Editor's note: This is a frequently updated post.
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 that a good router can truly be a set-and-forget device -- so long as you do it correctly. Build your home network right and pay enough attention to the task when you're doing so, and chances are that you won't have to worry about it again.
I know you're probably in a hurry, but if you just want me to tell you "the best router" to get, I can't. Getting a router is like finding a date. I can't suggest one for you without knowing your home, your budget and most importantly, how comfortable you are with networking. (Not so comfortable? You can start here.)
But if you asked me what my personal favorites are right now, though, the following four -- two routers and two home mesh Wi-Fi systems -- would be my answer. Pick one, or one of the alternatives I will mention, and it might turn out to be the best for you. If you're still looking after that, here's the list of the top devices I've reviewed -- any of those will likely do you well, too. Just don't forget to check out the tips at the bottom of this post.
These are single networking hardware units that are suitable for homes of around 2,500 square feet or less, though you can always extend Wi-Fi via additional access points (recommended for best performance) or extenders (easier, but slow in speed.) Setups like these are ideal for those who want to get the most out of their home network, including the best security, most features, total control and fastest speed.
What I like about it:
- Incredible firmware with a web interface that works like a robust operating system (think Windows or Mac OS.) Excellent Wi-Fi speed and range.
- An app store-like Package Center that allows you to add/remove functions and features to the router. The sheer number of features give you essentially endless options for managing your router, especially when you plug an external hard drive into it.
- Exceptional security and web-filtering features. You can even block online ads from getting into your home network. In-depth customization of both wired and Wi-Fi networks.
- You can turn one of the LAN ports into a second WAN port to host an additional broadband connection for load-balancing (fast speed during heavy loads) or fail-over (making sure you're always online.)
What I'd like it to have: More than four LAN ports and the ability to combine two of them into a superfast 2Gbps connection. The ability to program it to automatically power on and off on schedule -- even the best routers need to be restart once in a while and other less advanced routers have this option.
Who it's good for: Anyone who wants a solid, secure home network would benefit from this router. But savvy users will definitely love it.
Alternatives: The, which has less power (hence slower speed) but runs the same firmware and offers a similar feature set.
What I like about it:
- Well-organized and easy to use web interface that delivers tons of features. Excellent Wi-Fi speed and range.
- Eight Gigabit LAN ports. You can use one of them as the second WAN port to host an additional broadband connection, and combine another two together to create a superfast 2Gbps connection.
- Built-in security protection for the entire home office. In-depth customization of both wired and Wi-Fi networks.
- Excellent support for an external hard drive with lots of storage features, including media streaming and Apple Time Machine backup.
What I'd like it to do better: The network map, which shows connected devices, doesn't work well with all browsers at all times. The firmware is far less advanced than that of the Synology above.
Who it's good for: Again, this is a great router for anyone who want to have a fast and secure home network. And those with lots of wired clients and the desire to customize the home network to the max will love it.
Alternatives: If the you want lots of network ports, the RT-AC88u is rather unique. If you can live with the usual four LAN ports, however, other Asus routers, such as theor the , share the same firmware and similar features.
Wi-Fi systems, also known as home mesh systems, are sets of multiple hardware units that works together wirelessly to increase Wi-Fi coverage over a wide area. Wi-Fi systems generally can cover some 4000 square feet or more and are typically very easy to use. They are great for novice users who just want to get online quickly and conveniently. In return, they have limited features/settings and are expensive. I don't use a Wi-Fi system in my home, but these two are my favorite nonetheless.
What I like about it:
- Powerful hardware that can deliver fast local speed over long distance. The system is many times faster than most other Wi-Fi systems on the market.
- Each unit includes four LAN ports and the system doesn't require users to register an account with Netgear, nor does it need to connect to Netgear to work.
- Offers the same set of features and network settings as a regular Netgear router.
- Easy to set up.
What it can do better:
- The design is bulky and the system is expensive at $400 for the initial set of two units and $250 for an additional unit.
- You can't use a network cable to connect the units together.
Who it's good for: Anyone who wants to have an easy Wi-Fi network without compromising the local coverage range and fast broadband speed.
Alternatives: Theis similar though more expensive and not as fast.
What I like about it:
- At $300 for a set of three units or $130 for a single unit, the Google Wifi is the most affordable among Wi-Fi systems.
- Incredibly easy to use via the Google Wifi mobile app.
- Reliable and large Wi-Fi coverage with speed fast enough to deliver a typical residential broadband connection. Units can be linked together using network cables to increase speed.
Where it falls short:
- Not fast enough for heavy local tasks or ultra fast broadband connections.
- Requires a Google account and needs to connect to Google at all time to work. Privacy risks aside, unintended incidents, like this one, can happen when you let vendors control your home network.
- Like most Wi-Fi systems, it has a severe lack of features and customization.
Who it's good for: Home users who need an easy and convenient way to cover their large home with Wi-Fi that's fast enough for shared access to the internet.
Alternatives: While collectively not as fast, easy to use, or affordable, theand are very similar.
Frequently asked questions and answers
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) for a cable modem than to pay $10 or so a month to rent one. And keep in mind that most broadband modems of the same standard offer the same performance.
If you use Comcast, however, its new Advanced Gateway is indeed very advanced and works similarly to most Wi-Fi systems.
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, 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.
When do I need an access point?
A Wi-Fi access point (AP) is very similar to a Wi-Fi router except it doesn't have a WAN (internet) port. In fact, a Wi-Fi router is actually a regular router with a built-in AP or APs. This is a device that broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal so clients, such as tablets and laptops, can connect to it. 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. In return, extenders generally only deliver half the original Wi-Fi speed of the router. This is because of a phenomenal called "signal loss," which is the 50 percent efficiency reduction when a band has to both receive and re-broadcast a signal.
That said, when getting an extender you need to make sure that it uses the same Wi-Fi standard as that of the original router. It's also best to get an extender from the same vendor as that of the router.
How are Wi-Fi systems different from a router and a few extenders? Essentially, a Wi-Fi system (which includes a few pieces of hardware that connect together wirelessly) is the same as a set of a regular router and a few Wi-Fi extenders. However, the units in an Wi-Fi system are designed for the specific purpose of working together. This means Wi-Fi systems are generally much easier to use and offer seamless hand-off, meaning a device can move from one broadcasting unit to another without interruptions. They are also much more expensive than getting a router (of the same Wi-Fi tier) and a few extenders.
More buying tips
High price doesn't translate to a great network. You can spend a lot of money on a router these days. The Netgear X10 R9000, for example, costs $500. While it's a great router, it's not $500 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 theis a great router, previous routers in its EA series (such as the ) 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.