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How to tell when it's time to upgrade your router

Experts recommend getting a new router every couple of years. Here's how to get the most out of your next upgrade if the time has indeed come.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Your router just might be one of the most essential gadgets you own -- but in a lot of cases, we set the thing up and then hope to never think about it again. Heck, maybe you just went with whatever your internet provider installed when you signed up for service.

It's an understandable blind spot. Between the blinking lights, the ceaseless jargon and the oft-misleading speed claims, routers can be mystifying. But in our current age of doing everything at home -- working, learning, socializing, you name it -- having a good router running your network traffic is as essential as ever.

In general, experts recommend upgrading your router at least every five years. Make that every two to three years if you use lots of smart home gadgets, or if you make a regular habit of buying the latest laptops, phones and other primary Wi-Fi devices. That means that there are probably lots and lots of us that would stand to benefit from upgrading to a new router in 2021. Here's how to wrap your head around all of that, and make the right upgrade at the right time.

A need for speed

A good router should be able to take full advantage of whatever internet speeds you're paying for -- but if your network seems more sluggish than you'd expect, then you'll want to take some steps to be sure that your router is, indeed, the culprit.

Sometimes, a simple reboot is all your network needs, so start with the obvious and unplug both your router and your modem, then plug them both back in. Dave Coleman, a Wi-Fi expert, author and director of product marketing for Extreme Networks, the company that just ran the Wi-Fi at Super Bowl 55, also recommends rebooting the Wi-Fi drivers on your phone, laptop and other important client devices.

"It's amazing how that'll solve like 90% of the problems, because the drivers are the interface between the radio and the operating system, and they can get discombobulated," Coleman says. "I know it sounds simple, but it's the first troubleshooting thing people should do."

It's also a good idea to try bypassing the router altogether, which you can do by wiring your computer directly to the modem with an Ethernet cable. Is that hardwired level of online performance noticeably better than what you're getting when you're connected wirelessly at a short distance, in the same room as the router? That's a clear sign that the router is falling short of your network's potential.

If problems like those persist, try running some speed tests in various spots around your home using a few different devices -- both your phone and your laptop, for instance. I like the Ookla speed test, which is fast, free, reliable and easy to use -- you can run it in your browser by clicking here, or you can download Ookla's speed-testing app to your Android or iOS device, or even to an Apple TV. Whatever devices you use, those results should give you a clearer sense of whether the problem is tied to a specific client device or location in your home, or whether it's a bigger issue affecting everything.

With the numbers giving you a better understanding of the status quo, make some quick tweaks and see if things improve. Try repositioning the router to a spot that's more open and central within your home, preferably in a location that's as high as possible. While you're at it, adjusting the angle of the antennas might help boost the signal to specific spots around the house. It's also a good idea to blast the ports in the back and the airflow vents with a can of compressed air to break through dust build-up -- gunk like that can cause your router to overheat and its performance to dip.

None of that worked and your internet still stinks? Yeah, you probably need a new router.

Upgrading to the next generation

Router technology and security are always improving, and we've seen some significant jumps in the past few years with the arrival of Wi-Fi 6 and WPA3, the latest generations of Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi security, respectively. Generational advances like those leave yesterday's routers in the dust, so it's worth upgrading to a router that supports them as soon as it makes sense for you to do so -- even if the one you're using now is still getting the job done.

Outside of that, the mere fact that so many of us are spending so much more time at home these days makes the idea of upgrading your router even more compelling. 

"People are running into problems where Mom's trying to do a Zoom call, but it goes south, because the kids are upstairs streaming Netflix videos," Coleman says. "That's one sign that you might need to upgrade your Wi-Fi network."

Upgrading to Wi-Fi 6, a new generation of Wi-Fi that's better suited for dense, crowded environments where you have lots of devices competing for bandwidth, is definitely one way to give your network a boost -- and with lots of new Wi-Fi 6 routers and client devices available on the market right now, 2021 seems like a particularly good year to buy in.

That said, you'll want to temper your expectations for Wi-Fi 6E, a new designation for special Wi-Fi 6 devices that are equipped with an additional radio that can send signals through a super-wide mass of spectrum in the 6GHz band, which the FCC opened for unlicensed use last year.

"Wi-Fi 6E is going to be awesome once it gets wide adoption, but wide adoption is going to be slow simply because everything that you own right now operates on either the 2.4 or the 5GHz band," Coleman explains. "The 14 or 15 billion Wi-Fi devices out there across the world right now, they will never connect to that 6GHz Wi-Fi 6E radio."

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The Asus ZenWiFi AX is one of our top mesh router recommendations.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Making the jump to mesh

Is your connection strong in some places throughout your home, but weak or nonexistent in others? If so, upgrading to a mesh router, which uses multiple devices to extend the range of your network and spread a steadier signal throughout your entire home, might be one of the most meaningful tech upgrades you can buy into.

Mesh routers have been around for several years now, but it's only in the last year or two that we've seen decent options available for less than $300. Now, in 2021, you've got plenty of systems to choose from, with prices ranging from entry-level starter kits that cost as little as $150 or less to top-of-the-line mesh systems that cost as much as $700.

For my money, the best strategy for that spectrum of mesh options is to aim for the middle ground. Tri-band design, which adds in a second 5GHz band to serve as a dedicated backhaul channel for transmissions between the main router and its satellites, has been the biggest difference-maker in my tests, and it's worth paying a little extra at this point for Wi-Fi 6, as well. 

You should expect to pay at least $400 for a multidevice mesh system that takes that sort of tri-band, Wi-Fi 6 approach. Editors' Choice-winning systems like the Asus ZenWiFi AX and the Eero Pro 6 both get you there for hundreds less than those top-of-the-line options, but you can read more about all of your options in my full rundown of the best mesh systems on the market right now.

Your router can't work miracles

One last point: It's important to understand that your router doesn't generate speed or bandwidth -- it takes whatever bandwidth you're paying for from your internet service provider and sends it out into your home so that wireless devices can connect. If that incoming bandwidth is limited to begin with, there's really not much your router can do about it.

Eventually, improvements to things like satellite internet and continued 5G and fiber deployments should help bridge the bandwidth gap in parts of the country that lack access to high speeds. But until that happens, paying extra for an upgraded router is probably overkill.

"I wish there was an answer to say, 'Yeah, you could upgrade your router, and that'll solve your bandwidth problem on the ISP,'" Coleman says. "But the answer is not really."

In a "small pipe" situation like that, Coleman's recommendation is to focus on conserving your bandwidth -- especially in the situation he described earlier, where Mom's work calls are dropping due to the kids' Netflix habits. His suggestion: Look for a router with good parental control settings.

"If you're a parent, you can do time settings and firewall settings to restrict access of certain kinds of applications, as well as certain times when certain individuals could use it," Coleman says. "My kids are grown now, but I used to do it back in the day!"