What Does a WiFi Router Actually Do?
Usually, we would begin by making the case for why you actually would want one of these products in the first place. However, in the case of wireless routers, most people in this day and age find them a necessity. Currently, you may be looking at updating an older model or are tired of renting one from your internet service provider and are looking to finally buy your own. While you may have been using a router for years, you may not actually know what they do, thinking of them as "Magic Internet Boxes", so we will cover their basic functions first.
Your internet service provider, or ISP will usually provide a modem, or you can use your own. This will connect to the lines coming into your house and have a handful of ethernet ports on the back. If this modem is in a convenient place, you could connect your computer directly to it through a cable and get on the internet. However, as the number of devices that can connect to the internet in each household continues to skyrocket, it is almost essential to have a wireless network that you can connect to. This is where your wireless router comes in. You connect your router to your modem through an ethernet cable and your router can then broadcast a secure, WiFi network that your various devices can connect to. This brings us to the first step in looking for a new router.
Step 1: Will a New WiFi Router Actually Make Your Internet Faster?
While a newer, more modern router can have a host of definite benefits, such as being overall more secure, increasing the speed of your internet is not one of them. First and foremost, the speed of your internet is determined by your ISP, usually depending on the plan that you pay for. Unfortunately, your ISP options may be limited and the ability to pay for a faster plan may not exist — true in many rural areas. If this is the case, a better router won't make much difference, as the slowdown is upstream of the router and there isn't much you can do.
However, if this isn't the case, then you should look at your current router — specifically, where it is. For example, if you have it set up at an extreme end of your house in a metal cabinet, you have found the bulk of your problems there. Moving your existing router to a more central location or closer to your devices can have an extreme impact on throughput, as well as minimizing interference and placing your router in a less obstructed locations.
If you can't easily move your router, you should consider upgrading to a router that has an increased range. If you have tried moving your router to no avail or if your router is a few years old, it's probably time to look at getting a new model.
Step 2: What's Your Budget?
The next thing to consider after deciding if you really need a new router is to determine what your budget is. A quick internet search will reveal that these products range in price from $50 to $500 and it might not be immediately apparent what the difference is. A small home with only a few devices, such as a laptop, smartphone, and a media streaming device definitely doesn't need a $500 router and wouldn't really notice any performance increase from $80-$100 routers to a $450 one. Additionally, spending a ton of money on a premium router may be a literal waste if you can connect your devices over a wired connection.
A wired connection will always be faster and more reliable than WiFi, meaning that a $5 ethernet cord connecting your media streaming box to a lower-end router or directly to the modem is always preferable to buying a high-end router to handle the bandwidth. However, if you have a large home with tons of devices that have to be connected wirelessly and there are multiple users utilizing high-bandwidth applications, like media streaming or video conferencing, you don't really have an option besides spending a few hundred dollars on a router. It all comes down to how much you are willing to spend on a router and how frustrating you find slow internet — just be warned, skimping out now could lead to a lot of frustration later.
Step 3: MU-MIMO? 802.11n? 802.11ac? 802.11ad? What Do These All Mean?
As you begin to search for a new router, you may find that there are a whole host of phrases that you may not be familiar with when it comes to describing the features of these products. First, we would advise that you get a router that supports MU-MIMO. MU-MIMO, or Multi-User- Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output, refers to the ability for a router to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously, greatly decreasing load time on devices when there are multiple internet-connected things on the network.
Additionally, we would also recommend looking for a router that has QoS, or Quality of Service. This is another very handy feature if there are multiple devices on a network, allowing you to prioritize bandwidth by application or device. For example, you could set a work computer above a family media streaming device above a teen's smartphone in terms of importance, or you could set media streaming above social media. This is one of the best ways to ensure you get the network speed where you want it if there are a plethora of devices on the network. Unfortunately, these features are usually on more expensive routers, so you may need to forgo them if you are shopping on a tight budget. However, these are totally worth it in our opinion, if it's within your budget.
The 802.11 designations on a router refer to the standard of wireless LAN technology established by the IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers). These standards are essentially why WiFi works and there is plenty of technical literature available online if you are interested in this further. However, it is the suffix to this designation that you should care about when shopping for a new router, as this informs you of some of the capabilities of each router. We would recommend looking for at least an 802.11ac Wave 2 or an 802.11 ad router, as these routers should support MU-MIMO. Other routers, such as 802.11n only support MIMO, meaning that while it can send and receive information from a single device simultaneously, it can't do this for multiple devices, dragging down performance on device-laden networks.
Step 4: What Features Do You Need?
We found features to be a more and more important differentiator with these products, as the throughput of these products is increasing so quickly that it usually ends up that your ISP is the limiting factor in your bandwidth. One of the first features you should consider is the ability to implement parental controls. The more sophisticated routers offer a variety of ways to filter content and access, allowing you to blacklist certain genres of undesirable content for kids and teens on the whole network, or actually cut off network access by device — a handy way to implement rules like no smartphone use at dinner or after bedtime. However, this won't block cellular data on a device, as the device is actually connecting to a different network.
If parental controls aren't something that you are interested in, then there are a few other features that we found to be quite useful. The first is the ability to remotely reset the router. Being able to reset the router through a smartphone app or browser interface easily allows you to hide the router in a discreet location and not worry about having to access it every time you experience connectivity issues. We also found the ability to dim the indicator lights to be surprisingly useful, as there was no longer an annoying flicker of lights visible when watching a movie at night in the same room as the router.
We also found the ability to host a guest network to be very handy. A guest network can be easily turned on and off and can be set to be unsecured or with a different — and potentially easier to dictate but less secure — password. This is usually used when you have company over and you either don't want to grant them access to your primary home network, or more commonly, spend the time telling each and every one of your guests a complicated alphanumeric network key with special characters — which you should be using for your private home WiFi network!
Hopefully, this guide has helped you to select the wireless router that will match your needs and keep buffering and interruptions to a minimum. For more information on how we tested and scored these products, check out the comprehensive side-by-side review linked below or our detailed How We Test article for a full breakdown of our testing procedures and methodologies.