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Router Buying Guide: Ditch the Rental Fee on Your Internet Bill

Not sure where to start when shopping for a router? Here are some key tips to help you shop with confidence.

Ry Crist Senior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
Expertise Smart home technology and wireless connectivity Credentials
  • 10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Ry Crist
7 min read
A Netgear Nighthawk router sitting on a table.
Tyler Lizenby/CNET

If you're looking for ways to save money on your internet bill, purchasing your own router cut down on unnecessary fees. Problem is, shopping for a router can get confusing in a hurry. What does all of the jargon mean? How fast is fast enough? Is it worth it to spend extra for a multipoint mesh router, or for one that supports the newest version of Wi-Fi, called Wi-Fi 6? And what about Wi-Fi 6E routers that add in access to the ultra-wide 6GHz band?

Don't feel overwhelmed. There are certainly lots of specs and technical nuances that go with wireless networking, but if you're just looking for a reliable router that you don't need to think about too much, picking a good one isn't as challenging as you might be expecting. Our full router buying guide has a wealth of helpful info, but for now, here are five key basics to keep in mind before you zero in on a purchase. You can also use CNET's free shopping extension to help you find the best price available.

Watch this: Which Router Upgrade Is Right for You?

You might not need a new router at all

Before spending any money, it's a good idea to make certain that you're getting the most out of the router you've already got. Wi-Fi is finicky, and it doesn't take much to disrupt those wireless signals, so if your connection seems slower than you need, it might not be your router's fault.

Locating local internet providers

There are lots of things you can do to help a router perform its best, but the main points of note are that you want it out in the open and up off of the floor. Stashing it away in a closet or on the back of a dusty shelf beneath your TV might help keep the wires at bay, but you'll also end up blocking the Wi-Fi's signal strength. In that case, swapping a new router into the same spot might not help you much at all.

Along with physical obstructions like furniture, keep an eye out for large electronics like appliances and televisions, as those might interfere with the connection from a nearby router, too. Wi-Fi struggles to penetrate through water, so if you've got any large aquariums at home, consider positioning the router somewhere where they won't block the signal. 

Locating local internet providers

For minor tweaks to your signal, try experimenting with the angles of your router's antennas -- straight up and down is best for horizontal coverage in a single-story home, but folding the antenna flat or at an angle might help you direct the signal up or down to help cover a basement or an upper floor. And if you just need an extra room's worth of range or so from your router, you might be able to get the speed you need by buying a Wi-Fi range extender, which will cost you a lot less than buying a new router outright.

Lastly, it's probably worth it to check with your internet provider to make sure you're using its latest hardware. In a lot of cases, if it has a newer modem or gateway device available, it'll send it to you for free. And hey, speaking of your ISP...

Your ISP sets the speed limit

Keep in mind that it doesn't matter how fast your router is -- if you're pulling data from the web, then you'll only be able to do so as fast as the plan from your internet service provider allows. If you're paying for download speeds of, say, 100Mbps, then that's as fast as your router will go when you're browsing the web or streaming video. Period.

That's a significant limitation these days. In our own top speed tests, we're seeing a growing number of routers that can comfortably hit speeds of 1 gigabit per second or faster -- but with the average fixed broadband speed in the US currently sitting at just over 150Mbps (or less, if your ISP throttles your connection), few of us can hope to surf the web as fast as that anytime soon.

That isn't to say that fast routers aren't worthwhile. For instance, you'll still be able to hit those top speeds during local transfers -- when you're using the router to pull files from one computer to another on your local network. Your ISP speeds don't matter at all for transfers like that, because you're not sending or receiving data beyond your local home network. 

Beyond that, upgrading to a faster, more powerful router can help you get the most out of your home's internet connection, especially when you're connecting at range. To that end, be sure to keep an eye on our latest reviews as you shop around to get a good sense of the specific routers that might be the best fit for your home. We're constantly testing new models and updating our best lists with new test data.

Speed ratings are basically bull

I've written about this before, but it bears repeating: The speed ratings you'll see on the packaging and as you scroll through router listings while shopping online are close to meaningless.

A Linksys router in its box
Enlarge Image
A Linksys router in its box

"Combined speeds" is a meaningless, misleading term. For instance, this router makes it seem like it can hit speeds of 2.2Gbps (2,200Mbps), but in reality, its fastest band has a top speed of 867Mbps -- and that's only in a controlled lab environment.

