TP-Link Archer AX21 Review: The Best Budget Wi-Fi 6 Router
Editor's Choice: This hassle-free router will upgrade your home network to Wi-Fi 6 for $100 or less -- and it's faster than the competition, too.
Ry CristSenior 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.
ExpertiseSmart home technology and wireless connectivityCredentials
10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
While the idea of upgrading your router to a next-gen model that supports all of the latest Wi-Fi 6 features might sound daunting -- and expensive -- the TP-Link Archer AX21 is neither of those things. An AX1800 router with full support for Wi-Fi 6, the AX21 can be had for less than $100, and it's a cinch to set up. Even better, the AX21 was as stable as it gets throughout my gauntlet of speed tests -- and it notched faster average speeds and better range than similarly budget-priced AX1800 models, too.
Best suited for small- to medium-size homes and apartments with internet speeds up to 500Mbps, the AX21 won't keep up with a decent mesh router if you're trying to provide coverage for a large space or a multistory home, and it isn't an ideal pick if you're trying to connect at as high a speed as possible over a gigabit network. Still, if you're ready to upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router and you just want a strong, speedy performer that's simple and affordable, put the TP-Link Archer AX21 at the top of your list. Nothing I've tested fits the bill better.
Watch this: Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-FI 6E: Here's the difference in three minutes
Wi-Fi 6 for everyone
For those unfamiliar, 802.11ax is the newest version of the wireless transmission protocol we commonly call Wi-Fi. The industry experts who maintain that Wi-Fi protocol decided that the 802.11 codes designating different generations of the standard were too confusing for some consumers to keep track of, so they renamed the newest version Wi-Fi 6 -- the sixth major generation of Wi-Fi. And yep, that means that you can refer to previous-gen 802.11ac devices as Wi-Fi 5 hardware now, too.
That was a pricey proposition when Wi-Fi 6 first became available a year or two ago, but at this point, most of the major manufacturers offer entry-level Wi-Fi 6 routers for $100 or less. I purchased three of those entry-level options for myself and tested them out -- among them, the TP-Link Archer AX21 performed the best, and it even held its own against fancier models that cost more.
Locating local internet providers
A basic design done right
On to the router itself, and let's start with some basic specs. The Archer AX21 is an AX1800 router -- the "AX" part means it supports Wi-Fi 6, while the "1800" part refers to the approximate combined speeds of its bands.
In this case, the AX21 is a dual-band router with a 2.4GHz band claiming top speeds of up to 574Mbps and a 5GHz band with a top transfer rate of 1,201Mbps. The caveat there is that you can only connect to one band at a time, so when TP-Link says that the router offers speeds of up to 1.8Gbps, what it really means is 1.2Gbps (and that's only in an ideal, lab-controlled environment). Marketing ploys like that annoy me as much as they likely do you, but they're essentially an industry standard, so don't hold it against TP-Link for playing along. Just be aware as you shop.
One other note -- the AX21 supports Wi-Fi 6, but it isn't a Wi-Fi 6E router that includes an additional band on the newly opened, ultrawide 6GHz spectrum. Routers like those have already started hitting the market, but for most of us, I think it's much too early (and much too expensive) to make the upgrade here in mid-2022. Sticking with plain ol' Wi-Fi 6 seems like the better play to me, at least for most households.
As for the AX21 itself, it's a pretty standard-looking router with four adjustable antennas, four spare LAN ports and a USB 2.0 jack for connecting peripherals like local storage or a printer. The patchwork array of heat vents lining the top face make it look a touch fancier than the cheap, glossy plastic suggests -- I also appreciated the physical on/off button and the fool-proof ports in back, with the WAN port you'll use to connect with your modem color-coded in can't-miss blue.
Tethered to a pretty decent app
Like most TP-Link routers, you'll control the AX21 via TP-Link's Tether app on your Android or iOS device. Doing so is a bit simpler (and for networking novices, less intimidating) than logging in via the router's IP address in a web browser, and it makes for a simple setup. Specifically, after plugging the router in and turning it on, you'll open the app, connect to the router's network, then pick out a network name and password. That's essentially it.
Once you're up and running, the app allows you to view network status, manage connected devices, turn on a guest network, or troubleshoot any issues with your connection. Other minor features of note include a night mode that lets you program the router to kill the blinking lights during set hours and perform automatic overnight updates for your firmware, both of which are good to have. The AX21 also supports Alexa controls for pausing your home Wi-Fi, along with Amazon's Wi-Fi Simple Setup, which makes it faster to add Alexa-compatible smart home devices to your network.
You'll need to head to TP-Link's web portal for more advanced features, like controls for managing a DHCP server, NAT forwarding or IPv6, but the app does offer a basic quality-of-service engine, which lets you prioritize traffic to specific devices at specific times. You don't always get that with an entry-level router like this.
In fairness, just about every router at this point offers an app like Tether to simplify setup and controls -- but I like Tether better than most, and certainly better than Netgear's Nighthawk app, which constantly bugs you with popup ads to purchase Netgear's security software. That sort of nagging seems less frequent from TP-Link.
What about performance?
As I mentioned earlier, I tested the AX21 against two budget-priced AX1800 routers: the Netgear R6700AX and the Asus RT-AX55. All three can be yours for about $100, or less if you catch a good sale, and all offer decent performance for the price.
