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Networking

Best Wireless Router

Wireless routers are an essential component of any network, no matter how big or small. These days, it seems that just about everything is network-connected, and requires a Wi-Fi signal to function properly. A wireless router can make or break a network; the difference between a good wireless router and a mediocre one comes down to how much unwanted attention your network draws to itself.

That said, there's a vast array of wireless routers available today, covering a wide price and performance spectrum. Feature lists are getting longer every year, and there's a never-ending stream of new technologies to keep track of. If you've gone shopping for a wireless router recently, you'll undoubtedly have experienced first-hand how confusing this market can be. Rather than simply choosing the most expensive or cheapest option on the shelf, we recommend narrowing down your picks to the higher-performing options currently available. After all, this single piece of hardware serves as the backbone of your entire network, and you need to count on it to provide years of reliable service. To acquaint yourself with the terminology and technology involved, have a look at our wireless router buyer's guide below.

Netgear R7800 Nighthawk X4S AC2600 Wireless Router

It's quite possible that Netgear has the largest product lineup of any wireless router manufacturer today, and the fact that half of the lineup shares the "Nighthawk" name and similar external designs doesn't help much. To be clear, we've selected the Nighthawk X4S, which we'll refer to using its model number of R7800 to avoid further confusion.

The R7800 discreetly packs top-end 802.11ac technology in a case that forgoes the extroverted (and often juvenile, depending on how you look at it) styling touches of so-called "gaming routers", and we couldn't be happier with the result. It shares the same angular design as many of Netgear's other Nighthawk routers, with the exception of four external antennas as opposed to the typical three. Connectivity is plentiful, but the ports are scattered around the unit. Around back, you'll find 5 Ethernet ports - the one marked in yellow is dedicated to the input from your modem, while the numbered ports are all Gigabit Ethernet. Netgear also provides a dedicated switch to shut off the status LEDs, which can be immensely useful if the bright lights prove to be distracting. The sides of the unit house ports as well - a pair of USB 3.0 ports are located on the left, while an eSATA port is found on the right. The inclusion of the latter allows much higher data transfer rates to external drives, meaning the R7800 can perform double duty as a network attached storage unit.

If the appearance is sedate, the performance is anything but. The array of four external antennas is the first sign that this router performs on a different level compared to entry-level 802.11ac models. 4x4 MU-MIMO is fully supported, provided you have devices that can take advantage of this technology. SmallNetBuilder's test of the R7800 shows that this is easily one of the fastest wireless routers around, measuring both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz throughput. Paired with the 1.7 GHz dual-core processor, the R7800 certainly has enough muscle to handle heavy data loads and multiple simultaneous connections without blinking. Make sure your internet subscription is fast enough - if it's under 250 Mbps, you're leaving tons of performance on the table.

The $229.99 MSRP makes the R7800 one of the pricier routers among our recommendations, and is one of the only drawbacks we can find. That said, it can be found online for well under $200, which is a much more reasonable price for one of the highest-performing routers on the market today. Whether you have the service and equipment to take advantage of the extra performance or you're simply looking to future-proof your setup, the R7800 is a solid investment in your network.

ASUS RT-AC68U AC1900 Wireless Router

If the Asus RT-AC68U looks familiar, that's because it bears a striking resemblance to the RT-N66U that we've recommended for years. While it's not quite the direct replacement to our previous favorite (that spot is filled by the similarly named RT-AC66U), Asus positions the RT-AC68U as a slightly higher-performing variant. As the model name implies, the RT-AC68U supports the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard - also to be known as "Wi-Fi 5", according to the Wi-Fi Alliance. All things considered, we feel that the RT-AC68U is the sweet spot in the Asus wireless router lineup.

Asus certainly played it safe with the external design of the RT-AC68U, carrying over the cross-hatched appearance and three prominent external antennas. The overall size hasn't changed too much, but the added componentry results in a thicker case compared to the RT-N66U. It's a different story out back, however - because the RT-AC68U is meant to stand vertically, the ports have been shifted to the bottom of the case. The four Gigabit Ethernet ports remain, as do the pair of USB ports; one of these has the telltale blue connector of USB 3.0, making the RT-AC68U a more realistic option for attaching a networked hard drive.

Rather than altering a successful design motif, Asus took the opportunity to further increase performance without sacrificing reliability. The RT-AC68U is a three-stream router like its predecessor, but adopting the latest 802.11ac standard allows a noticeable throughput increase with compatible devices. Asus claims up to 600 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz band and 1300 Mbps using the 5 GHz radio to justify the AC1900 label. While it's unlikely you'll see these speeds regularly (see our buyer's guide for more info), the RT-AC68U offers enough real-world performance to stream 4K content reliably. The 1 GHz dual-core processor keeps the RT-AC68U operating reliably even with multiple connections, preventing any throughput "bottlenecks" that can occur with lesser routers that don't have the processing power to keep up with demand.

With an MSRP of $149.99, the RT-AC68U balances its performance nicely with a reasonable price tag. While $150 is certainly a chunk of change (considering how lower-end yet still-viable 802.11ac routers available for a third of the price), the RT-AC68U earns our recommendation because of its noticeable real-world performance bump. This particular router is especially well-suited for users with faster internet service subscriptions, as the added throughput can better take advantage of the higher data rates.

Asus RT-N66U Dual Band Wireless-N 900 Extreme Router

Asus may be better known for their computers and components, but this company has an established presence in the wireless router industry as well. The RT-N66U slots neatly above the RT-N56U Black Diamond (which remains one of our favorite routers at any price), offers improved performance all around, and is easily one of the best routers on sale today.

