus RT-AC88U Wi-Fi Router
Lifewire / Jordan Provost

Why Buy an 802.11ac Router

At this point, 802.11ac is the definitive standard in Wi-Fi technology, having been around in official form since 2013, so the better question to ask might be why not buy an 802.11ac router?

While you can certainly save a bit of money by going with an older or more basic budget-friendly router that only supports the older 802.11n standard, unless you're on a really tight budget, or simply looking for a router for a cottage or dorm, it's a good idea to at least get basic 802.11ac support in your router even if you don't have any devices that support it or if you don't need the faster Wi-Fi performance.

Every 802.11ac router supports older Wi-Fi standards, so you won't be hampering your performance by getting a better router, and you'll be even more ready to support faster speeds when you do need them. Further, as a rule 802.11ac routers tend to offer better performance and reliability even for older Wi-Fi devices thanks to their support for the higher-frequency 5GHz band, which can also be used by 802.11n devices, even though it's rarely found in pure 802.11n routers.

Wireless Frequencies and Standards

When it comes to wireless frequencies, the rule of thumb is that higher frequencies offer faster throughput but shorter range.

While Wi-Fi technology has always been capable of running at different frequencies, back in the early days manufacturers standardized on the 2.4GHz band for its longer range and lack of any real need for blazing fast Wi-Fi speeds; early 802.11b devices maxed out at 11Mbps, and even the “newer” 802.11g standard was capped at 54Mbps—tortoise-like speeds by today’s standards, and plenty for the 2.4GHz frequency range to handle.

However, as faster internet connections became the norm, it was necessary to create faster Wi-Fi standards as well. This began with 802.11n, a new standard that could run on either the existing 2.4GHz bands or the higher-frequency 5GHz range, offering throughput of up to 600Mbps. Following that came 802.11ac, which runs exclusively on the 5GHz band, offering potential speeds up to 2.1Gbps. 

Keep in mind, however, that these are theoretical maximums, and for various reasons you’ll almost never see those kinds of speeds from a single client device. In practical terms, the best you can expect to get from an 802.11n device is around 300Mbps, compared to around 800Mbps from an 802.11ac client.

Last year, the Wi-Fi Alliance came up with more consumer-friendly names for these standards, so 802.11n is now known as Wi-Fi 4, and 802.11ac is now known as Wi-Fi 5, which makes it more clear where they fit within the spectrum, but these are just new names and the underlying technologies remain exactly the same. 

Dual-Band or Tri-Band?

As we noted earlier, 802.11ac runs on the 5GHz band exclusively. However, since many of the devices that you’ll be using in your home likely won’t be 802.11ac devices, it’s necessary for 802.11ac routers to be backward compatible with all of the older standards, and this means that they also have to support the 2.4GHz frequency range.

As a result, all 802.11ac routers are at least dual-band routers, which is a simple way of saying that they operate on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Older 802.11b/g devices will use the 2.4GHz band, 802.11n devices can use either, and 802.11ac devices will stick to the faster and less congested 5GHz band.

However, since 5GHz has a shorter range than 2.4GHz, especially indoors, the lower-frequency band is also important even for your 802.11ac devices, which can fall back to 802.11n when they wander out of 5GHz coverage. You won’t get the fastest speeds in this case, but at least you’ll still be connected, and in many cases it should definitely be enough for casual surfing and usually even streaming video.

Asus ROG Rapture GT-AC5300
Lifewire / Yoona Wagener

There are also 802.11ac routers that are tri-band routers, which means that they offer a second 5GHz band to help distribute your devices across two different frequency ranges, improving overall performance by reducing congestion. Think of it like another dedicated highway for your Wi-Fi devices to travel on. However, much like a car can only drive on one road at a time, a single device can only connect to one band at a time, so tri-band routers are only useful if you have a lot of 5GHz 802.11ac and 802.11n devices on your network. The extra band is also only for the 5GHz range, so it won’t make any difference at all to your older devices, since they'll have to stay cluttered up in the single 2.4GHz slow lane. 

Speed and Bandwidth

The speed rating on an 802.11ac router—normally expressed as an “AC” number, like AC1900 or AC3100—refers to the total throughput it can offer across all of its Wi-Fi bands. If you have a dual-band router, this usually means that between 300Mbps and 600Mbps is reserved for the 2.4GHz band, which as we noted earlier is only used by the slower 802.11b/g/n standards, while the remainder is dedicated to the one or two 5GHz 802.11ac frequency bands. 

So if you have an AC1900 router—meaning one that provides 1,900Mbps (1.9Gbps) of bandwidth—you’re likely getting around 1,300Mbps (1.3Gbps) on the 5GHz 802.11ac band and 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n band.

This gets a bit more complicated with tri-band routers, since now the “AC” bandwidth number applies to all three bands, which is why you’ll usually see higher numbers on tri-band routers. Generally, the lone 2.4GHz band still gets the slower speed, since most 802.11n devices max out at 300Mbps, while the remainder is divided between the two 5GHz bands—and not always equally. 

