Wireless router buying guide
How to find the best Wi-Fi solution for teleworking, distance learning, gaming, and streaming TV
In recent years, many of us began working and learning from home full time, using the internet to keep in touch with friends and family, and consuming tons of online entertainment. Older routers and inadequate Wi-Fi networks have struggled to handle the change.
If you've experienced slowdowns and dropouts, or can't get strong, fast Wi-Fi flowing to the most crucial devices in your home, you need a new wireless router.
We'll show you how to build a network that can handle your needs and put you in control of how wireless bandwidth is distributed in a busy household.
For starters, check out this very helpful video that illustrates how Wi-Fi gets to your home, and how routers, range extenders, and mesh networks can help distribute it evenly:
How do I get faster internet?
Renting a router from your cable company is very common. But rentals are often older, slower models that can't handle the traffic a modern household demands. You need a router that can make the most of the high-speed internet access you're paying for. And you definitely won't miss those monthly fees.
Upgrade your router
Your router's "brain" is important. A router with a quad-core processor can “think” incredibly quickly, processing millions of instructions per second. This helps it swiftly manage traffic to multiple devices.
You'll also need to determine how many bands you need to keep data moving in your busy home. A dual-band router broadcasts on the original 2.4Ghz spectrum, as well as the newer 5GHz band. This will effectively let you have a slow lane and a fast lane, both capable of handling traffic simultaneously.
If you have a family of four or more, with lots of online gadgets, you may need a tri-band router. This type of router adds another fast lane, making a metaphorical "traffic jam" even less likely.
Routers are improved every year, and the latest is naturally the fastest. The current fastest Wi-Fi standard is called Wi-Fi 6, but Wi-Fi 5 (known as 802.11ac in tech-speak) is still very common in the marketplace. New routers are compatible with earlier standards, so a phone or other device that operates on an earlier version of Wi-Fi will still work.
Wi-Fi standards improve every few years. The latest standard — Wi-Fi 6 — is faster and more efficient for households with multiple devices.
Test your internet speed
Sometimes you've paid for a good service plan, and chosen a router that can handle the traffic, but you're still not sure you're getting full performance. It's a good idea to occasionally test your internet speed to make sure you're getting what you've paid for. Test at different locations throughout your home so you know if it's strong in the areas where you need it most.
There are several online utilities you can use to test speed. Some router apps offer a built-in speed test utility.
Buy more bandwidth from your service provider
You'll definitely want to make sure you're getting plenty of wireless bandwidth from the source — your internet provider. They likely offer tiers of service, and you may have initially opted for a budget-friendly option that just isn't cutting it with the increase in traffic. Consider bumping up that level of service.
High-resolution video is one of the biggest bandwidth hogs, so we use that as a general guide when choosing a service tier. On the Netflix customer help page, the service notes that 0.5 megabits per second (Mbps) is the bare minimum for a broadband connection.
Netflix suggests that you need at least 5 Mbps to view HD content. Honestly, for streaming today's high-res content, we recommend you double that to 10 Mbps. A robust 25 Mbps is needed for 4K UltraHD streaming. Choose your service level accordingly.
What if I don't have Wi-Fi where I live?
Some of us enjoy the peace and quiet of living in the countryside, but many rural areas still don’t offer wired high-speed internet. If you rely on data from your cellular phone service provider when you're at home, you still have options.
A growing selection of LTE modems and routers let you convert cellular data into Wi-Fi that is broadcast throughout your home. They're also used widely to provide spot Wi-Fi for food trucks and other mobile businesses.
How can I get more coverage?
In ideal conditions, a router generates a sphere of Wi-Fi. In the real world, that sphere can be interrupted by walls and floors. And you might not get a solid connection out on the edges of the signal. In other words, you have plenty of speed, but it's not getting everywhere it needs to go.
Most modern Wi-Fi routers have two or more high-performance antennas that broadcast signal from your modem into the air. More antennas produce wider coverage. And they can be aimed toward areas of need in a practice known as beamforming – essentially creating a directional signal that funnels more Wi-Fi where you need it.
Expand and customize your coverage with a mesh network
Mesh router systems use multiple router/repeater nodes to create a wireless "mesh" that can conform to your home's unique layout.
A mesh router system offers seamless coverage throughout a larger home by using multiple nodes that work together.
The flexibility of a mesh network allows you to lay a blanket of Wi-Fi over a house that spreads out horizontally. Or it can go vertical to cover each floor of a multi-level townhouse. It can even extend coverage to a garage or patio. The whole network uses a single Wi-Fi name (SSID) so you experience seamless connectivity as you roam throughout the house.
