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2020 brought us faster, more affordable mesh routers right when we needed them

Wi-Fi took some significant steps forward in 2020. The improvements couldn't have come at a better time.

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The Asus ZenWiFi AX was one of our top-rated mesh routers of the year.

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Most of us have come to rely on our home's internet to stay connected with the world, and that's never been more true than in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic sent us scrambling to set up home offices, wrangle with remote learning, and obsess over crafting the perfect Zoom backdrop. That meant that the home networking gear making it all possible -- modems, routers, range extenders, you name it -- became mission critical to making it through the year with our sanity intact.

Fortunately, the table was already set for that hardware to take some big steps forward in 2020. For the first time in several years, 2019 brought us a brand-new generation of Wi-Fi technology, with Wi-Fi 6 paving the way for faster, more capable devices in 2020. On top of that, increased competition among mesh routers brought about all sorts of new options that cost less than ever before -- including ones that support Wi-Fi 6. That's a big deal, because buying a mesh router is one of the easiest ways to improve your home Wi-Fi experience, even before you factor in the faster Wi-Fi 6 speeds.

That's why we made sure to include some of the best mesh routers we tested this year in CNET's second Innovation Awards, where we're pausing to highlight the products that broke new ground to make an impact in 2020.

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Amazon's Eero Pro 6 did well in our tests, and it's one of the most affordable ways to get a three-piece tri-band mesh router that supports Wi-Fi 6 under your roof.

Ry Crist/CNET

To be specific, we're calling out the Asus ZenWiFi AX and the Eero Pro 6, two of our highest-rated mesh routers of the year. Why those two? Each one offers a tri-band design with two 5GHz bands and full support for Wi-Fi 6, which is an absolutely killer combo for mesh network performance. With a setup like that, your hardware can use that extra 5GHz band for dedicated system transmissions between the router and its satellites, all with the full power of Wi-Fi 6. Even if you don't use any Wi-Fi 6 gadgets yet, everything speeds up when your mesh network can pass data back and forth at such fast speeds, and with so little interference.

More importantly, those two systems delivered tri-band Wi-Fi 6 speeds for hundreds less than other established competitors. At $450 for a two-piece Asus ZenWiFi AX setup or $599 for a three-piece Eero Pro 6 setup, neither one is cheap by any stretch, but it isn't hard to find either one on sale, and both offer comparable performance to top-of-the-line systems that regularly sell for as much as $1,000.

Even better -- more and more competitors are jumping in with similar systems in that same sweet spot. For instance, you can already find tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems around that $500 mark from names like Arris and Netgear Orbi, and more will undoubtedly follow suit in 2021.

The Netgear Orbi AX6000 (blue) is the most capable mesh router we tested this year -- but for the most part, Asus and Eero were each able to keep up with it in our tests, and both are available for hundreds less.

Ry Crist/CNET

Meanwhile, those looking to pay less have lots of great new options, too. If you're willing to wait on Wi-Fi 6, it's easy to find perfectly decent tri-band Wi-Fi 5 mesh routers for $300 or less. Same goes if you're willing to skip tri-band in favor of getting Wi-Fi 6. Dual-band mesh routers that support the speedy new standard, like the TP-Link Deco X20, can be had for less than $300, too.

Don't want to splurge on Wi-Fi 6 or tri-band? That's fine, too -- the glut of new options means that basic-but-decent entry-level mesh routers with dual-band designs and Wi-Fi 5 can be had for well under $200 even before you catch them on sale. Prices like that were unheard of as recently as a year and a half ago.

All of that added up to make 2020 a terrific and timely year to upgrade your home Wi-Fi -- and, for the most part, the industry delivered, right when we needed it. That's tech at its best.