Wireless router shopping guide: How to (and why) buy the best Wi-Fi router 2020
Buy a Wi-Fi router to suit your internet speed and budget, including routers for gaming, routers for streaming video and for using social media.
Broadly speaking, a home can only be as smart as your wireless internet allows it to be. Be sure to invest in the right Wi-Fi router to get the most of your smart devices.simpson33 / iStockphoto/Getty Images
By Whitson Gordon
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As your smart home gets smarter and smarter, your Wi-Fi network becomes more crucial. If you want photos, videos, games and everything else you do online — whether on your laptop, TV or otherwise — to load fast and reliably, you want a strong Wi-Fi router at home. (Mesh Wi-Fi systems and wireless range extenders can also help and don't necessarily require a new router.)
But not all Wi-Fi routers are born equal. Just having one doesn’t necessarily mean it can handle your smart devices — how many of them you have and what they demand of your internet will affect your overall speed, among other things. If you find yourself cursing your wireless network on a daily basis, it might be time to upgrade.
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.
Once upon a time, computers needed to be wired up to one another in order to communicate. That's inconvenient, though, and in 1999 Wi-Fi launched as a way for computers to wirelessly connect to each other — or, more commonly, to 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.
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.)
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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.
Wi-Fi has been around for a while now and it’s come a long way. The router you bought 10 years ago is almost certainly slower than one you'd buy now, and it may not be able to reach every corner of your home as efficiently as newer models.
A Wi-Fi router’s speed is measured in Megabits per second, or Mbps — it 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."
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.
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.
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 label “tri-band,” 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.
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 speeds) make it a great choice if you have more to spend.
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.
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Whitson Gordon is a freelance technology writer with bylines in the New York Times, Popular Science Magazine, PC Magazine and more. Previously, he was the editor-in-chief of Lifehacker and How-To Geek.