The Ultimate Router Buying Guide

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While you probably use your phone's cellular network to connect to the digital world when you're on the go, when you're at home, your Wi-Fi network is probably the backbone of your digital life. As such, it's pretty essential to make sure you find a Wi-Fi router that meets or exceeds your expectations — and one that will last at least a few years before needing to be replaced.

What is a Router?

Not even really sure what a router does? For the uninitiated, the Wi-Fi router is the device that takes the wired internet connection from your modem and transforms that signal into a wireless one. You can use that to access the Internet from any Wi-Fi-enabled device (smartphones, computers, tablets, etc.) in range of that signal.

Unfortunately, buying a router isn't necessarily as easy as simply heading to an electronics store and pulling the first router you find off the shelf. That's because there are many different types of routers available with a range of features (number of bands, parental controls, security, physical ports, smart capabilities, etc.), some of which might be useful to you, and some of which might not.

We've put together this handy guide on what to consider when buying a router.

The Different Types of Routers

The first step to buying a Wi-Fi router is figuring out the type of router that’s right for you. There are a few main types of routers to consider. Namely, you’ll want to think about the number of bands you want from your router — and if you want your router to support mesh networking. Here’s a rundown of the different types and the differences between them.

Single-Band Routers: Cheaper But Offer Slower Speeds

Wi-Fi routers essentially communicate to devices like your phone through radio frequencies — and different routers can communicate through one or more of those frequencies. When it comes to single-band routers, as the name suggests, you’re limited to one frequency band — 2.4GHz.

The 2.4GHz frequency band is excellent for many different situations. For starters, it’s better than some other frequency bands at penetrating through walls and floors. On top of that, almost all devices are compatible with the 2.4GHz band. Those advantages shouldn’t necessarily discourage you from buying a dual-band router — dual-band routers support the 2.4GHz frequency band, too.

The main advantage of buying a single-band router is the cost. While dual-band and tri-band routers can run hundreds of dollars, single-band routers usually are far cheaper.

There are, however, some significant disadvantages to single-band routers. For starters, being limited to the 2.4GHz frequency band means you’ll have to deal with slightly slower speeds than routers with more bands. On top of that, single-band routers are more prone to interference given the ubiquity of the 2.4GHz frequency band — which could also affect connection speed. That’s especially true in larger cities, where there’s more interference than anywhere else. Last but not least, single-band routers usually don’t have some of the modern features you’ll see below, like device prioritization.

If you’re someone who wants a relatively reliable router at a reasonable price, and you don’t live in a major city, then a single-band router may be for you.

Dual-Band Routers Are Great for Densely Populated Areas

While single-band routers stick with the 2.4GHz frequency band, dual-band routers step things up by adding another frequency band — 5GHz. You can connect on the 2.4GHz or 5GHz band, depending on what you’re doing and whether the device you’re using supports 5GHz connectivity.

There are some pretty significant advantages to using a dual-band router with 5GHz connectivity, especially if you live in a highly-populated area. For starters, 5GHz connections have a lot less interference, both because it’s still less used than 2.4GHz and because 5GHz isn’t as good at penetrating through walls and furniture.

There’s a reason why there aren’t single-band routers with only 5GHz connections, and that’s that few devices currently support 5GHz. Some newer phones and computers support the faster connection, but most other connected devices are still limited to 2.4GHz — making dual-band routers necessary.

Dual-Band Router

Tri-Band Routers Will Future-Proof Your Home

It would be easy to assume that tri-band routers add another frequency band on top of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands — but instead of adding a different frequency band, tri-band routers add a second 5GHz band.

There’s one advantage to this — and that’s to reduce congestion and interference on your Wi-Fi networks, meaning it’s much more likely that you’ll be able to reach higher speeds at any given moment. It might sound like this adds a lot of complexity to using a Wi-Fi router. Still, most tri-band routers automatically sort devices between the different networks, so you don’t have to worry about doing it manually.

There are several reasons you might want to invest in a tri-band router. If you’re a heavy Internet user, live in a highly populated city, and have a lot of devices connected at any given moment, then a tri-band router could be very helpful for you. Even if those situations don’t apply to you, a tri-band router is an excellent way to future-proof your home.

Remember that just because you have a tri-band router, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your connection will be faster. If you don’t generally have a lot of devices connected to your network, you may not notice much of a difference.

Mesh Networks Blanket Your Home With Wi-Fi

If you're curious about buying a mesh Wi-Fi networking system, they're a little different from the other types of routers we've looked at so far. That's because mesh Wi-Fi networking systems have less to do with the bands used and more with extending the Wi-Fi range.