For example, one popular AC5300 router offers 1,000Mbps on the 2.4GHz side and 2,167Mbps on each of the two 5GHz channels, while another AC3000 router divvies that up into a 400Mbps 2.4GHz channel, an 866Mbps 5GHz channel and another 1,733Mbps 5GHz channel.

These router speeds usually go well beyond what individual 802.11n and 802.11ac devices are actually capable of, however, not to mention the speed of your home internet connection. The point of these numbers isn’t to give you super-fast throughput for a single device, but rather to ensure that your router has enough bandwidth to serve all of the Wi-Fi devices in your home, and much like buying a tri-band router, there's no point in spending more money for faster speeds if you don't have enough Wi-Fi devices—or the internet speeds—to take advantage of it. 

Range and Coverage

If you have a large home, you’ll want to make sure you get a router that has enough coverage to reach all of your devices. This is especially true if you have a busy household with a lot of devices, since network congestion can come into play as well, effectively reducing the kind performance you’ll get when farther away from the router.

While there are some good standalone long-range routers available, if you have a very large house and can afford it, we strongly recommend getting a mesh Wi-Fi network system, which will make sure you get strong coverage throughout your home by letting you place satellite units where good Wi-Fi performance is most needed.

This is especially important if you want to ensure the fastest speeds are available throughout your home. Since 5GHz signals don’t travel nearly as far as 2.4GHz signals do, even the best standalone long-range routers will have you falling back to the 2.4GHz band much more quickly than you might like, which means you’ll no longer be using your router in 802.11ac mode. With a mesh system, on the other hand, you can always be close enough to a satellite unit to get a strong 5GHz connection, even across multiple floors. 

Wired Connections

As great as Wi-Fi can be, sometimes it’s just better to plug a device right in, especially if it’s something stationary that’s near your router anyway, such as a PC or a game console. 

Wired connections can give you faster performance than Wi-Fi in most cases, and this is especially true for gaming, where low latency is a critical requirement. If you’re a serious gamer, or have one living in your home, most Wi-Fi routers just won’t cut it, so you’ll have to either plug-in using Ethernet, or be sure to invest in a specialized gaming router.

So if you need wired connections for one or more devices, start by making sure that your router has enough Ethernet ports for your needs to begin with, and definitely be sure that they’re Gigabit Ethernet, since otherwise your 802.11ac devices will still likely get a faster connection than your network jacks can provide. Also if you’re buying a mesh Wi-Fi system, consider whether you’ll need Ethernet ports on the satellite units, as not all mesh devices provide them.

Asus RT-AC88U Gaming Router
 Lifewire

What About Wi-Fi 6? 

You may have heard of Wi-Fi 6, also known by its more technical name, 802.11ax. This is the very newest leading-edge standard in Wi-Fi technology, and while it offers some nice benefits, it’s not yet widely supported by client devices. If you’re buying for the very long term, it might be worth investing in a Wi-Fi 6 router, but in most cases we’d recommend saving your money unless you’re absolutely sure that you need the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 and actually have devices that can take advantage of it. As with any new technology, Wi-Fi 6 routers are expensive right now, but will become more affordable as the standard is more widely adopted 

At this point, 802.11ac, aka Wi-Fi 5, is the mainstream standard for high-performance routers. It’s been around since 2013, and is supported by all but the most budget-friendly routers. It’s a safe choice that will remain supported for years to come and should meet the needs of all but the most seriously demanding Wi-Fi users. 

Top Brands

Asus

Some of the most sophisticated and feature-rich routers you'll find are made by Asus, which particularly specializes in higher-end gaming routers that offer peak performance for busy networks. Thanks to a wealth of options to configure and excellent range, Asus offers some of the most versatile routers you'll find, and its tri-band routers are especially good if you have a really large home with a lot of Wi-Fi devices.

Netgear

Netgear is one of the more venerable names in the business, having produced routers and other networking gear for over two decades for both home and business applications. The company provides a wide range of routers for different needs, ranging from small apartments and condos to excellent mesh systems that can cover homes of several thousand square feet.

TP-Link

This company is best known for its lineup of really affordable routers, and it offers some good options for those looking for a fairly no frills router that provides good performance at wallet-friendly prices. While TP-Link does make some longer-range routers and even some mesh systems, the company is best known for its solid and affordable wallet-friendly routers.

Netgear Orbi
Lifewire 

Conclusion

It's important to buy a Wi-Fi router that will meet your needs, both now and into the future, and that's especially true if you're looking at a more expensive one. However, don't be dazzled by higher numbers and specs like tri-band coverage, since you probably don't need these features as much as you might think.

When picking our an 802.11ac router, the key factors to consider are what kind of speed you actually need, how large of a home you need to cover, and how many devices you have on your network. There's no point in buying a router that's faster than your internet connection, nor do you need a tri-band router if you're a single person living in an apartment or condo, or even a small family with few Wi-Fi devices.

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