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 important 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.

Not even really sure what a router does? For the uninitiated, the Wi-Fi router is basically the device that takes the wired internet connection from your modem and transforms that signal into a wireless one — which you can use 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 of the fact that there are a number of different types of routers available — and these different types of routers can come with a range of different 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.

Since there are so many things to consider when buying a router, we’ve put together this handy guide. Read on to learn more, so you can make the right decision when it comes to purchasing one.

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 great for a number of 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 though — 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 into the hundreds of dollars, single-band routers are normally far cheaper.

There are, however, some major 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 have an effect on connection speed. That’s especially true in larger cities, where there’s more interference than anywhere else. Last but not least, single-band routers normally don’t have some of the modern features you’ll see below, like device prioritization.

If you’re someone who simply 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 perfectly fine 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. What that means is that you’ll be able to connect to your router on either 2.4GHz or 5GHz, depending on what you’re doing and whether or not the device you’re using supports 5GHz connectivity.

There are some pretty major advantages to using a dual-band router with 5GHz connectivity, especially if you live in a highly populated area. For starters, 5GHz connections have quite a lot less interference, both because of the fact that 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 major advantage to this — and that’s to reduce congestion and interference on your Wi-Fi networks even more. With an extra lane for traffic, congestion in that lane is seriously reduced, 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, but most tri-band routers automatically sort devices between the different networks, so you don’t have to worry about doing it manually.

There are a number of 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 a great way to future-proof your home.

Keep in mind 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 really 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, it's important to know that 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 to do with extending Wi-Fi range.

Mesh technology has existed for quite a while as a way 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 normally 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 where there’s spotty connectivity in areas that are farther away from the router. Generally speaking, mesh networks are perfect for households between 2,000 and 4,500 square feet.

You might notice that we haven’t really 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 whether you want to have mesh networking capabilities, is important, there are a ton of other features to take into consideration if you’re in the market for a new router. Here are the most important of those 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 that 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 then broadcast.

There are a few advantages and disadvantages to purchasing a router with a built-in modem. The biggest advantage is that you don’t have to worry about multiple devices cluttering up the corner in your home where the coaxial connection is and that 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. Separate devices also usually 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 a number of times over the past 20 years or so, and they can have a pretty big 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 really 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. Check out the best 802.11g routers to buy.

802.11n was introduced in 2009, and seriously steps things up in terms of 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. See our favorite 802.11n routers to purchase.

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

So what should you look for from a modern router? 802.11n and 802.11ac are the most modern and most useful standards today, although many routers support more or all of the standards 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 useful for delivering more reliable wired connections to some devices, but they can also be used for extra storage and for flashing the firmware on your router.

Let’s start with wired Internet connections, which are usually conducted through Ethernet ports. These ports are useful for desktop computers that aren’t going to move, and that 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 take that into consideration.

USB ports can also come in handy. They can be used to flash firmware onto a router, but they can also be used as connected storage that can be accessed by devices 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 really only useful 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 are essentially aimed at allowing you to control certain 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 badly 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 blacklisted 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 exactly what you can do to improve the security of your home network.

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

Parental Controls Let You Keep Tabs on Your Kids

If you have kids, you might want to strongly consider buying a parental control Wi-Fi router. 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 simply might not do the job as well as a router can. With a smart router, for example, 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 when it comes to 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 little technical, but MU-MIMO stands for “multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output,” and basically 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 multiple devices, but really 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 basically allows a router to communicate with multiple devices at once, as if each device had its own personal router.

MU-MIMO can come in a number of 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 basically allows users to prioritize traffic to a certain 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 simply have a toggle called Wi-Fi Multimedia, or WMM. This basically gives video streaming priority over other types of traffic. Others allow you to set maximum bandwidth limits on certain devices, which makes for much more versatile control.

Conclusion: Here's the Lowdown

There are clearly a number of 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 means 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 buying 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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