Mesh technology has existed for quite a while to extend any radio signal by using nodes that piggyback off of each other to create an extended network. In other words, with a mesh network, you'll generally have one main router, along with a few secondary nodes that are placed around the area and can extend the network slightly further than the last node could. That's why mesh networking is perfect for larger households with spotty connectivity in areas farther away from the router. Generally speaking, mesh networks are ideal for homes between 2,000 and 4,500 square feet.

You might notice that we haven't talked about bands in mesh networks yet, and that's because mesh networks can be single, dual, or tri-band, just like traditional routers. Take the Netgear Orbi, for example, which is a tri-band mesh network system and considered one of the better mesh network systems out there.

Other Features and Considerations

While figuring out if you want a single-, dual-, or tri-band router and if you wish to have mesh networking capabilities is important, there are many other features to consider if you’re in the market for a new router. Here are the most important extra features and what they can mean for your router and home network.

Do You Want a Built-In Modem?

A router is only one of two devices you’ll need to get wireless Internet up and running in your home. The other is a modem, but some routers have one built-in.

The modem has changed a fair bit over the years. At the dawn of the Internet, the modem was what took the signal from a telephone line and turned it into a digital signal that your computer could understand. These days, the basic concept is the same, but the signal often comes from an optical fiber connection or a coaxial cable in your home and is then translated by the modem for your router to broadcast.

Purchasing a router with a built-in modem has a few advantages and disadvantages. The most significant advantage is that you don’t have to worry about multiple devices cluttering up the corner in your home where the coaxial connection is. Buying a router/modem combo might be a little cheaper than buying a modem and router separately. The disadvantages, however, include the fact a separate router usually gives users more control over things like settings and firmware. Individual devices also typically perform better than these dual-purpose devices.

Built-in Modem Router

What Are The Different Wireless Standards?

We’ve already gone over the difference between single-, dual-, and tri-band routers, but the truth is that’s not the whole story when it comes to broadcasting wireless signals. Wireless standards have been updated many times over the past 20 years, and they can have a pretty significant impact on the speed and versatility of your router. Here’s a quick rundown of the standards and the difference between them.

802.11 used the 2.4GHz band and had a maximum bandwidth of 2 megabits per second (Mbps). That’s incredibly slow by today’s standards — and 802.11 devices are no longer manufactured.

802.11b uses the same 2.4GHz band but supports a maximum bandwidth of 11Mbps. It has a range of 150 feet.

802.11a was introduced in 1999, at the same time as 802.11b, but it operates on the 5GHz frequency band and supports a maximum bandwidth of 54Mbps. 802.11a was most popular in business applications for a long time, but in recent years has become more popular for consumers, too.

802.11g also supports a maximum bandwidth of 54Mbps but operates in the 2.4GHz band. It’s backward compatible with 802.11b devices, though those devices are limited to 802.11b speeds.

802.11n was introduced in 2009 and seriously stepped things up in speed. It supports a bandwidth of up to 300Mbps (or even 450Mbps with three antennae). This standard operates in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands.

802.11ac again steps things up, supporting bandwidths of anywhere between 433Mbps to multiple gigabits per second. It works exclusively in the 5GHz band.

So what should you look for from a modern router? 802.11n and 802.11ac are the most current standards today, although many routers support more or all of the criteria noted above. If you buy a router that supports 802.11ac and 802.11n, you should be good to go.

How Many Physical Ports Should Your Router Have?

While you’re probably buying your Wi-Fi router for wireless connectivity in your home, you might still want to take the ports on the back of the router into consideration. Not only are they helpful in delivering more reliable wired connections to some devices, but you can also use them for extra storage and for flashing the firmware on your router.

Let’s start with wired Internet connections, usually conducted through Ethernet ports. These ports are suitable for stationary desktop computers and might benefit from a slightly more reliable connection. Most routers have at least one or two Ethernet ports, which is all most people need these days, but if you want more, you’ll have to consider that.

USB ports can also come in handy. You can use them to flash firmware onto a router and as connected storage that devices can access on your network. For example, if you want to download TV shows and movies to watch through an app like Plex, you can download them on your computer, store them on the hard drive connected to your router, and then access them on a smart TV. USB ports are only helpful for those willing to get a little technical, so if that’s not you, then you may not need to worry about them.

Physical Ports

Is a Smart Router Really Worth It?

