A few years back, most households could get by with a basic single-band router that kept a handful of devices connected to the home network. With the explosion of personal gadgets, however, it's tough to find a home that doesn't have multiple devices connected to it. Smartphones, gaming consoles, tablets and laptops now compete for your online access.
If you're constantly losing your wireless signal, experiencing slow streaming video with constant buffering, or have to wait longer than usual for webpages to load, there's a good chance your router is having trouble keeping up with your networking demands. With so many devices hogging your Wi-Fi connection, your internet can slow to a crawl.
Fortunately, there are really powerful routers available that can boost speeds so you get the connection you're looking for. But what kind of features do you really need? Here are some tips to get you started plus a list of the best routers you can get right now.
1. Aim for a multi-band router
Wi-Fi routers and their signals are not created equal. Older routers typically operate on a single band, which is the crowded 2.4 GHz spectrum and this limits their speed and coverage.
If you're shopping for a new router, aim for one that has dual or triple band capabilities. By having multi bands, you could keep older devices on their own bands while newer devices that support the latest Wi-Fi standards on the higher bands. This is essentially like having multiple routers in one.
2. Get at least an AC router
Newer Wi-Fi standards mean better features. "AC" routers are a step up from the older "B" and "G" models and even "N" models. They have more features and offer better performance. If you’re shopping for a new router, that’s what you want to look for.
AC routers have a maximum spectral bandwidth of around 8 x 160 MHz, compared to the 4 x 40 MHz standard of N routers. In other words, the increased bandwidth allows more data to be transmitted without slowing down. They're a bit more expensive but if you're looking to boost your network speed, AC is the way to go.
Newer AC routers also have advanced features not found in older routers. Look for specifications like beamforming, Multiple-In-Multiple-Out (MIMO), Multiple USB 3.0 connectors and Gigabit Ethernet ports.
Some top-of-the-line routers are even starting to roll out support for the newer AD protocol, also known as Wi-Gig.
3. For extended areas, consider a mesh network
For areas larger than 3,000 square feet (the average range of a Wi-Fi router) with multiple walls, a mesh Wi-Fi router system is the way to go.
Next-generation mesh routers are designed to spread a Wi-Fi network's coverage with the use of multiple access points or satellites.
These systems usually come in sets of two or three separate units that work together to envelop your home or office with Wi-Fi coverage. As long as they're within range of each other (about 30 to 50 feet), you can shape and customize your home or office's Wi-Fi coverage by placing them in the appropriate rooms.
As far as your gadgets are concerned, the Wi-Fi mesh is one big continuous Wi-Fi network so instead of using network extenders for large areas, upgrading to a mesh network is recommended.
Best routers of 2017
Here's a roundup of the best routers you can buy right now:
Asus RT-AC5300 Tri-Band Gigabit Router
The Asus RT-5300 is another tri-band (single 2.4 GHz, dual 5 GHz) router. However, with the latest 4x4 802.11ac multi-user MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out) technology, it can deliver speeds of up to 5.3 Gb per second and a range of up to 5,000 square feet while ensuring that multiple mixed band (2.4 or 5 GHz) gadgets connect at their maximum speeds.
It has a fast 1.4 GHz dual-core processor and 512 MB of RAM to do the heavy lifting and four built-in Gigabit Ethernet ports. Added USB 2.0/3.0 ports are also available for external storage and added networking functions.
The RT-5300 also features Smart Connect technology that can dynamically assign bands to the connected gadgets based on the speed, load and single strength for optimized bandwidth and coverage.
Other features include access to route-optimized servers called the WTFast Gamers Private Network. These servers ensure low latency and stable ping times crucial to online gaming.
With its 4x4 MU-MIMO technology, the Asus RT-AC5300 is a step up from the older 802.11ac routers but this advantage certainly doesn't come cheap.
Netgear AC5300 Nighthawk X8 Tri-Band Router
The current king of tri-band 802.11ac routers is the Netgear AC5300 Nighthawk X8. Similar to the Asus RT-5300, it also utilizes three bands (single 2.4 GHz, two 5 GHz) and four MU-MIMO data streams for speeds of up to 5.3 Gbps. It also sports a 1.4 GHz dual-core CPU to process and prioritize the multiple data streams it was designed to handle.
Netgear also boasts that the Nighthawk X8 has its exclusive Active Antenna technology that improves wireless performance by boosting the antenna itself. The company did this by moving the amplifiers from the motherboard to the top of the antennas themselves.
In addition to these features, aside from the USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports, the X8 has six Gigabit Ethernet ports, two of which can be combined to double the connection speed to a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device.
Although the Netgear Nighthawk X8 is similar to RT-5300 in features, it outdoes the ASUS with its six Gigabit LAN ports. This is definitely the ultimate router for folks who not only need the speed of 802.11ac but are planning on hard-wiring more gadgets to the router too.
Again, these added features don't come cheap.
TP-Link AD7200 Tri-Band Gigabit Router
We've been talking about the upcoming Wi-Fi standard called WiGig/802.11ad and WiGig routers are starting to roll out.
The first one we've seen so far is the tri-band TP-Link Talon AD7200. Aside from the 60 GHz band that WiGig requires, the Talon also operates over 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. With the newer 802.11ad Wi-Fi protocol and its 4 stream MU-MIMO technology, this router can deliver speeds of up to 7.2 Gbps.
Bonus: Google Wi-Fi System for Mesh Networking
The biggest drawback with Wi-Fi mesh systems at this time is still the price. Expect to pay a premium, especially for multiple units. Thankfully, prices are starting to drop. The cheapest option for a multi-unit mesh Wi-Fi system is the Google Wi-Fi system. On Amazon, a single unit currently costs about $130 and a 3-pack (enough for a 4,500 square ft. area) is about $300.
For the average apartment or condo, a mesh router system can be overkill but large houses and office spaces that require consistent network speeds will reap the benefits of a mesh Wi-Fi network immensely.