Ry Crist/CNET

I'm talking about figures like "AC1200" and "AX6000." The letters there tell you what version of Wi-Fi the router supports -- "AC" for Wi-Fi 5, or 802.11ac and "AX" for Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax. The numbers give you a rough sense of the combined top download speeds of each of the router's bands -- typically 2.4 and 5GHz, and perhaps a second 5GHz band if we're talking about a triband router, or 6GHz with Wi-Fi 6E routers.

The problem is that you can only connect to one of those bands at a time. When you add their top speeds together, the result is a highly inflated figure that doesn't represent the speeds you'll actually experience. If it's a triband mesh router that uses that third band as a dedicated connection between the router and its extenders, then that band's speeds don't directly apply to your device connections at all. 

To make matters worse, those top speeds on the box are actually theoretical maximums derived from lab-based manufacturer tests that don't take real-world factors like distance, physical obstructions, interference or network congestion into account. Even at close range, your actual connection will be a lot slower.

None of that stops manufacturers from using those speed ratings to describe how fast their products are. For instance, that hypothetical AX6000 router might claim to support speeds of up to 6,000 megabits per second -- which is nonsense. A router is only as fast as its fastest band. Don't be fooled.

Wi-Fi 6 is worth it, but don't worry too much about Wi-Fi 6E

Wi-Fi 6 is the newest, fastest version of Wi-Fi, and it's the main reason we've seen so many new routers in recent years capable of hitting gigabit speeds with ease. You can read more about the way the speedy new standard works in my full Wi-Fi 6 explainer, but the quick gist is that it lets your router send more information more efficiently to multiple devices at once.

Wi-Fi 6 is pretty well-entrenched at this point, and the newest phones, laptops and and even peripheral devices like gaming consoles and media streamers are taking advantage of it. If you want devices like those to put Wi-Fi 6 to work in your home, then you'll need a Wi-Fi 6 router running your network. 

The good news is that you've got lots of Wi-Fi 6 routers to pick from at this point, including lots that probably cost a lot less than you think. Wi-Fi 6 is backward-compatible, mind you, so a new Wi-Fi 6 router still work with your existing, older-gen Wi-Fi devices. It just won't do as much to speed them up, because those older devices don't support the new features that make Wi-Fi 6 faster than before.

Watch this: Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-FI 6E: Here's the difference in three minutes

We're also seeing a growing number of routers that support Wi-Fi 6E, a new designation for Wi-Fi 6 routers equipped to tap into new, exclusive bandwidth in the 6GHz band recently opened up for unlicensed use by an FCC vote. Access to that massive swath of open bandwidth makes Wi-Fi 6E routers some of the most advanced routers you can buy, but there still aren't very many Wi-Fi 6E devices capable of putting that 6GHz to work -- and even then we haven't seen much benefit to using that band for home Wi-Fi purposes in our tests.

Wi-Fi 6E could still prove to be a difference maker in the world of wireless connections, particularly in large, dense environments where lots of people are trying to connect (think airports, stadiums, etc.). Still, it's more of an enterprise upgrade than a mainstream feature at this point, so there's no need to rush out and upgrade your home network.

A mesh router like the three-piece Eero setup tested here can help spread a stronger signal throughout your home.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Don't forget about coverage

We tend to fixate on speeds when we talk about routers, but the truth is that there are really only two Wi-Fi speeds that matter in most cases: "fast enough," and "not fast enough." After all, having a blazing fast connection in the same room as the router is great, but it means little if you can't get a strong signal when you're trying to stream a late-night Netflix binge in your bedroom on the other side of the house. That's especially true these days, with lots of people still staying home and depending on their home networks more than ever before.

That's why, for most people, the most meaningful move you can make for that home network is to upgrade from a stand-alone, single-point router to an expandable mesh system that uses multiple devices to better spread a reliably speedy signal throughout your house. Mesh systems like those typically won't hit top speeds that are quite as high as a single-point router, but they make up for it by delivering Wi-Fi that's "fast enough" to all corners of your home.

Over the past several years, upgrading to mesh was an expensive proposition, with most options costing at least $300 or even $500. Then the pandemic hit, and mesh routers soared in popularity -- which, in turn, led manufacturers to start cranking out lots of new options, many of which cost significantly less than before.

Keeping up to date with these systems is one of my top priorities on the Wi-Fi beat, so keep an eye on my running list of the best mesh systems I've tested for my latest recommendations.