One of the first things you'll notice about the RT-N66U is the different design - whereas the RT-N56U emphasized sleek minimalism, the RT-N66U features a trio of external antennas. This new addition is more than cosmetic - dedicated users now have the option of unscrewing the factory antennas and replacing them with more powerful units, much in the vein of the old Linksys WRT54GL. While the crosshatched "diamond" pattern stays, the status lights have now been merged into their respective symbols for a more streamlined appearance. The included stand allows the router to be propped up horizontally, positioning the antennas for maximum effectiveness. It's obviously part of the same family that the RT-N56U belongs to, and stands out from the sea of look-alike routers.

Though the RT-N56U was already a stout performer to begin with, there are several aspects that the RT-N66U improves upon. The external antennas provide a welcome boost in range, allowing the RT-N66U to cover areas that may previously have been "dead zones". Wireless throughput speeds are up in both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz modes, with noticeably higher speeds further away from the router. The RT-N66U offers four Gigabit Ethernet ports, with SmallNetBuilder's testing showing up to 810 Mbps in simultaneous throughput. This is one of the best-performing wireless routers on sale today, and should be your top consideration if range is especially important.

Buyer's Guide

 

Finding the Best Wireless Router for your needs

The smartest way to shop for the 'best' wireless router for your needs is to search for recommendations, read product reviews, and if possible, try them out yourself. Selecting a router can be confusing due to the wide range of models and specifications, and you'll soon find yourself drowning in alphabet soup if you don't have a good idea what you're looking for. Terms like 802.11n, MIMO, WPA encryption, SSID, and dual-band simultaneous broadcast can quickly become overwhelming, so we've made an effort to simplify things by breaking router selection down into four categories. The best wireless routers offer a good combination of routing performance, reliability, features, and are priced well enough to make them an excellent value.

Speed & Range
802.11n, or Wireless-N routers, are the most common wireless routers around. This technology offers better speed and superior range compared to the older wireless standards. Manufacturers have largely phased out routers using the previous 802.11g standard, though you may find a few budget-minded 802.11g routers on store shelves or online. The best wireless routers will provide consistently fast wireless throughput, though this is limited by the maximum speed of your internet service itself. Manufacturer's claims are always achieved under ideal conditions, and will at best give you a rough comparison to other competitors' products.

Wireless range is another tricky subject. While it's true that wireless 'n' provides vastly superior range to older wireless standards, every router is different. You also need to consider the placement of the router inside your home, and how your home is laid out. Despite the newer technology, walls and floors will still stifle wireless reception. The greatest range benefits are seen outdoors where there are few obstructions to block the transmitter signals. The best wireless routers should ideally leave zero dead spots inside your home, and give you reception in the garage and in your backyard. Even at longer ranges, throughput speed should be maintained. If your concern is being able to cover your entire home with a wireless network, have a look at the best wireless routers for range.

Features
With wireless routers, feature lists can become seemingly neverending. Routers nowadays have become multi-tasking tools, and as a result come with additions like USB ports which support shared network drives and printers. Many wireless 'n' routers are now capable of broadcasting on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, which is referred to as 'simultaneous broadcasting'. Simultaneous broadcast routers open up all sorts of options which allow you to run multiple devices without compromising overall speed. Given that, there are still devices which can only operate on the 2.4GHz band, though this is becoming increasingly uncommon.

Another benefit of wireless 'n' routers is the implementation of 'MIMO' technology. MIMO stands for Multiple Input, Multiple Output, and refers to the antenna arrangement. A wireless router which features this layout can potentially process more data, and all of the faster, more expensive models are so equipped.

MIMO technology improves wireless speeds, but there are still some instances where a wired connection is a better option. To address the desire for faster speeds, better routers feature Gigabit Ethernet ports which offer up to 1 GB/s transfer speeds. Check carefully to see whether the router you're considering is equipped with Gigabit Ethernet ports if you value this feature.

Some of the more sophisticated routers have multiple SSID broadcasts, which effectively divide your router service with different security options and network configurations. The most common example of this would be guest networks, which allows guests to access your network without needing your personal password.

Reliability
Generally, the less you pay for a router, the lower the quality of the components will be. This has a direct impact on how reliable your router will be. Cheaper routers tend to drop connections frequently, and will not provide consistent data throughput. Although spending more for a router is not a surefire way to solve the problem, reliability does tend to go up with cost. The best routers are reliable to a fault, and should need minimum attention to settings to keep a steady connection. When combined with support for a large number of users and other 'business' features, these models are often labeled 'enterprise grade'.

Price & Value
When choosing a single product, it's often said that you can have it be fast, reliable, and affordable - but you can only choose two. Not everyone wants to spend $150 on a router, but you'll have to settle for less performance if you're not willing to invest more. Fast and reliable routers are never 'affordable', while fast and affordable routers tend to drop connections often. Each of the picks here are outstanding options, though as always, it's up to you to draw the line.

You generally want to avoid any router that is priced suspiciously low. Even name-brand low-end routers tend to be unreliable at times, and throughput speed can be sketchy. If you don't need or want the extra performance, it makes little sense to spend the extra money. Those of you adhering to a strict budget should check out our list of the best cheap routers.

One of the newer technologies trickling into the market is the 802.11ac wireless standard. 802.11ac focuses on speed improvements in the 5 GHz band, leaving 2.4 GHz operation largely untouched. If you're wondering why we haven't recommended more 802.11ac routers, our reasons are quite simple. 802.11ac is still a developing technology, and the specifications are not yet fully shared among manufacturers. Next, the real-world performance of 802.11n routers is still far higher than what most home internet connections can offer, making it difficult to discern any added benefits. Finally, existing 802.11n routers are available at a lower price compared to first-generation 802.11ac models, making them a much better value overall.

Bestcovery Staff
Our research team searches out the best of everything so that you can confidently pick the perfect products and services for your needs.
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