Networking buying guide

Shopping for your home network? This buying guide will keep you connected with the best options.

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
9 min read
Dong Ngo

Looking to build your home network? If money is not an issue, check out the cutting-edge, non-compromising Netgear R6300, or the Asus RT-AC66U. These two offer the latest, superfast 802.11ac (aka 5G Wi-Fi) support, long range, two USB ports, and a boatload of features. If you want the biggest bang for your buck, however, the Asus-RT56U is definitely one to check out; this little true dual-band N600 router packs way more punch than its physical size would indicate, both in terms of range and performance. On a tight budget? Something like the D-Link DIR-605L will serve you right; it'll make a great device to share your Internet connection and even comes with cloud-based features.

Want more choices? You can't go wrong with any on the following regularly updated Top five lists:

1. Top five routers
These are best current routers on the market, all things considered. Any of these routers would be a great choice for most homes. All of them can do a lot more than just provide a fast local network and share the Internet connection. On the downside, they are among the most expensive routers on the market. But if you just want to make sure and are not on a tight budget, these will serve you well. Go to the list of top five routers.

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2. Top five cutting-edge routers
These are routers that, in addition to all the exiting Wi-Fi standards, also supports the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard (aka 5G Wi-Fi). When used with 5G Wi-Fi clients, these routers offer wireless connection speeds of up to 1.3Gbps, theoretically some 30 percent faster than a Gigabit wired connection. Currently, however, there are very few hardware clients, such as tablets, laptops ,or smartphones, that support 802.11ac, meaning that for now it's overkill to get a router of this type. These are also the most expensive routers on the market, but worth considering if you want something cutting-edge that's good both for now and the future. Go to the list of top five cutting-edge routers.

3. Top five "just right" routers
These are routers that offer a balance between cost and what they have to offer. They are all N600 routers -- those that support Wireless-N (802.11n) standard with the Wi-Fi speed cap of 300Mbps, which is currently the most popular standard used by the majority of hardware clients. These routers offer the most value without going overboard, making them the best bargain. Go to the list of top five "just right" routers.

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4. Top five budget routers
These are entry-level routers that are budget-friendly but still make a great solution for a network where the main purpose is to share the connection to the Internet and some minor local resources, such as printers and documents. These are not "cheap" routers, and are ideal for small apartments and those who just want to be plugged in casually. All of these cost less, some significantly less, than $100. Go to the list of top five budget routers.

5. Top five power-line adapters
Power-line adapters basically turn the electrical wiring of a home into network cables for a computer network. They are a great alternative to Wi-Fi for the far corner of the house where the wireless signal can't reach, or if you want a lag-free connection. You need at least two power-line adapters to form the first power-line connection. The first adapter is connected to the router and the second is connected to the Ethernet-ready device at the far end. There are some routers on the market, such as the D-Link DHP-1320, that have built-in support for power line, meaning you can skip the first adapter. Go to the list of top five power-line adapters.

So many options, so little time.

So many options, so little time.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Now, here are some common home networking questions and answers. (To learn more about general networking, check out the post on the basics of home networking, which explains in detail about networking terms and standards.)

Should I use equipment from an ISP?
Yes and no. If your ISP offers a free modem, take it. If you have to buy one from them or "rent" one, ask for the list of approved modems and buy one on your own. It's a much better deal to spend about $80 for a cable modem than paying $7 or so a month to rent it. Most broadband modems work the same.

Note: Service providers generally want you to use their wireless router. Unless it's free, you shouldn't get one from them. Virtually all routers work with all home broadband services, and buying one on your own gives you the option of getting the best for your home. Even when your provider offers the router for free, it's generally not a good choice, especially when it comes as a modem/router combo device. You'd be stuck with a device that is, more often than not, far behind what you can get on the market. A combo device also limits you in terms of flexibility when it comes to upgrades, replacements, and repairs.

Gigabit or not?
Generally, a router's wired ports come in either the Gigabit Ethernet (1,000Mbps) or just regular Ethernet (100Mbps) standard. It's easy to see that Gigabit is 10 times faster (and indeed 10 times faster in real life) than the other. To put this in perspective, a CD's worth of data (about 700MB, or about 250 digital songs) takes about 5 seconds to be transferred over a Gigabit connection, and about a minute over a Ethernet connection. However, note that most Internet connections are much slower than 100Mbps. A top-tier residential cable broadband connection, for example, caps at about 50Mbps, half the speed of Ethernet. For this reason, if you just want to share the connection to the Internet, in most cases, there's no need for a Gigabit router. On the other hand, it never hurts to have Gigabit, if the price is right. The good news is most routers, from midrange and up, now support Gigabit.

Routers with USB ports can host printers or external hard drives and share them with the rest of the network.

Routers with USB ports can host printers or external hard drives and share them with the rest of the network.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Is USB support necessary?
Many routers come come with a USB port; some even come with two. Generally, this allows the router to host a printer or an external hard drive. The former means that you can share an USB printer with the rest of the network, allowing multiple computers, including those connected to the network via Wi-Fi, to print to that printer simultaneously. The latter means that you can connect an external hard drive to the router and share data stored on it to all network devices in the local network, including the ability to stream digital content to network media players.