Still, it was the AX21 that inched out ahead in my speed tests, as the blue bars in the chart above suggest. Those room-by-room speed averages are the product of hundreds of tests across multiple days at my smallish, 1,300-square-foot home, where I tested each router on a 300Mbps fiber internet connection in 2021. The AX21 was able to push that connection to the max in four out of five spots in my house. In the fifth, a back bathroom dead zone that's on the opposite end of my house from where the router sits, my average download speeds plummeted down to 99Mbps -- but that's still a serviceable connection, and it's more than twice as fast as what Netgear or Asus was capable of.
That's not to say that the AX21 beat the R6700AX or the RT-AX55 outright. Though TP-Link scored the highest average download speeds, it was Netgear's router that notched the highest average upload speeds, averaging in at about 195Mbps across my entire home (the AX21 was a close second at 188Mbps, while the Asus RT-AX55 averaged out to 170Mbps).
And then there's latency, or ping, which is a measure of how long (in milliseconds) it takes for your router to send a signal to a given server and receive a response. Lower latency makes for a snappier connection when you're on a video call or gaming online, so I make sure to record the ping for each and every speed test I run.
The result is that nifty-looking radar graph. All three routers performed pretty well, but it was the Asus RT-AX55 (yellow) that finished with the lowest average latency, never spiking any higher than 19ms. The AX21 (blue) was, again, a close runner-up, with only a handful of minor spikes above 20ms. The Netgear R6700AX (red) finished third, with an average latency just above 20ms and multiple spikes as high as 26ms. Not bad, but noticeably behind the other two.
With all three routers, I also made sure to run two completely separate sets of tests -- one on a device that supports Wi-Fi 6 (an iPhone 12 Pro) and the other on an older device that uses Wi-Fi 5 (an iPad Air I purchased about five years ago). Wi-Fi 6 is backward-compatible, so older devices like that will still be able to connect to the AX21 just fine -- they just won't be able to take advantage of newer features that make Wi-Fi 6 faster.
In this case, the difference in download speeds was pretty slim. Across my entire home, the Wi-Fi 6 iPhone 12 Pro notched a near-perfect average of 299Mbps, while the Wi-Fi 5 iPad Air averaged in at about 270Mbps. The difference between upload speeds was slightly more pronounced -- the Wi-Fi 6 iPhone 12 Pro averaged in at around 190Mbps, while the Wi-Fi 5 iPad Air came in closer to 150Mbps, which is a dip of about 20%. In both cases, the difference will likely be even more noticeable with a connection that's faster than mine.
Don't expect gigabit speeds
In 2022, I upgraded my home networking setup from the 300Mbps connection described above to a gigabit connection with top download speeds of 940Mbps and top upload speeds of 880Mbps. The AX21 was one of the first models I retested on this new network, along with the routers I originally tested it against, plus a few higher-end routers with support for Wi-Fi 6, including TP-Link's own Archer AX73 and AX75 and the Linksys Hydra Pro 6.
With average speeds throughout my home of 442Mbps down and 239Mbps up, the Archer AX21 wasn't able to max out my gigabit speeds, but it still offered fast, consistent performance, and like before, it managed to outperform other AX1800 models like the Netgear R6700AX and the Asus RT-AX55 at just about every turn. Again, the only slight weak spot was with uploads -- it was close, but both the R6700AX and the RT-AX55 finished with averages that were slightly higher than the AX21.
Perhaps most interesting was how the AX21 fared in comparison to its big brothers in the Archer family, the AX73 and AX75. The former is a dual-band AX5400 model that supports much faster speeds than the AX21, and the latter is basically the same thing but in a tri-band design, with two separate 5GHz bands. The AX21 managed to keep up with both of them just fine, finishing neck-and-neck with the AX75 and well ahead of the AX73, which didn't perform well in my tests after its poor band-steering pushed me to the slower 2.4GHz band in multiple instances where it shouldn't have. If you're thinking about the AX21 and tempted to bump up to a fancier Archer model, I'd probably tell you to stick with the AX21 for the superior overall value.
Meanwhile, the best of this initial gigabit bunch was the Linksys Hydra Pro 6, a $300 dual-band AX5400 model that cruised through my tests without issue. It's nothing too fancy, and I'll know better once I've tested it against a few other potential upgrade picks, but it looks to be a better fit for anyone itching to dial the speed up after upgrading to a gigabit internet connection. It'll be one of the next routers I review, so keep an eye out for that.
If you've bought a new phone or laptop in the last year or so, then there's a very good chance that it supports Wi-Fi 6. If you use that device regularly at home, then upgrading to a Wi-Fi 6 router that can boost its speeds would be a great move. The TP-Link Archer AX21 gets you there for $100 or less, and it offers stronger overall performance than the competition, plus a very good app for keeping an eye on the network. I didn't notice any major bandsteering issues with the router's SmartConnect feature, which automatically routes you between the 2.4 and 5GHz bands as needed, and I never encountered any drops or stalls as I ran tests in my house. I even think the design is nicer-looking than average.
All of that makes this router an outstanding value and a better budget pick than other budget-priced Wi-Fi 6 routers I've tested over the years, including the Linksys MR7350 and TP-Link's own Archer AX10. I've seen the AX21 on sale for as low as $80, but even at $100, it's a very worthy purchase, and an easy recommendation for anyone who's ready to try out Wi-Fi 6 at home.