Networking buying guide

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

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Your Wi-Fi router is likely the most underrated device in your home. It works all the time behind the scenes to power your online life, and you only notice it when there's a problem. The good news is if you build your home network right and pay enough attention to the task when you're doing so, chances are that's the only time you'll have to worry about your router. It's a device that you can really set up once and forget about it -- so long as you do it correctly.

Generally the higher-end a router is, the better your network is going to be. That said, if money is not an issue, or if you can find great deals, routers like the Asus RT-AC88U, Netgear X8 R8500, the Linksys EA9500, or the Asus RT-AC5400 will definitely make your network run at top speed, both wired and wirelessly, even when you have lots and lots of Wi-Fi clients.

But what if you 10 or fewer Wi-Fi clients at home and care more about Wi-Fi range? The Linksys WRT1900ACS (and the original WRT1900AC), the Asus RT-AC87U, the Asus RT-AC68U, or the Netgear R7000 will get the job done for less.

What about if you have a big, sprawling home or one with lots of thick walls? It's likely that one router, no matter how powerful, can cover the entire place with a strong Wi-Fi signal. In this case, you need to get a separate access point (or another router set to work in AP mode) and connect it to the first router using a network cable. If running a network cable is not an option, the second best option is the a pair of powerline adapters. Or you can get the Arris SurfBoard SBR-AC3200P and the SBX-AC1200Ppowerline hotspot extender.

You might have heard of wireless extenders, those that connect to an existing Wi-Fi network wirelessly, then extend that network using their own Wi-Fi signal. Keep in mind that each time the Wi-Fi signal is extended, there's 50 percent signal loss (because an extender has to use the same hardware to receive and broadcast the signal.) In other words, this kind of setup might quickly give you full Wi-Fi bars, but the actually speed is always much slower than you'd expect. This is also true if you use Wi-Fi systems like the Eero. That said, you should only use a wireless Wi-Fi extender when sharing the Internet is the only thing you need to accomplish (and not local applications such as backups and data sharing.) As long as you don't have (or need) fast internet at home, a Wi-Fi extender will get the job done. Just don't use more than one of them in a network.

Now if you want to have some quick picks, you can't go wrong with any of the devices on the following regularly updated top-products lists:

1. Best 802.11ac routers: Routers on this list have the best combination of performance, features, Wi-Fi range and most importantly, pricing, on the market. All of them support the latest 802.11ac protocol as well as all legacy Wi-Fi standards. Basically you can't go wrong with any of them, and you need one if you have anything approaching a very fast internet connection, one that has the download speed of 100Mbps or more. Here's our list of top cutting-edge routers.

2. Best 802.11n routers: While 802.11ac is great, it's not necessary if you have a modest broadband connection. This is because if you have an internet connection for which the download speed caps at 50Mbps or less, a Wireless N Wi-Fi connection is enough to deliver that to your Wi-Fi clients. For casual home networking, an N600 or an N900 router is what you need. These routers are great bargains because they deliver just want you need without going overboard. Check out our list of top 802.11n routers.

3. Best cheap routers: Finally, if you just want a bare-minimum Wi-Fi network at home, or if you have a slow broadband connection (20Mbps download or less), then one of these low-cost routers will suffice. Go to our list of best cheap routers.

3. Best power-line adapters: Power-line adapters basically turn the electrical wiring of a home into network cables for a computer network. They're a great alternative to Wi-Fi for a spot in the house that 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, while the second is connected to the Ethernet-ready device that needs help getting the signal. Here is our list of top power-line adapters.

Frequently asked questions and answers

If you want to know more about networking, read on for answers to common questions below. If you have time, however, I suggest that you check out my series on the basics of home networking , which explains networking terms, standards and applications in great detail.

Should I use equipment from an ISP? Yes and no. If your ISP offers a free modem or gateway device, take it. But if you have to buy or "rent" one from your ISP, it's better to ask if there's a list of approved modems and buy your own from a third-party retailer. It's a much better deal to spend about $80 (or even less if you buy used or refurbished) for a cable modem than to pay $7 or so a month to rent one. And keep in mind that most broadband modems of the same standard offer the same performance.

