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Top five N600 routers: Advanced home Wi-Fi doesn't have to be expensive

CNET editor Dong Ngo picks his top five true-dual-band routers that balance cost and advanced Wi-Fi offerings.

N600 routers are the first true dual-band routers on the market, capable of delivering 300Mbps Wi-Fi speed -- based on the dual-stream (or 2-by-2) setup of the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard -- simultaneously on its two frequency bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The marketing term "N600" basically means "Wireless-N standard with a combined bandwidth of 600Mbps."

In layman's terms, an N600 router comes with two built-in Wireless-N access points. Wireless clients connected to one of these access points (a client can only connect to one access point at a time) will have a ceiling speed of up to 300Mbps. In reality, the real-world sustained speeds of wireless routers vary a great deal, depending on the environment, distances between router and clients, and the frequency band.

In my experience, N600 routers generally offer about 60Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and about 140Mbps on the 5GHz band, within 75 feet or less. And while these seem much lower than the 300Mbps ceiling speed, they are more than fast enough for most applications, including high-definition media streaming. In fact, 140Mbps is about 50 percent faster than a wired Ethernet connection. Farther out, from 150 feet or more, a Wi-Fi connection is generally only good for accessing the Internet and mild networking needs. You can find out more about the basics of home networking here.

Since the dual stream is currently the most popular standard of Wi-Fi used in clients, getting an N600 router is probably the best value for your money. This is because the speed of a network connection is determined by the slowest speed of any party involved, so if you get a faster Wi-Fi router (such as an N900 router), you might not see any benefits at all if none of your clients support the higher tiers of Wi-Fi speeds.

Below are the top five N600 routers among those I have reviewed in recent years.

Josh Miller/CNET

Asus RT-N56U
The RT-N56U was one of the best routers on the market when it came out and is still one of the best among its peers. The router offers fast Wi-Fi performance (especially on the 5GHz band) and long range, and supports Gigabit Ethernet. On top of that, its USB port can be used for not just the common external hard drives and printers, but also USB cellular modems and other features. The RT-N56U is one compact, good-looking router that offers a fast wired network out of the box. Read the full review of the Asus RT-N56U.

Josh Miller/CNET

Linksys E3200
The Linksys E3200 offers excellent performance and advanced networking features in a stylish and compact design. The router comes with a good Web interface and also includes Cisco Connect, an intuitive desktop software utility with which even a novice user can set up and manage a home wireless network with ease. The router has a USB port to host an external hard drive for its network storage features, and Gigabit Ethernet for a fast wired home network. The E3200 is intended to replace the previous model, the Linksys E3000, which is a great N600 router itself. Read the full review of the Linksys E3200.

James Martin/CNET

Netgear WNDR3800
The Netgear WNDR3800 is the only one on this list with advanced remote network storage features. Once coupled with an external hard drive, the router provides remote access features available in Netgear's ReadyNAS server, allowing remote users to access data stored on the connected hard drive the way a local user can, such as making a mapped network drive. On top of that the router offers great Wi-Fi performance with excellent range, and support for Gigabit Ethernet. Currently, the WNDR3800 is still one of the best routers from Netgear. Read the full review of the Netgear WNDR3800.

Dong Ngo/CNET

D-Link DIR-827
D-Link DIR-827 is unique among N600 routers thanks to its customized QoS feature, called HD Fuel, which automatically prioritizes Internet traffic for HD media streaming, VoIP applications, and gaming. The router is also the first on the market that comes with a USB 3.0 port that can be used to host any USB device, not just external hard drives or printers. The router offers an Internet-based parental control feature, Gigabit Ethernet support, and a long list of other features. Read the full review of the D-Link DIR-827.

Josh Miller/CNET

Netgear WNDR3400
The Netgear WNDR3400 is the only N600 router on this list that doesn't support Gigabit Ethernet. This means that out of the box it won't offer a fast wired network. Other than that the router has great Wi-Fi speed and range, with a long list of networking features that users can manage over its easy-to-use Web interface. Best of all, at the retail price of just around $50, it's the best bargain for those who just need a robust wireless network. Read the full review of the Netgear WNDR3400.

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