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Wi-Fi speeds are on the rise, but the router industry needs a reality check

Commentary: As Wi-Fi speeds up, it's more important than ever for router manufacturers to get real about how fast their products really are.

ac-router
Ry Crist/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

Hello, CNET's router guy here. You want to know something I'm sick and tired of? Routers, man.

Not in general, mind you -- in fact, routers are actually an extra-fascinating category at CES this year. No, to be specific, I'm sick and tired of the way manufacturers talk about how fast these things are. To be even more specific, I'm sick and tired of the misleading and borderline useless AC and AX ratings that manufacturers use to indicate top speeds. You know, figures like that "AC2600" on the box pictured above.

The problem is that those top speed ratings don't actually tell you a router's top speed. They tell you the combined top speeds of each of the router's bands -- 2.4GHz, 5GHz and perhaps a second 5GHz band if we're talking about a tri-band router. No matter what, you can only connect to one band at a time, so adding those speeds together is just pure puffery, plain and simple.

For instance, that AC2600 router above is the Zyxel Armor Z2. The "AC" tells you that it supports 802.11ac, now known as Wi-Fi 5. If it supported Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax, that "AC" would be an "AX." That part's all well and good (if a bit technical).

It's the "2600" that's the problem, because it signifies bandwidth of 2,600 megabits per second, despite the fact that the router will never get anywhere near 2,600Mbps. In fact, Zyxel lists its top speeds as 800Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1,733Mbps on the 5GHz band. You add those together -- which again, is absolutely not reflective of the way routers actually work -- and you get 2,533Mbps. Zyxel rounds that up to "2600" for good measure. And hey, at that point, why not?

Read more: Best internet providers in 2020  

By the way, those listed speeds are all theoretical maximums according to lab-based tests that don't take real-world factors such as range, congestion and obstructions into account. In our own tests, we clocked Zyxel's router at 167Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 703Mbps on the 5GHz band -- and that was from a distance of just seven feet.

That isn't to pick on Zyxel. Though there are exceptions, like Eero, pretty much every manufacturer uses that combined speed rating to tout the capabilities of its products, and most of them proudly print the misleading figure right on the box to confuse shoppers. All that does is lead to disappointment when consumers set these things up in their homes and take them for a speed test.

Here's how one new router was pitched at CES 2020. The "speeds up to 4,200Mbps" part is a laughably bogus claim.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

It's an annoyance that's been top of mind for me during CES, where we've seen all sorts of new routers make their debut. Many support Wi-Fi 6, which is touted as the newest, fastest version of Wi-Fi. Our tests confirm that it is, indeed, capable of speeds that are about 30% faster than Wi-Fi 5, which is impressive. But overstating those speeds compounds the risk of over-hyping the technology and souring consumers on it altogether. And the faster Wi-Fi gets, the bigger the problem gets.

For instance, you'll see a lot of Wi-Fi 6 routers listed with astronomical ratings like AX11000. Never mind the fact that the average internet connection in the US is only about 100Mbps. Never mind that even if you have a top-of-the-line fiber connection, you're still likely only to get about 1 gigabit per second (1,000Mbps) from your provider at best. Set all of that aside and focus on this: When a shopper sees "AX11000" next to "AC2600" on the shelf, they might easily assume that one router is four times faster than the other. That's exactly what the manufacturer of the AX11000 router is hoping for.

That shopper is much less likely to realize that the AX11000 router is likely a tri-band router that's combining the speeds of three separate bands into one figure. If it's a mesh system with multiple devices, that third band is likely reserved as a backhaul between the router and the satellite, which means that it doesn't directly factor into your speed at all. In some cases, those backhaul bands account for speeds as high as 4,800Mbps, which is often how you get figures like AX11000 that appear to be four, five or even 10 times faster than other routers in the router aisle.

Routers like those are fast, sure -- but they're not that fast. Like I said, they're typically about 30% faster than previous-gen AC routers. Not 400, 500 or 1,000% faster, as the numbers on the box make it seem.

And look, I get it. Speed is everything, and manufacturers want to portray their products with the most flattering figures possible. But they shouldn't mislead consumers with heavily inflated numbers in order to do it. The whole point of rebranding different 802.11 standards with names like Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 last year was to simplify things. As we kick off a new decade, it's time for top speed ratings to follow suit and bring the numbers back down to earth, where everyone can make sense of them.