As smart home products become more accessible and innovative, your Wi-Fi network becomes more crucial — this is especially so during a pandemic that's forced many people around the planet to work from home (if they could and if they still can), overburdening home networks that once sat mostly dormant in daytime. If you want your Zoom calls, photos, videos, games and everything else you share or view online — whether on your laptop, tablet, TV or smartphone — to load fast and to load reliably, you want a strong Wi-Fi router at home.
SKIP AHEAD Best Wi-Fi routers
However, not all Wi-Fi routers are born equal. Just having one doesn’t necessarily mean it can handle your smart devices — the number of devices you have and what they demand will affect overall internet performance. If you find that you’re experiencing slow loading times and lagging internet speed, it may be time to upgrade to a new Wi-Fi router.
What is a Wi-Fi router?
Once upon a time, computers needed to be wired up to one another in order to communicate. In 1999 Wi-Fi launched as a way for computers to wirelessly connect to one another and the internet.
Through your internet service provider (typically referred to as your ISP), a cable or DSL line finds its way into your home and connects to a modem — a small device that decodes the incoming internet signal into something your computer (and other devices) can read.
That signal then goes to a router — which connects to your modem through a wire — that ensures any email (or pictures of cats) you clicked on displays on the right device in your home, whether it’s your smartphone, laptop or otherwise. You can even find modem/router combo units that unite both of these functions into one device.
- The popular ARRIS SURFboard SB6183 is a modem. It decodes the internet signal coming into your house from a cable, DSL, or fiber line.
- The likewise popular TP-Link AC1750 is a Wi-Fi router. It's wired directly into your modem and disperses data between all the computers and phones in your house.
Should I buy my own Wi-Fi router?
When you sign up for internet service — with companies like Verizon's Fios, Comcast's Xfinity or otherwise — your ISP will often offer you a modem and a Wi-Fi router for a small monthly rental fee, usually anywhere from $8 to $12 a month. (Comcast is NBC News’s parent company.)
That’s just one of your options, though: You don’t have to rent your router from your ISP. There are plenty of routers you can buy on your own, and they’re available at most major retailers. What’s more: Buying your own router is almost always a better financial decision compared to renting. It’ll usually pay for itself after about a year of service.
All that said, renting from your ISP does come with one major benefit: free tech support when something goes wrong. That's certainly worth considering but still — as is the case with most tech — you will be getting a limited warranty of some sort by purchasing your own, and it’ll likely be a superior model with more features to what your ISP is renting out.
With a better router, you can make the most of your Wi-Fi in your house rather than relying on a baseline configuration meant to work for everyone’s house.
Best Wi-Fi routers at every price point
It's easy to get lost in all the specs and features that Wi-Fi routers list and boast. We'll dive into what the most significant features and specs mean, in plain terms, below. To give you an idea of some of the best routers out right now, these top routers come with different price points and equip varying levels of bells and whistles, some of which are universally substantial and others of which only matter to heavy users (like gamers).
1. TP-Link AC1750 Wireless Dual Band Smart Wi-Fi Router (affordable)
TP-Link offers some of the best bang for your buck with their Archer A7. It’s dual-band, comes with some handy features like parental controls, and even works with Alexa, if you have an Echo in your house.
2. TP-Link AX3000 Smart WiFi Router (mid-range)
If you need more bandwidth than TP-Link's budget-focused router offers, their newer Archer Ax50 packs faster speeds with the enhanced Wi-Fi 6 for a more powerful step up.
3. Asus RT-AX88U AX6000 Dual-Band Wi-Fi Router (high-end)
While some people prefer to set their router up once and forget it, others (like myself) prefer to tweak settings and make use of advanced features to get the best experience possible. Asus’ feature set and excellent settings interface (not to mention its higher Wi-Fi 6 speeds) make it a great choice if you have more to spend and want one of the best Wi-Fi routers available today. There are even higher-end routers out there, like Netgear's Nighthawk AX12, but they're likely more than most people need.
4. Amazon eero Pro Mesh Wi-Fi System (mesh Wi-Fi)
If you have a larger home and a single router can't quite get you coverage everywhere, you might be better off with a mesh Wi-Fi system like Amazon’s Eero Pro. Each unit intelligently communicates the others to blanket your house in a single, far-reaching Wi-Fi network, and it's easy to set up.
How to choose the best router?
A Wi-Fi router’s speed is measured in Megabits per second, or Mbps. That metric denotes how fast the router can move incoming data — like an internet signal — from one computer (like your modem) to another (like your smartphone or TV). For the past few years, the fastest Wi-Fi routers on the market used a standard called "802.11ac," or "Wireless AC." We're on the verge of a new standard right now with a simpler name: Wi-Fi 6.
When you shop for a router, you'll usually see a speed advertised on the spec sheet. The fastest AC routers, for example, might boast up to 5,300 Mbps of blazing-fast speed.
- However, that’s the total combined speed available to any and all devices feeding off of that router — an individual device will only reach about 2,167 Mbps.
- And most routers won't ever reach their theoretical maximum speeds anyway, given real-world conditions.
In other words, there’s a lot of complicated technobabble behind the numbers on the box, but there’s not much reason to overburden yourself with it: It’s mostly a benchmark that allows you to determine a router’s overall capabilities. Think of it like the available horsepower a car has — it’s less about utilizing that power each time you drive and more to categorize the general strength of the car’s engine.
The latest Wi-Fi 6 routers offer better speeds and more features than older AC routers, but a new iteration called Wi-FI 6E is already on the way. If you need a new router now, you can either get an affordable AC router as a stopgap before upgrading to Wi-Fi 6E down the line or grab an early Wi-Fi 6 router now. If you can, I'd recommend waiting until 2021 when Wi-Fi 6E will be fully baked.
You’ll see other features on a router’s product page, too. For example, “dual-band” routers are the norm now, which use two different frequencies — 2.4GHz and 5GHz — to get a better signal to your devices.
- 2.4GHz is better at penetrating walls but has some limitations.
- It’s slower than 5GHz and can get congested with other non-Wi-Fi devices (like a cordless phone system).
Having both allows you to get the best connection no matter where you are in the house. Some modern routers even sport the tri-band label, which allows more devices to communicate with the router at one time, eliminating congestion when the whole family’s using the web at the same time — whether Tik Tokking, streaming Netflix shows, blasting a Spotify playlist or checking for the latest sports reruns.