When looking for routers online, it’s normal to be overwhelmed. The amount of research required and technical jargon behind each review don’t help. So, let’s answer this simple question: How do you pick the best router for your internet?
Below, we will go through some basic things to look for in an ideal router. You’ll also find our budget-friendly recommendations for the best router.
What is a router?
Before you can pick the best, you need to know about the basics. So, in its simplest terms, a router coordinates data between different networks.
In our blog about understanding bandwidth, we mentioned how bandwidth is comparable to streets, highways, and cars. In this example, the cars were data packets while the streets carried data between locations.
Consider the routers like the traffic cops of this scenario. They ensure that the cars (data) navigate safely. They tell cars when to go, when not to go, and help map out a more efficient path. This is a good approximation of what wired routers do.
Wireless routers, by comparison, are more like air traffic controllers. They convert radio code into the familiar data packets routers use to determine where data ends up. Not all routers are wireless, but most of them are.
Also, know that not all routers are modems. While some internet service providers provide combo modem/routers, when buying them yourself, know the difference. To check the difference, be sure the router is rated for internet use and supports your type of internet.
How do you pick the best router?
Understanding the basics of routers can help you understand what you are buying. However, you’ll need a bit more to pick the best router.
Below, you’ll find questions that everyday internet users need to ask when making a router purchase.
How much download speed do you need?
Ultimately, how much speed you need is of the utmost concern. After all, if the router you buy doesn’t meet your minimum download speed requirements, you’ll struggle with it.
To determine how much speed you need, it’s best to break it down by use and number of devices. Below is a quick breakdown of download speed requirements of most activities:
- Regular streaming (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) - 5 Mbps
- High-quality streaming (4K streaming) - 10 Mbps
- Audio calls - 2 Mbps
- Video calls - 5 Mbps
- Group video calls - 10 Mbps
- Online gaming - 25 Mbps
- Standard internet use (checking email and browsing the web) - 1 Mbps
You’ll want to assign a unique value to each person who can do this. It’s best to assume that everyone might do these activities simultaneously. So if you have four people who like online gaming at once, you’ll need 100 Mbps added to your total.
You’ll also want to assign different values to your devices. If you have smart home devices, give them 1 Mbps each. For computers, tablets, and smartphones, focus on the activities you do on them.
To find out your family’s internet speed requirements, you can save some time and effort through the InternetAdvisor Internet Speed Wizard. It asks you a series of questions to better detail your minimum usage requirements. Through this tool, there’s no need to worry about math.
How large is your home?
The size of your home dictates the effective range of the router you want to buy. With a larger Wi-Fi network, you can cover your entire home effectively.
You also have the option to purchase Wi-Fi extenders. These take your current Wi-Fi connection and reflect it further through previously unreached portions of your home. However, because purchasing extra equipment costs money, try to keep your purchase to one wireless router.
For wired routers, the effective length of cable it can handle is incredibly long. Even older routers can handle 100 ft worth of cable. However, if your home is pretty big, check to see how the cable length your router can handle.
How many ethernet devices do you have?
Most modern routers commonly have four ethernet ports. Each ethernet port has a cable coming out of it, representing a physical connection leading to a device.
Most homes only have between one and two desktop computers. However, if you have more, consider the number of ethernet ports you need.
If you can, save one of those ports by using more wireless connections. A wireless USB adapter can help desktop computers connect to wireless networks without needing another cable slot.
Is it easy to use?
Good manufacturers make it easy for you to control aspects of your home network. Ideally, your owner’s manual includes simple instructions for accessing the admin console for your router.
The admin console (or dashboard) allows you to track different aspects of your home network. You should find information like this:
- The number of devices on your network
- A section for port forwarding
- What people on your internet are doing (for parental control)
- General router settings
To access the admin console, you need to put in the IP address of your router. Commonly, the IP address chosen by routers for this is 192.168.1.1. You can type this in the address bar of any internet browser to find out.
You can often find the IP address on the side of your router. You can also find the IP under “default gateway” if you look at any device currently connected to your router.
Some routers have taken to offering a URL to connect to the admin dashboard. You’ll be able to find this out by following instructions via your owner’s manual.
How much does it cost?
Ideally, good routers for most homes shouldn’t cost more than $125. So rather than spend too much money, focus on the features you need above all.
On the extreme side, the TP-Link AX6600 is a gaming router with a virtual private network, insane wireless distance, and support for speeds up to 2.5 Gbps. Most households have no need for this $200+ model.
Buzzwords and jargon you might see when shopping for routers
When looking for routers, you’ll often find a lot of buzzwords. These buzzwords exist to help the router seem modern and fancy. Below, you’ll find a definition for technical jargon you are likely to come across.
Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of wireless connectivity. This next generation was developed to leverage greater speed, with theoretical maximums up to 9.6 Gbps (up from 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5).