We live in the era of smart devices connected to the Internet, so it makes sense that the device connecting everything else to the Internet would be smart too. Smart routers allow you to control some settings and features of your router from a mobile app.

For example, you could have an app that allows you to easily manage the users and devices connected to a network at any time. Through that app, you could set up temporary passwords for guests, tell the router to prioritize some devices over others, and more, all without having to log into complicated and poorly designed Web portals. Smart routers are also more likely to have advanced features, including mesh networking and easy access to parental controls, which we’ll discuss below.

Wi-Fi Security Can Protect From Viruses and Malware

With the constant threat of hacking and data leaks, online security is more important than ever. But a great router can take some of the hassles out of trying to stay secure online. Some routers, for example, can scan incoming traffic for things such as viruses and malware, preventing them from ever reaching your computer or phone. Some keep a list of blocklisted websites, alerting you to the fact that you might be visiting a website with malware before you ever get to the website in the first place. And some, like the Norton Core router, give you a so-called “security score,” helping you pinpoint what you can do to improve the security of your home network.

Security features are likely to be increasingly important as time goes on. However, buying a router with a few basic security features could be the difference between having your data and potentially your identity stolen or your data being safe and sound where it should be.

Parental Controls Let You Keep Tabs on Your Kids

You might want to buy a parental control Wi-Fi router if you have kids. Let’s face it: The Internet can be a bit ugly sometimes, and even if your kids aren’t the type to actively seek out damaging websites, these days, it’s pretty easy for your kids to stumble upon something they probably shouldn’t see.

There are non-router-based parental controls out there, but some of them probably aren’t as secure as they should be and might not do the job as well as a router can. For example, with a smart router, parents can set the types of content they think their kids should and shouldn’t be able to see, even separating content based on the person who’s accessing the Internet.

Visiting questionable sites isn’t the only issue for kids online. Kids these days are also spending a lot more time on their devices. With a dedicated parental control router, parents can set timers for specific devices and users, allowing them to access the Internet at certain times, and block them at other times.

MU-MIMO Communicates With Devices Simultaneously

You're probably wondering, what is MU-MIMO? It can be a bit technical, but MU-MIMO stands for "multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output" and boils down to allowing a device to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously. Traditionally speaking, routers could only really communicate with one device at a time. Sure, they can appear to be communicating with various devices, but they're very quickly firing off data packets to different devices, one at a time.

MU-MIMO changes that. Instead of only sending data packets to one device at a time, MU-MIMO allows a router to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously as if each device had a personal router.

MU-MIMO can come in many different configurations. There's currently 2x2 and 4x4 MU-MIMO, referring to the number of streams a router supports at a time. 8x8 MU-MIMO is also on the way, but it's still in its early stages.

There are a few limitations to this. For starters, MU-MIMO only supports downloads — not uploads — and it's spatial, meaning that if you have multiple devices near each other, they'll share the same stream.

MU-MIMO Router

Quality of Service Can Prioritize Traffic to Specific Devices

We touched on Quality of Service, or QoS, earlier, but it’s a feature that deserves a more in-depth explanation. QoS allows users to prioritize traffic to a specific device or service, which can be super helpful for those that have a lot of devices connected to the router at any given time.

For example, you can tell your router to prioritize traffic to your smart TV so that when you’re streaming Netflix, the stream stays clear. It might affect the speed of the Internet on your other devices, but that’s the trade-off of using such a feature. You could also tell the router to prioritize your computer while you’re video-chatting, helping ensure that a call doesn’t drop when you’re catching up with your mom.

Not all routers treat Quality of Service the same. Some have a toggle called Wi-Fi Multimedia, or WMM, prioritizing video streaming over other traffic types. Others allow you to set maximum bandwidth limits on specific devices, making for much more versatile control.

Conclusion: Here's the Lowdown

There are many features to take into consideration when buying a Wi-Fi router. While basic users will get away with using a single-band router, for most, we recommend a dual-band smart router with at least a few security features. Not only will that ensure that you can keep better control over your home network, but it will at least partially future-proof your network as we move into an increasingly connected world.

In the end, the most important things to consider are the number of bands, whether you want to create a mesh network (or not), and whether a smart router makes sense for you. As with anything, more features mean a higher price tag, but a good router should get you through at least a few years, if not more, of home networking.

A cheap router that under-performs is ultimately not worth buying, but keeping all these options in mind when purchasing a router can be tricky. If you have the time, we recommend doing some research, and if you need to, you can check back on this guide to see what different features mean for your home network.


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