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How we test Wi-Fi routers

From range extenders to mesh systems to routers that support Wi-Fi 6, we've tested them all to help you find a faster connection at home. Here's how we do it.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The past year or so has made the importance of a steady internet connection at home abundantly clear. Along with finding the right internet plan for you and your family, that also means that you'll want a dependable router managing your connection.

Most internet service providers will lease you a router (or a gateway device with the router built-in), but you can often do better by buying your own hardware outright -- and in a lot of cases, using your own router will let you skip an equipment rental fee, too. In that case, buying your own router could pay for itself within a few years -- but which one is best for your home? Is it worth it to upgrade to a mesh router with multiple satellite devices, or maybe a router that supports Wi-Fi 6?

Questions like those get confusing fast, and perhaps a little intimidating if home networking isn't your strong suit. That's why we've dedicated time to testing and reviewing the top selections from the router aisle -- we want to help you demystify your options and find a router upgrade you can feel confident in. Those reviews help CNET make money by way of advertisements on the page and also referral links, where CNET earns a small commission whenever someone buys a product using the links on our site, but none of that impacts the products we select for review or our opinions of their capabilities, which we'll always communicate clearly and honestly.

Putting that coverage together means spending countless hours with each router we review, and we run hundreds of controlled speed tests to give you a thorough look at how each of them stacks up in terms of performance. You can find the full rundown of those results in my lists of the best routers, the best mesh routers and the best range extenders of the year. If you're interested in hearing about how those tests actually work, keep reading.

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Who says your home's back bathroom can't double as a test lab?

Ry Crist/CNET

Testing routers in the work-from-home era

I first started reviewing routers for CNET in 2019 -- a little over a year later, life as we knew it screeched to a halt, forcing millions of us to make the best of working remotely, out of our homes.

Fortunately, I had already begun developing a process for testing routers at my home. A 1,300-square-foot shotgun-style house in Louisville, Kentucky, my place isn't the ideal spot for testing connection speeds at long range, but it's long and skinny enough to have a stubborn dead zone in the back that a lot of routers struggle to reach. That's helped make it a workable living lab for testing routers and range extenders.

As for speed, my home's AT&T fiber plan caps my uploads and downloads at 300Mbps, so while my tests offer a good, comparative look at performance in a real-world environment, they won't show numbers much faster than that. That's why, when necessary, we'll run additional top-speed tests at our test lab, where we're able to measure the speed of wireless file transfers between a router and a laptop connected to its network at distances of up to 75 feet, which gives us a better look at a router's top speed and range capabilities.

That said, with every router I test, I start by setting it up at my home and playing around with the various features and settings. That gives me a good sense of what the router offers and how easy it is to set up and use, as well as other practical considerations like the level of encryption offered for your network and the number of spare Ethernet ports for plugging in things like media streamers and smart home hubs. Throughout all of it, I always maintain consistent network settings, and I make sure to position the router in the same spot in my living room, which sits at the front of my home -- your router's specific position and the obstructions surrounding it will make a noticeable impact in the quality of your connection.

This graph shows the average speeds of our five top-rated mesh routers in five different spots across my house. Getting this data together is a multiday process for each router I test.

Ry Crist/CNET

From there, it's time to start the speed tests, which I run on a Dell XPS laptop. I begin by connecting in the living room, just a few feet away from the router. Then, I run multiple speed tests on Ookla, one of our top-recommended speed-testing sites. I record the upload, download and latency results in a spreadsheet, then I move a little further from the router into my kitchen, where I run another series of tests. I continue these tests in three more spots throughout my home, each one at a greater distance from the router. I finish in my home's back bathroom -- that dreaded dead zone I mentioned earlier.

That's just the start, though. At this point, I disconnect from the router and reconnect while still in that back bathroom. Then, I run the same battery of tests, but in reverse -- I start in the back of the house and move closer to the router, room-by-room. Why do it like that? Your distance from the router when you connect will often make a significant impact on the quality of your connection, and some routers will struggle to recognize when a distant device has moved closer and adapt the connection accordingly. Running half of my tests with a front-to-back connection and the other half with a back-to-front connection gives me the best, most accurate look at a given router's real-world speeds -- and it often helps me identify finicky routers that struggle to perform as well at range.

I go through this whole process three times -- a set of front-to-back and back-to-front tests during the morning hours, another set of tests during the afternoon, and a final set of tests in the evening. I also make sure to stagger these rounds of tests across multiple days, so that my averages draw from more than just a single 24-hour span. The result: a clear, controlled look at how the router's speeds are holding up across my entire home.

My speed tests also give me a good look at latency, and a good opportunity to draw up some radar graphs, and honestly, who can say no to that.

Ry Crist/CNET

Other considerations

Even with those whole-home averages secured, my testing typically isn't done there. Most routers these days will offer a band-steering feature that combines the 2.GHz and 5GHz bands into a single network and automatically "steers" your connection between the two of them as needed (2.4GHz offers better range; 5GHz offers faster speeds). If possible, I'll turn band-steering off and run another series of tests on both the 2.4 and 5GHz bands to get a good look at how each one holds up on its own. Similarly, if a router offers additional features that can impact performance, like a gaming mode, for instance, I'll turn that feature on and run more tests to see how the numbers compare.