However, you aren’t likely to see this speed boost because most households don’t demand this speed. The fastest internet providers don’t even go beyond 5 Gbps.
Wi-Fi 6’s major benefit comes from its ability to handle multiple devices with more effectiveness. So if you have many devices and notice your router struggling with this, Wi-Fi 6 routers might help you.
The next generation of this next generation is Wi-Fi 6e. Wi-Fi 6e is similar, but adds support for a third type of spectrum: a 6 GHz band. We will revisit this in a few moments when discussing different internet bands.
Wi-Fi Mesh Router
A mesh Wi-Fi router (or mesh system) combines multiple Wi-Fi access points into a single network. This way, you can better manage large home networks that require multiple Wi-Fi connections.
The mesh system is ideal for homes up to three thousand (or more) square feet. You can also benefit from these systems if you have an abnormal home layout.
Dual-band vs Tri-band
Dual-band routers provide support for 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) connections and 5GHz connections. Tri-band connections offer the same support, but provide an extra 5 GHz connection.
Gigahertz is sort of like the processing power of your router. More gigahertz means data can transmit at faster rates. However, faster connections often have less stability.
If you have older devices that are further away from your router, you might make more use of 2.4 GHz connections. These connections are slower, cover a larger distance, and provide excellent connection stability.
Meanwhile, 5 GHz connections have less distance and stability, but are much faster. So, nearby computers and newer smartphones can benefit from the faster speeds.
The third level beyond this is 6 GHz, which provides shorter range and faster speeds. You won’t find many routers to support this, as it comes with the latest Wi-Fi system.
The extra 5 GHz connection can be useful in situations where you have many people who stream or play online games. However, most households do just fine with dual-band routers.
Wireless communication standards
Different wireless communication standards include an “802.11” with a letter (or two) at the end. The last two letters dictate the frequencies and maximum data rates your connection can handle.
Here’s a breakdown of how wireless communication standards change your speed:
- 802.11a - Data rate of 54 Mbps at 5 GHz
- 802.11b - Data rate of 11 Mbps at 2.4 GHz
- 802.11g - Data rate of 54 Mbps at 2.4 GHz
- 802.11n - Data rate of 600 Mbps at 2.4 and 5 GHz
- 802.11ac - Data rate of 1.3 Gbps at 2.4 & 5 GHz
- 802.11ax - Data rate of 12 Gbps at 2.4 & 5 GHz
Most routers you can purchase fall under the “n” or “ac” variants. You’ll also find multiple communication standards working with each other.
Try not to get too wrapped up in these standards. The mention of the number of bands and top speed covers most of what you’ll need to worry about. Routers also have a way of going beyond the above data rates.
What is the best Wi-Fi router? [Top three picks]
Below, you’ll find a quick roundup of the best router that works for most budgets and speeds. These double as routers and modems.
Check out our sister article for more of the best routers you can get.
1. Netgear Nighthawk Smart Router (R6700)
The Netgear R6700 holds the number one slot on Wi-Fi routers on Amazon. Much of this comes from its impressive speed allowance of 1750 Mbps and smart features.
The R6700 doubles as a smart home hub. It also comes with three USB ports that you can use for a variety of needs.
The R6700 also comes with built-in security features, supporting an array of features that include firewalls and VPNs. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) allow you to hide your location from internet service providers and hackers.
2. TP-Link AC1750 Archer A7
TP-Link is another long-time router manufacturer known for quality. It’s also cheaper than other routers of similar speed.
Despite this, it also doubles as a smart home hub, working with Alexa for these smart features. You also get the same VPN mentioned above. However, there is less of an emphasis on custom firewall security.
TP-Link also has a system for creating a mesh network. OneMesh (the name of TP-Link’s mesh network) works to expand to about 2500 square feet. However, commit to buying more TP-Link products like Wi-Fi extenders and other routers.
3. ASUS Wi-Fi Router (RT-AC1900P)
ASUS routers are well known to be associated with those who like to play video games. So, in seeking the best internet for gamers, this might be the best budget router for gamers.
While there are other “gaming routers” out there, most of them are overpriced and unnecessary. This one meets solid speed requirements (up to 1900 Mbps), offers mesh integration, and provides additional internet security.
As you might imagine, what puts this lower on the list is the price. ASUS doesn’t make cheap products, but you can be sure to get something of quality with the higher price tag.
How can I be sure my new router meets my needs?
When buying a router, you want to be sure it meets your needs. The routers above meet modern fiber internet needs. There are (of course) cheaper options out there worth looking into.
If you can, buy used or local, as routers can last a very long time. Just be sure that the used router includes the owner’s manual. You don’t want to get lost when adjusting the settings.
Of course, the most important aspect is to remember your router should meet your speed needs. Using the InternetAdvisor Internet Speed Wizard can help you determine this with almost no effort. Using this information when you choose an internet plan and router can help save you time and money.