Note that many new printers now come with built-in network features, meaning that they can connect to the network by themselves via a network cable or Wi-Fi without using their USB port. In this case, you don't need a router with a USB port to share these printers.

While most routers with USB ports offer just storage and print-serving capabilities, most D-Link routers, such as the DIR-827, or the DIR-857, can do a lot more with their USB ports, via D-Link SharePort technology. D-Link's SharePort software allows a computer to recognize an USB device connected to the router as though it was connected directly to its USB port, meaning that you can use any USB device with the router's port.

If USB support sounds like a cool thing, check out this list of top five routers with USB ports.

Dual-band or single-band?
Wi-Fi signal works on two frequency bands, the ever-popular 2.4Ghz and the relatively new 5Ghz. Though Wi-Fi signals of the same standard share the same speed caps on both of these bands, the 5Ghz band tends to offers much better real-world data rates. This is partly because the 2.4Ghz band is saturated due to the sheer number of Wi-Fi clients on the market, and also because other home appliances, such as cordless phones, use this band, too.

Power-line adapters are a great alternative to Wi-Fi in many cases.

Power-line adapters are a great alternative to Wi-Fi in many cases.

Josh Miller/CNET

If you live in a neighborhood with not many Wi-Fi networks around, or if you just want to share the connection to the Internet, a good single-band 2.4Ghz router should work just fine. On the other hand, if you want to have a robust Wi-Fi network with lots of local and Internet activities, you probably want a dual-band router that offers Wi-Fi signals on both bands simultaneously. Note that which band a Wi-Fi connection uses depends on both the router and the client. Most existing hardware clients, such as the iPhone 4, or the older iPad, only support the 2.4Ghz band, and in their case a dual-band router offers no benefit. It never hurts to have the dual-band feature on your router, however, and almost all new portable Wi-Fi devices now support both bands.

When do I need an access point?
An access point (AP) is a device that broadcasts the Wi-Fi signal so clients, such as a tablet, can connect to it. A wireless router is actually a regular router with a built-in access point. There are generally two situations where you'd need an access point: when you want to add or extend Wi-Fi signal to an existing network. The former is when your existing router or office network doesn't already offer Wi-Fi. Since most home routers now come with Wi-Fi capability, it's more often that you just want to extend the Wi-Fi signal to cover a larger area, such as the other end of the house. In this case, its best to get an access point, place it farther away from the router's existing Wi-Fi coverage, and connect it to the router using a network cable. Note that most routers can also work as an access point.

How far can a range extender extend the wireless coverage?
Not much, if at all. In theory, you can use a range extender to quickly increase the wireless coverage; in real-world usage, however, range extenders generally don't work as expected. This is partly because it's hard to find the sweet spot where the signal of the existing Wi-Fi network is just about to wane, which is where you want to place the range extender. If it's too close, the extender becomes less effective. Too far, and there's no signal for it to extend. In most cases, a combination of a power-line adapter kit and an access point, or a combined kit, such as the Netgear XAVNB2001, makes a much better alternative to a range extender. For more on how to best set up your network, check out this post on how to optimize your Wi-Fi at home.

Is IPv6 important?
IPv6 is a new Internet protocol that's replacing the existing IPv4 that's running out of addressing space. In a distant future, IPv6 will replace IPv4 completely, but for now all Internet sites and services, including those that have already adopted IPv6, support IPv4. New IPv6 equipment is also designed in a way so that it can co-exist with IPv4 devices. Home users don't really need to worry about IPv6. It doesn't hurt to buy equipment that supports this new protocol, though; additionally, most, if not all, new home networking devices now support IPv6.

More buying tips
Do your own research. It's very important not to depend solely on commercials or advice from sales reps when it comes to buying networking devices. If you have time, read reviews, look at the test scores, check different sources. This is especially important with wireless devices because you don't want to be disconnected constantly. At CNET wireless routers have to go through stress tests to determine if the they offer stable Wi-Fi signal during an extended period of time.

Brand names don't always equal quality. Quality is not always consistent when it comes to networking brands. Take Cisco, for example; the company has offered decent routers in the E series and EA series (such as the Linksys E3200 or Linksys EA4500), but the latest Linksys EA6500 proved to be a terrible router. So you don't want to go by just the brand names.

Buy equipment of the same standard. While all wireless devices are generally compatible regardless of brand or Wi-Fi standard, getting devices of the same standard helps optimize your network and saves money. For example, if you have just Wireless-N devices at home, it doesn't help to buy an expensive router that supports 802.11ac. Or if you have a Gigabit router, you also want to have a Gigabit switch in case you want to add more wired devices to the network.

When it comes to power-line networking, it also helps to get adapters from the same vendors. This ensures their compatibility, especially in terms of security.