My speed tests also give me a good look at latency, or ping, which tells you the time in milliseconds that it takes your router to send a signal and receive a response from a given server. I run all of my speed tests to the same server, located on the other end of Kentucky. In most cases, the routers I test are able to keep the average latency below 20ms, but if any of them seem to be spiking higher than that on a regular basis, I'll typically run additional tests a few days later to make sure that it isn't a temporary issue with the server.

This signal strength test at the CNET Smart Home gives you a sense of the quality of this three-piece mesh router's connection in a large living space. Yellow is great, green is good, and blue is less than ideal.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Testing mesh routers

Mesh routers, which add range-extending satellite devices into the mix, are an increasingly popular option for home networking. To test them, I follow the same playbook as before, with a single mesh extender situated in my home's master bedroom. I'll also test my whole-home speeds without any extenders at all, which gives me a sense of how strong the mesh system's base router is on its own.

We also pay some extra attention to signal strength when we're testing mesh routers. When one looks especially promising after my at-home tests, we'll often set it up at the CNET Smart Home as well -- a much larger environment with multiple floors, and one where we're able to map out the quality of the connection between the router and its satellites, and the strength of the signal when you're attempting to connect. Stay tuned for a fresh batch of these tests a little later this year.

What about Wi-Fi 6?

802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, is the latest generation of Wi-Fi, and it promises faster, more efficient wireless speeds thanks to new advances like 1024QAM and OFDMA (which, ahem, you can read about here). Wi-Fi 6 routers are backward-compatible with older devices, but only other devices that support Wi-Fi 6 get to take full advantage of those new, performance-boosting features.

That's why I make sure to run -- you guessed it -- a separate series of speed tests whenever the router I'm testing supports Wi-Fi 6. Instead of using my Dell laptop, which is a Wi-Fi 5 device, I use an iPhone 12, which supports Wi-Fi 6. This gives me a good comparative look at how the router performs with both older- and newer-gen hardware -- and in most cases, it shows that Wi-Fi 6 devices are definitely a bit faster than the gadgets that came before.

It's not just Wi-Fi 6, though -- we're now starting to see routers that support Wi-Fi 6E, which isn't a new generation of Wi-Fi, but rather, a special designation for Wi-Fi 6 devices equipped to send signals in the newly opened 6GHz band in addition to the existing 2.4 and 5GHz bands. That 6GHz band is much wider, with lots of room for lots of traffic -- which makes Wi-Fi 6E something of a next-gen VIP distinction for Wi-Fi devices, and one that comes with a private multilane expressway for mass amounts of internet traffic.

Wi-Fi 6E is more likely to make an immediate impact in dense, crowded environments where lots of people are trying to connect -- think airports, stadiums and the like. But, like I said, we're already starting to see home routers touting the standard and promising to sling your traffic through the 6GHz band.

I'm skeptical of the value there -- Wi-Fi 6E routers are generally quite expensive, and most homes are unlikely to have a connection that's fast enough to put them to full use. Still, I make sure to test them accordingly, with speed tests run on a Samsung Galaxy S21 that includes support for the 6GHz band. When I find one that I can recommend splurging on, I'll tell you all about it, but for now, I think sticking with Wi-Fi 6 is the much better bet for home networking.

How we score routers

Let me finish with a quick summary of how we ultimately rate these routers after finishing our tests. Like with all CNET reviews, we score routers on a 10-point scale that averages out scores in a number of subcategories. With routers, we start with three sub-categories: Performance, Features and Usability.

Here's an example of my speed test data, which I use to help calculate a performance score. Along with logging the speed and latency results for each test, I also note instances where the connection stalls or cuts out (those little red, orange and yellow boxes).

Ry Crist/CNET

The performance score reflects a router's speed, range and latency capabilities. The features score represents whether or not the router offers a good mix of useful extras that can boost performance or serve some other convenient purpose in specific situations. The usability score is based on how simple it is to get the router up and running, and to access and adjust its settings as needed.

All of those ratings include a baked-in sense of relative value. When I'm scoring an expensive, high-end router, I'm scoring it relative to other high-end routers, and with a sense of whether or not you're getting enough performance to justify the cost. Similarly, if I'm scoring a budget router, I'm scoring it in comparison to other budget picks, with a sense of whether or not the savings justify the accompanying tradeoffs. Either way, the score is meant to give you a rough sense of how recommendable the router is at its asking price.

One other caveat: I give mesh routers a fourth score for design. Why? If a mesh router is an eyesore, you'll be more likely to stash its satellites out of sight in a closet or a desk drawer. That isn't good, as you want to keep your networking hardware out in the open and as high up as possible in order to ensure the strongest connection. Beyond that, I think it's a fair expectation for hardware to look good when it's going to have prominent placement in multiple spots throughout your home.

When all is said and done, the best routers of the bunch earn consideration for CNET's Editors' Choice distinction. That title denotes a router that offers excellent performance and value, and I don't give it out casually -- before doing so, I'll consult with my editors and run through the data to see if we think it fits the bill.

But when all's said and done, you're the one making a potential purchase, and I take that seriously. If I recommend a router, rest assured that my recommendation comes after a thorough spate of tests and thoughtful comparisons with the competition. And, if I don't recommend one, I'll tell you that, too. Routers can be confusing, and finding the right one can feel like a challenge -- but I'm here to help.