To give a real-world example, I use a three-node mesh router system at home. It allows me the freedom to do my work for Crutchfield from the couch, the balcony, the kitchen table, or the small desk in my bedroom without ever losing my connection.
One of my coworkers uses an eero Beacon to extend Wi-Fi to her backyard treehouse. When you're working from home a lot, those small venue changes can be a big deal.
Maybe you have an odd corner of your home where Wi-Fi is patchy, no matter which router you use. If so, a wireless range extender can pick up a weak signal and amplify it locally.
Some models resemble a standalone router. Others plug directly into a wall socket.
Get the right special features
If you've taken the steps above, you know you have plenty of speed, so your router can work hard. Now it's time to make sure your router is working smart, too.
According to a 2020 study from Statista.com, an average household network in America handles 10 devices that can connect to the internet. These features can help you direct traffic more effectively.
MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output) improves Wi-Fi performance in households with multiple users, which is most of them.
Airtime fairness steers more bandwidth to newer devices that meet the latest standard, so older, slower devices won’t slow down streaming of high-res content.
Device prioritization lets you decide which device needs more bandwidth at any given point during your day. Think work and school computers in the daytime, movie and TV streaming devices in the evening.
Online gaming with friends can be crucial to your mental health when you're stuck inside. A handful of routers are optimized for gaming, with customized dashboards and features that help minimize lag.
Wi-Fi 6 features
Some routers, like the Linksys Atlas Pro 6, offer technology made possible by powerful Wi-Fi 6 standards.
Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) increases network capacity and efficiency through smarter traffic scheduling.
Basic Service Set (BSS) coloring technology eliminates interference from nearby Wi-Fi networks, which is huge in dense neighborhoods with a sudden increase in teleworking users.
App and voice control
Most of the special features mentioned above are settings that can be controlled by the router's companion app. Take note of how the router's app is installed and accessed — it may be browser-based or, more likely, downloaded to your phone or tablet. If it's the latter, make sure it's compatible with your device's operating system.
Also, some apps offer a tier-based system in which basic functions are free, and more robust controls and protections are subscription-based. Make sure you know if there will be additional fees for the features you want most, so you can include the package in your monthly budget.
It's becoming increasingly more common for routers to accept voice commands via Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. If you're already using one of these, might as well add your router to the ecosystem, right?
How do I keep my data safe?
It’s only natural to be concerned about privacy when you're beaming personal and business information through the air. Advanced routers offer several layers of protection that should ease your mind.
Your office may use a secure VPN connection to protect your work from snooping, but you can also use one to protect your personal communications.
A secure virtual private network (VPN) connection can help keep confidential work communications safe. It might be worth checking in with your IT department to coordinate security on the homefront.
Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is the current protocol for securing wireless networks. Look for ultra-secure WPA2 capability in a new router.
Most routers also offer customizable firewall protection, which helps keep out spyware, malware and viruses.
A denial-of-service (DoS) attack can slow or even terminate your network connection. Many routers offer additional protection from this type of malicious hack.
Separate guest access lets others use your Wi-Fi without knowing your password or seeing your personal files.
For added peace of mind, some routers offer ad-blockers and active threat scanning to preemptively identify dangerous sites.
Protecting your children online
Kids born in the past couple of decades have always had the internet, but social distancing in 2020 moved most schoolwork to the virtual realm, blurring the line between work and play. Fortunately, router apps offer many flexible options specifically designed for parents who want to manage their children's online access and protect them from bad actors.
Most apps have some variant of these useful parental controls:
- a family-safe browsing mode that tags and blocks sites that contain violent, illegal, or adult content
- the ability to restrict internet access for specific devices
- time limiters that automatically shut down access during homework hours or at bedtime
- age-appropriate category blockers that can be customized for each child
Again, some of these features may be part of a subscription-based plan, so make sure you budget for your kids' safety when choosing a router.
We focus a lot on how much fast, secure Wi-Fi our routers generate for good reason. But spare a moment's thought for the physical connections you may want to use.
The Linksys MR9000 offers plenty of ports for making fast, secure wired connections to TVs, gaming platforms, personal computers, and more.
I like to make stable wired connections to my desktop PC, gaming system, and TV, for instance. You may have a primary router with multiple Ethernet ports — like the one pictured here — near your main entertainment hub. This Linksys model lets you expand its range into a back bedroom by adding a Velop module with additional ports for your second TV and desktop computer.
It's common for routers to have one or more USB ports for connecting thumb drives and external devices like printers, too.
We can help you choose
Even after reading this, you may want a little guidance from an experienced professional. That's why we're here. Contact us for help zeroing in on the perfect router for your current situation. And better yet, free lifetime tech support — including live advice on setup and installation — is included with your Crutchfield purchase.