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Top 5 wireless routers of 2011 that will last beyond 2012

CNET editor Dong Ngo picks his top five wireless routers for 2011.

Sometimes, all it takes is a new firmware to make your old router work flawlessly again.
Sometimes, all it takes is a new firmware to make your old router work flawlessly again. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

The wireless router is arguably the most important piece of the networking setup at your home or your office.

It's the central gateway that connects to the Internet, then shares that connection with all of the devices connected to it, via a network cable or Wi-Fi signal. Other services depend on the router, as well, such as file sharing, voice over IP, remote access, and VPN.

A router generally has to be on and functioning 24-7. There are thousands, if not millions, of data packages going through it every day, and you expect it to work without any hiccups. Ironically, it's also the device that most people pay the least attention to. In fact, the only time it's noticed at all is when it's not working right.

That said, it's very important to pick a router that's not just fast and feature-rich, but also reliable. Following is the list of the top five wireless routers I've reviewed this year that fit that description.

Note that though I have reviewed many routers this year, I can't say that I have worked with all routers on the market. I did, however, try to cover all those from major vendors as well as some from not-so-well-established companies.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Cisco Linksys E4200 v2
This is the latest wireless router from Cisco's E-Series and it's arguably the best router on the market, all things considered. Though it looks exactly the same as the previous version, the E4200 v2 is a completely different beast on the inside.

The router supports true dual-band with the 450Mbps speed available on both bands. It also comes with a much faster processor running at 1.2GHz to offer excellent performance, especially for the built-in network storage feature. For the first time a router, when coupled with an external hard drive, is capable of offering storage throughput comparable with that of some dedicated NAS servers. The Linksys E4200 v2's storage performance is about three or four times that of other routers with the same features. Read the full review of the Cisco Linksys E4200 v2.

Josh Miller/CNET

The original Cisco Linksys E4200
Despite the release of the second version, the original Linksys E4200 still makes a formidable router. It's inferior to its successor only because it supports the 450Mbps speed only on the 5GHz band, and it has a slower processor. Nonetheless, it offers great performance as a router. It's also significantly more affordable.

It's worth noting that Cisco did very well this year with the new and refreshed E-Series, which also includes the E3200, E2500, E1500, and the E1200. The fact that the networking company has two devices on this top-five list means it must be doing something right. Read the full review of the Cisco Linksys E4200.

Josh Miller/CNET

Netgear WNDR3800 (N600)
This is an accidentally top-notch router from Netgear. It's supposed to be the third-tier model after the WNDR4500 N900 and the WNDR4000 N750, but it turned out to be the best router that Netgear had to offer this year; it provides great performance, true dual-band wireless, and Gigabit Ethernet. The router also has built-in support for a network storage feature via its USB port, which also offers personal cloud capability. Read the full review of the Netgear WNDR3800 (N600).

Note that the WNDR4500 and WNDR4000 also make great routers for those who care about the new 450Mbps speed and don't mind the bulky size.

Josh Miller/CNET

Asus RT-N56U
This is another true dual-band router that offers the traditional 300Mbps speed on both bands. This sleek and supercompact router actually offers very fast real-world throughput speeds, even faster than some routers that support the 450Mbps standard, in my testing. On top of that, it's a fun router to use if you like tweaking. The router offers built-in support for network storage when coupled with an external hard drive. Read the full review of the Asus RT-N56U.

Josh Miller/CNET

Trendnet TEW-692GR
The TEW-692GR is the first on the market to offer true dual-band with both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, being able to handle the new and higher 450Mbps wireless speed. The router offers very good performance and is simple to use. It's a pure wireless router since it doesn't have an USB port for storage or print serving. When first released, the router had a very high price tag, which is now significantly lowered, making the router a great buy. Read the full review of the Trendnet TEW-692GR.

Looking for specs and pricing? Compare these routers head-to-head.