Gigabit or not? Unless you get one of the cheap routers mentioned above, chances are your router supports Gigabit Ethernet (1,000Mbps), which is 10 time faster than Fast Ethernet (100Mbps). To put this in perspective, though, a CD's worth of data (about 700MB, or about 250 digital songs) takes about 5 seconds to transfer over a Gigabit Ethernet connection, while it takes about a minute over a regular Ethernet connection. Unless you have a very slow Internet connection, Gigabit is a must.

Is USB support necessary? This depends. Many routers have a USB port; some even have two. Generally, this allows the router to host a printer or an external hard drive. The former means that you can share a 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 with all network devices on the local network; this also enables you to stream digital content to network media players.

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

Dual-band or single-band? Wi-Fi signals work on two frequency bands, the ever-popular 2.4GHz and new 5GHz. Most routers on the market nowadays are dual-band routers, meaning they can work on both bands simultaneous.

The 5GHz band tends to offer much better real-world data rates while the 2.4Ghz tends to have a longer range. If you live in a neighborhood with few Wi-Fi networks around, or if you just want to share a 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 activity, you probably want a dual-band router that offers Wi-Fi signals on both bands simultaneously. Note that the band a Wi-Fi connection uses depends on both the router and the client. Many older hardware clients, such as the iPhone 4 or the older iPad, only support the 2.4GHz band, so 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 a Wi-Fi signal so clients, such as tablets and laptops, 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 your existing router or office network doesn't already offer Wi-Fi, and when you want to extend a Wi-Fi signal to an existing network. Since most home routers now come with Wi-Fi capability, you would generally only need a standalone access point to extend the Wi-Fi coverage. In this case, place it farther away from the existing Wi-Fi router and connect it to the router using a network cable (or via a power-line connection ). This is the most effective way to extend your Wi-Fi network.

How to find the best Wi-Fi extender? A Wi-Fi extender is the fastest way to extend your Wi-Fi network, mostly because it's very convenient. Basically, it's a device that you place between the original Wi-Fi router and the client that's currently just a little too far out of range, and it will bridge the two. There's no wiring involved. However, there are a few things that you need to consider when getting a range extender for them to work effectively.

First, the extender needs to be the same standard as the original Wi-Fi network or better. For example, if you have an AC1900 router, then you want to have an extender that also supports this Wi-Fi standard. Note that generally an extender only extends one frequency band at a time, so you might need two separate extenders to extend both the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz bands in a dual-band network. Getting a range extender that supports an older or slower standard will affect not only the data speed but also the coverage of the extended Wi-Fi network, defeating the purpose of the extender itself. Getting an extender that supports a newer or faster Wi-Fi standard doesn't hurt, but won't give you the most bang for your buck.

Secondly, it's imperative to find the sweet spot to place the extender. This is the spot where the signal of the original Wi-Fi network is just about to wane. You can find this place by moving away from the original Wi-Fi network slowly and finding the farthest spot where you still receive full bars of Wi-Fi reception. Too close, the extender becomes less effective and even creates interference that adversely affects the original network. Too far, and there's not much signal for it to extend. For this reason, in most cases, a combination of a power-line adapter kit and an access point makes a much better alternative to a range extender.

Finally, the best extender to get is the one that's made by the same vendor as the Wi-Fi router that you're using (and happy with). Again, pick one that supports the same Wi-Fi standard. Getting an extender from a different vendor works, too, but it might be a little harder to set up, particularly if you're a novice user. For more on how to best set up your network, check out this post on how to optimize your Wi-Fi at home.

More buying tips

Expensive doesn't translate to a great network. You can spend a lot of money on a router these days. The Netgear X8 R7500, for example, costs $400. While it's a great router, it's not $400 worth of great. This is because it's mostly future-proof and there are no existing Wi-Fi clients that can operate at its top speeds. That said, know what Wi-Fi standards your clients use and get a router that supports the fastest among them. When in doubt, get an Ac1900 router. Currently this is the standard that supports the fastest clients on the market. Anything more than that is overkill in most situations.

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

Brand names don't always equal quality. Quality is not always consistent for networking brands. Take Linksys, for example: while the WRT1900ACS is a great router, previous routers in its EA series (such as the EA6500) are far from the best on the market, at least with the initial firmware versions. So you don't want to go simply by 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 Ethernet 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.

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